What was learnt
In week 13 we finished off on a more positive note, covering the fundamentals of positive psychology and how it related to motivation. The subject of positive psychology is a relatively new one, as traditionally abnormal psychology, that is the focus of mental illness, has overshadowed the psychology field.
This exciting new approach to motivation and behaviour, although just in its infancy has led to some surprising discoveries in regards to optimism and its potential health benefits.
A good example of this is an archival study conducted in 2000 by the University of Kentucky. In this study data was taken from 180 nuns that had written short autobiographies after taking their vows in 1932.
The purpose of this study was to measure the positive emotional content found within the autobiographies and see if any significant correlation could be found between the level of positive emotion within the autobiographies and the health of the nuns between the ages of 75 to 95. Statistically significant results were found indicating that higher levels of positive emotion were strongly correlated with a lessened risk of mortality in the later life.
The results found that 54% of the more cheerful nuns were still alive at the age of 94 when compared to just 11% of the less cheerful quarter.
Seligman uses this study as an example of the emotional health benefits of optimism in his book authentic happiness. However why optimism in general can lead to longer life and better health is not completely known, as other complex factors such as diet, family history of illness can also come into it.
One theory for why optimistic people tend to live longer than less optimistic people is based on autonomic nervous system (ANS) response that occurs when one experiences negative emotions. It is thought that when experiencing a heightened sense of arousal triggered by negative emotion or suppression of positive ones can increase the heart rate and blood pressure of an individual, causing the body to work at a harder rate more periodically, which over time is thought to lead to increased wear and tear (Krantz & Munuck, 1984).
How does optimism directly relate to motivation? One model looked at in the lecture and also found in the Reeves textbook (Reeves, p.449-450) lists a number of factors that can affect our motivation. As covered by Reeves, a number of factors including environment, intrapsychic, interpersonal and physiological factors are all potential variables affecting motivation.
Taking into account a physiological model known as the BIS (Behavioural Inhibition System) an important factor of motivation might be explained by the effects of anxiety. High anxiety can cause someone to focus on a task whereas lower anxiety can cause someone to avoid a behaviour, which in turn can lead to depression (Gray, 1985). Although some anxiety is good, this relationship with motivation and anxiety seems to curve off when anxiety levels get to a really high level (Mogg & Bradley, 1998). Although anxiety has some plausible interaction effects with depression.
A much more obvious environmental factor recently theorised in the positive psychology field is the notion of learnt helplessness.
Seligman also credited for coining the term, observed an interesting phenomenon when looking at the behaviour of dogs in response to electric shocks. Briefly summarised, in a study where he paired some dogs two another set of dogs receiving electric shocks, one set of dogs were unable to stop the shocks whereas the others only had to push a lever.
Those dogs that seemed unable to stop the shocks where then compared to those that could in a follow up experiment.
In this experiment both set of dogs could escape the shocks by jumping over a wall partition from within the box the shocks were occurring. It was observed that those previously unable to control the electric shocks for the most would not do this, instead they lay down and whined. However later, after much effort (usually hundreds of attempts), the helpless dogs could learn to jump over the barrier.
The results of Seligman’s experiments have many implications in regards to learnt behaviour and motivation, suggesting that learnt motivational disturbances such as learnt helplessness can be overcome. It might also be interesting to test possible genetic factors contributing to this behaviour.