What is the World? (Part 2)
Part one of this essay is available here
Construal in human behavior in organizations.
With the complexity of organizations, the level of social involvement, financial importance, and psychological value that one can place in organizations and our place in them, there is little wonder that how we can potentially construe them and our role in them as of high importance. Construal – in the sense of sense-making – is necessary and unavoidable (Lazarus’ arguments not withstanding) in our functioning in the world. Once role which construal takes in organizations is that it helps employees make sense of why they are working and what the purpose of their work is. I would argue that they can construe their work as being important and useful to the firm, that they can construe our place and motivation for working in the firm (this can be a positive or a negative construal). I am using construe here in the broad sense that Ross and Nizbett used it. We view the world from our own perspective and thus we see our won part of it as important. This may not be true from other perspectives. A person who’s job is irreverent in an organization may still construe that they are important because they are unwilling or unable to accept that there must be change (either in their job or in the organization). An individual can construe the other employees of the company as sharing an identity (and, in many case, people construe that others in the firm are similar to themselves) which gives them a common bond and a common set of values. Thus the first role of construal in organizations is as a sense-making tool and a tool to interpret the world and its relation to ourselves.
Individuals also often construe their motivations for working in the organization. They often do not see themselves as working there to make money (at east purely), even if that is why they took the job, rather cognitive dissonance theory helps us to construe some other meaning to the job or to their reasons for working there. Rather than see thier jobs as instrumental (purely) I would argue that we often construe meaning them to enrich their life and provide some justification (cognitive dissonance) as to why we care about them and work so hard in them. This can be a positive form of construal if it allows one to add meaning into ones lives and to find meaning in the otherwise tedious. So a task which is tedious can be construed as being part of an exciting project or as part of the companies mission. Or an otherwise boring job can be construed as being very important or as being fun given the right primers (say, an employee is told that they are very good at it). So construal plays a large part in our views of ones role in a company.
Lastly, construal can take place around the social dimensions of a company. The companies culture might provide social pressure for one to construe the world (or ones competitors) in a certain way. As the Bennington studies show, our social environment and norms can be very powerful. So a Microsoft employee might view anti-trust laws very differently than a Sun-Microsystems employee. Or a GE employee might be less impressed with the “internet” since he produces ‘real products’ than a member of a startup. Social pressures in an organization can be powerful in shaping ones world view about some topics.
Construal applied to theories of emotion
Emotions and construal are intricately linked. We feel emotions about the way we believe the world is (at least for those emotions which are instrumental) and the world is as we construe it. But the relationship also goes the other way – not only do we feel emotions through the lens of construal, but we construe through the lenses of emotions! Thus there is a very strong feedback loop between these two concepts. Our emotional states deeply affect the way we perceive the world around us. This implies that even in identical situations, our emotional state will be a very important moderator to our interpretation and construal of the world (and vice versa).
The debate between Lazarus and Zajonc is one in which construal is very central. The central question is whether or not cognition (which crucially includes construal) proceeds emotion. Lazarus claims that in almost all cases (he allows for the possibility that some hardwired emotions are an exception) cognition precedes – is necessary and sufficient for – emotion. His claim can be glossed with the idea that the world must be mediated with cognition since one must at a very minimum understand/interpret the objects of the world around oneself before one can emotionally react to it. In dealing with the counterargument that emotion seems to come very, very quickly and at the very beginning of some situations before full understanding has been processed (before the world has been fully digested and construed), he argues that cognition can be partial and, once internalized, very quick. The disagreement can be seen in the statement “I would certainly agree that a person need not be aware of his or her cognitive appraisals… but I would argue against the idea that some appraisals (Zajonc refers to preferences) are non-cognitive” (1022). But if we are defining cognition as any sort of appraisal, then it does seem logically true that we must unconsciously appraise a situation before we can have an emotion to it. One some level it seems we must register “edge” or “snake” or merely “snakelike characteristics” upon which our fear and emotional reactions proceed.
