What are you avoiding?


In a psychology experiment at the University of Maryland, a group of students were given a simple maze puzzle to solve. They had to draw a line to guide a cartoon mouse from the middle of the page to the exit.

In one group there was was a picture of an owl poised to swoop down and gobble up the mouseĀ  (an avoidance-orientated puzzle) and in the other group was a picture of a piece of cheese near the exit (an approach-orientated puzzle).


Both group completed the puzzle in about two minutes. However, in a subsequent, apparently unrelated task (these psychologists are devious, aren’t they?), the students were measured in creativity.

Those who’d avoided the owl did 50 per cent worse than those who’d helped the mouse find the cheese. The avoidance had triggered the students’ aversion pathways, activating their sense of fear, caution and vigilance and in doing so ‘closed down’ the options in their minds.

Those who’d helped the mouse find the cheese, became more open, carefree and playful, less cautious and more willing to experiment. In short the experience opened their minds.

This experiment and others like it confirm what Ella Fitzgerald has known all along: it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

I can completely relate to this finding. When the dominating goal in my work becomes avoiding letting people down, not running out of money or not being seen as incompetent, I feel less competent, constricted, negative, like I’m trying to make things happen rather than allow them to happen and make people do things rather than work with them. I feel my chance of success is low, I stop generating ideas, I have less enthusiasm to do any work in the first place.

Equally in my relationships when I feel like I’m trying to avoid people thinking I don’t care about them or don’t like them, ironically I become less warm and open towards them, more fearful and less likely to be spontaneously kind or generous.

When I’ve got my positive goal in the forefront of my mind I feel lighter, more motivated, like anything’s possible, failure is only a stepping stone on the way to success, excited about life, more confident and I start coming up with all sorts of ideas about how to achieve what I want.

When my goal with my relationships is just to be present, open and warm, our whole interaction feels more effortless, playful and we’re more likely to laugh and have fun.

Given how much I prefer being approach rather and avoidance-oriented, why am I not like that all the time? I think it’s just easy to forget and get caught up in worries and stories I tell myself. I need to be reminded constantly about how I prefer to be.

So I’m going to try to listen to Ella more, and see if gets results.

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