Thursday, June 23, 2022

Are You Feeling Uncomfortable? It May Be a Sign of Learning & Progress

Source: Three Teachers Talk

My dissertation adviser and mentor, David Garvin, used to love to quote Dr. Peter Carruthers of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.   Carruthers once said, 

“There’s a special tension to people who are constantly in the position of making new knowledge.  You’re always out of equilibrium.  When I was young, I was deeply troubled by this.  Finally, I realized that if I understood too clearly what I was doing, where I was going, then I probably wasn’t working on anything very interesting.”   

The quote came to mind when I read about a new set of studies by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach.  Kasandra Brabaw recently wrote about the research for the University of Chicago's Booth Review.  The scholars examined whether discomfort could be a motivating force for people or an impediment to learning and performance.  The authors conducted a series of experiments (both in the field and online).  They encouraged some of the research subjects to "seek out discomfort and take it as a measure of progress toward their goal."  Their findings demonstrated that being encouraged to seek discomfort increased motivation to take on emotionally challenging tasks.  Why?  People tended to reappraise discomfort as a positive cue, as a sign that they were making progress and learning something valuable.  In some of their experiments, the scholars showed that you don't have to even tell people that discomfort should be seen as a sign of progress; they tend to come to that conclusion on their own in certain circumstances.  

At the end of the feature about this research, Brabaw summarizes the key lessons, with a word of caution as well.  She writes, 

"Woolley and Fishbach make sure to point out the danger of taking it too far. Just like sharp and unexpected pain can be a cue to stop exercising, emotional pain can be a signal to take care with your mental health, they write. But taken cautiously, adopting a “no pain, no gain” mentality when you know something will make you feel awkward, sad, scared, or uncomfortable can boost your motivation to stick with it."

No comments: