Editor’s note: Dwayne Stone’s column will appear periodically on ColumbiaMissourian.com.
COLUMBIA — Dogs learn to sit on command because we reward them for doing it and they want to please us. They really aren’t that thrilled about sitting. They love the experience of the relationship with us and that is why they sit so reliably. It is sort of a dance that they do with us to feel part of a team. Most people understand this principle.
It is also effective to praise or give positive feedback to people to get them to do what we want. How we give feedback, though, is important. I routinely tell parents about a “20 to 1” principle of parenting. Parents can help their children by orchestrating more positive activities with their children than negative ones. Most people understand or already know about this strategy. In fact, the common example I use is teaching dogs to sit.
However, rewards based on outcome rather than process are often ineffective. It is important in our feedback to address the process an individual experiences to get the result we want. This is important because of the laws of the jungle and survival of the fittest principles.
Ultimately we are all afraid that someone or something is going to harm us. People instinctively are fearful because instinctively, humans are prey animals. Humans are not true predators. We don’t have claws, long fangs or thick hides. We are at the top of the food chain due to our cognition. Our reptilian brain, however, instinctively knows we are physically prey animals. This instinctive knowledge combines with our cognition to cause fear. Our instinctive knowledge is that we will eventually become weaker and vulnerable, and what we produce will some day be inferior — survival of the fittest. This is the reason we should not focus on the end product as much as the process — life is journey, etc. We should not tell our kids they drew the perfect picture or praise them for a sports victory to boost their self-esteem. We should tell them instead how well they picked the colors or how well they seemed to enjoy the game. We should ask them how they made their decision and praise them for that process.
Our experience of the process more than the outcome teaches us that we are part of the herd, and that is where safety, confidence and higher self-esteem are found — there is strength or safety in numbers. When we learn that we are a part of a herd and a process, our thoughts and feelings are not rooted in the fear of eventual weakness and failure.
Outcome-based appraisals keep us in an instinctive fear state. By teaching our children to be focused on the outcome, we keep them in touch with this fear state and thus keep them from experiencing membership in the herd. Even the best of us know that eventually someone will outperform us. When we stand on the outcome of our activities, we stand as an individual anticipating eventual failure. Although we can be the lead mare for a time, there will eventually be someone there trying to take over the herd.
Individuals focused on outcomes might tend to have lower self-esteem because they innately know that they will eventually fail. Outcome- based self-appraisals fall short of true peace because of chronic dissatisfaction with any outcome due to the knowledge that there is someone better out there.
Instead, we should encourage and comment on the process and the decisions made along the way to promote a stronger sense of one’s self. Our experience of our role in the herd keeps us motivated and less fearful.
To feel good, humans must feel connected to other humans because humans are herd animals. If you observe “hermits” or loners in a community, they don’t really live out in the middle of nowhere. They usually live on the outskirts of town and are seen regularly, albeit only once or twice a year, in town. Likewise, an old gray mare is still a part of the herd and knows it. The lead mare or stallion will defend it as much as any other member of the herd, and the old mare knows that, too. Even though the old gray mare can’t compete any more, it still understands it is part of the herd and still has an important role.
It is not so much that outcome is not an important element in our endeavors. There is nothing wrong with being the leader of the pack. But it is more fruitful to enjoy being part of the herd than to be afraid we won’t be the leader of the pack.
Dwayne Stone of Columbia holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from U.C. Irvine and a master’s in social science from Southern Oregon State College. He has worked in the mental health field for more than 18 years in both public and private agencies and private practice as a counselor and life coach. He has developed a parenting program aimed at non-custodial parents and published three self-help books.