If we had just gained our eyesight (after being blind) the world around us would have no meaning and would just be flashes of undifferentiated color and light – i.e. we would not construe meaning into the world we would just observe the meaningless colors and shapes. This seems too weak a definition for “thinking” or true “cognition,” and this is exactly the point Zajonc pounces, but then he goes further and I do not follow. “My definition of cognition required some form of transformation of a present or past sensory input. ‘Pure’ sensory input, untransformed according to a more of less fixed code, is not cognition” (118). This seems like a perfectly fine necessary condition for cognition but he treats it as a sufficient one, which clashes with my earlier point (and Lazarus’s argument is suddenly back from the dead – pun intended). A man who has never seem a snake/poison toad will not react emotionally to it, will not construe it as an object of danger either consciously or unconsciously. Clearly, one must register it as a snake (perhaps globally, or tentatively, or incompletely) and then ones automatic emotional reaction can occur. I am not sure what Zajonc, who I believe has the better of the argument in general, would respond to this. Nevertheless, I think Lazarus is begging the question with his definition of cognition and that more is required – that some sort of construal is necessary.
Isen and Baron’s piece, speaks of “positive affect, defined as pleasant feelings induced by commonplace events or circumstances”. Whether we are going to define such “moods” or “states of mind” as emotions is questionable and, to be fair, the authors never claim to. The essay claims that a positive state of mind, often easily induced by giving someone candy or a warm welcome, significantly effects their actions and social behavior for the better. This change is significant enough for Isen and Baron to suggest that the field of OB might be benefited from looking at this effect for workplace and sales applications. In its essence, we consrue the identical actions or things in certain moods than in others.
The world of Taylor and Brown is especially illuminating to the idea of construal. It made the argument that wearing rose-tinted glasses (as Shakespeare put it) could be (and generally is) an adaptive strategy. It thus put itself at odds with the literature which defined mental health as having an accurate picture of self and with the normative claim that this would even be desirable. It shows us yet again that the central tension in construal between truthfulness and usefulness is real. Rose tinted glasses may be useful (for some hard-wired cognitive reason, or some intrinsic-structural ego reason) but it is not necessarily illustrative of ones real abilities or skills.
If construal theory, in this essay, has shown us one thing, it is that the world is interpreted for our use, and that while truthfulness is a component of that , it is not the only one by any means. Our minds have an amazing ability and a heavy burden. Our minds have the ability to construe the world, to interpret the world, to shape our perceptions of the world. But they also have the burden if doing this shaping in such a way that they preserve the sometimes contradictory ideas of truthfulness and usefulness. What is ‘real’ in the world or the way other see it, is not necessarily the way we do, or ought. But at the same time, there is some value to seeing things as others do (both so you can predict their actions and so you have a common frame of reference in which to cooperate). Lastly, there is a third force which this work has shown us affects the construal process. It is the environmental and cognitive background of the world – the moods, emotions, light-exposure, air-pressure, etc.. While these are often useful in viewing the world, in these cases they seem to be intruding where they are apparently not helpful (it is hard to see how less light ought to make one feel worse about oneself). So our construal process moderated between these three forces in order to give us our world-view, understanding of causality, value judgments, emotions, and interpretations of the world. Perhaps humility in the face of such complexity and such amazing achievements of nature to make, through construal and other cognitive processes, the incomprehensible comprehensible, the complex relatively understandable is best summed up by Ecclesiastes: “vanity vanity, all is vanity… and that which is crooked shall not be made straight, and that which is lacking shall not be counted.”
Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics biases. Science, 185: 1124-1131.
Markus, H. (1977). Self-schemata and processing information about the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35: 63-78.
Bem, D.J. (1972). Self-perception theory. In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 6.
Aronson, E. (1969). The theory of cognitive dissonance. In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 4. New York: Academic Press.
Steele, C.M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 21. San Diego: Academic Press (pp. 261-302).
Staw, B. M. 1981. The Escalation of Commitment to a Course of Action.Academy of Management Review, 6: 577-587.
Lazarus, R. (1982). Thoughts on the relations between emotion and cognition. American Psychologist, 37: 1019-1024.
Zajonc, R.B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences.American Psychologist, 35: 151-175.
Zajonc, R.B. (1984). On the primacy of affect. American Psychologist, 35: 151-175.
Isen, A.M. & Baron, R.A. (1991). Positive affect as a factor in organizational behavior. In B.M. Staw & L.L. Cummings (eds.), Research in Organization Behavior. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 13.
Taylor, S.E. & Brown, J.D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103: 193-210.
- None found