Can tech encourage psychological flexibility?

Last post, I hit on the third theme in the nurturing technology framework. In this post, we’ll talk about the fourth and final theme: how technology can promote psychological flexibility.

Technology has unleashed the age of information — with 3.8B people connected to the internet, there is a sense that there is democratized access to knowledge in a way that has never existed in history. Many people believe the most important skill to encourage is the ability to self-direct learning, knowing that lifelong learning is a critical characteristic for success given how rapidly innovation is progressing.

Lifelong learners are motivated to learn and develop because they want to: it is a deliberate and voluntary act. Lifelong learning can enhance our understanding of the world around us, provide us with more and better opportunities and improve our quality of life. —

I’m from the Midwest and I’ve seen cities like Detroit, MI and Toledo, OH (my birthplace!) suffer from a lack of collective psychological flexibility in not being able to keep up with innovation. I know people who complain about jobs going away overseas but at the same time I am surrounded by another type of people: immigrants who understand the importance of adapting to their environments in order to survive, and hopefully thrive. The main difference I see between these two types of people is a sense of resilience and psychological flexibility.

What is psychological flexibility?

Kashdan and Rotterburg (2010) define psychological flexibility as:

“The measure of how a person: (1) adapts to fluctuating situational demands,(2) reconfigures mental resources, (3) shifts perspective, and (4) balances competing desires, needs, and life domains.”
did his iphone help him with that flexibility?

Psychological flexibility is strongly related to resilience — it is the idea of being able to adapt to variety of contexts and demands. In simple terms, psychological flexibility is what kicks in when you are forced to figure out a solution to a problem you’ve never encountered or to re-adjust your expectations when faced with a big disappointment.

disappointment = no cookies in the cookie jar!

Interestingly, low psychological flexibility has been shown to predict the following: higher anxiety, more depression, more overall pathology, poorer work performance, inability to learn, substance abuse, lower quality of life, depression and worry. That’s a laundry list of negativity that nobody wants.

What role has technology played so far in helping or hurting psychological flexibility?

The age of information has made it easier than ever for anyone to learn anything, to skill up, to find a job, to connect with community or to find resources. These things all help promote flexibility.

On the flip side, tech companies have also created habit-forming products that have created addicts. Instead of promoting resilience, these companies have intentionally or unintentionally found ways to manipulate human behavior in ways that put people in filter bubbles and don’t encourage flexibility of thinking.

What is the future of tech that promotes psychological flexibility?

Here are a few themes I’ve developed in thinking about how technology can encourage flexibility and resilience.

Reduce stereotype threat

Stereotype threat is known as situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to negative stereotypes about their social group, like “I’m not going to be good at this math test because I’m a girl and girls are not good at math”. Studies show that when individuals face stereotype threat, they are less likely to be successful in certain performance oriented situations. But, if they are given simple prompts or reminders that minimize the impact of these stereotypes, the achievement gaps disappear.

A sample solution: for minority employees in corporate settings (blacks, latinos, women), a coaching bot could give employees daily, personalized affirmations to help build confidence in their work settings.

Build resilience through community:

I just read Sheryl Sandburg’s Option B and think there is an extremely powerful idea in creating global communities of support. Facebook has remarkable stories of group members supporting each other through virtual community. Other companies like PatientsLikeMe have found ways to connect people across otherwise impossible distance over specific types of support that can ultimately help restore psychological flexibility.

Engaging in flow-inducing activities: play, games, arts

I love the concept of MasterClass, which gives you the chance to learn from celebrity geniuses about their craft (Serena Williams teaches tennis, Frank Gehry teaches architecture), inspiring viewers to engage in skills. The intersection of media and tech has included edu-tainment and gaming products that have successfully inspired hundreds of millions of kids over the years through game-based learning like Minecraft and the Sims.

Personalized skill building

In the same way Netflix can develop algorithms to predict the best content that you should binge-watch through the next weekend, learning platforms hold the promise of delivering personalized, contextual learning that keeps learner’s motivated and engaged in learning new skills and adapting their professional skill set. Khan Academy might be the closest product to actually nailing this, though many others aspire to do this.

Promoting psychological flexibility requires personalization to connect with each individual’s context and motivation, which is why technology-based solutions are likely have an important impact here.

Coming up next

Now that I’ve dug through these four themes in the nurturing technology framework, I’ll wrap up this series with some summary thoughts in my next post.