Dispositional Affects

Hugh MacDonald

If you’re a parent you might be familiar with the notion of a slow-to-warm-up baby. It’s the kind of baby who doesn’t respond to new people or situations quite as quickly as other babies who thrive on novelty and seem to absorb the energy around them. Similarly, we describe some people as introverted, quiet and reflective and others as extroverted, outgoing and loud. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either, and people seem to have these orientations from birth. They’re just different ways of looking at the world. Social psychologists speak of this as dispositional affect—a predisposition to respond to things in a certain way.

One affect is the tendency some people have to look at things in a positive or negative frame of mind. We’ve all met people with a positive mental attitude and remember the incredibly perky people we knew at school or met on the job. I’ve always been fascinated by children with a positive affect. Even if they grow up in very disadvantaged circumstances, they often amaze and inspire others when, despite their circumstances and burdens, they exhibit a natural optimism and find the good in everyone and everything. It always reminds me of the 19th century cartoon of a young boy carrying another even smaller boy who was unable to walk. On being asked by a well-dressed man if this wasn’t a heavy burden, the young boy replied, "He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother."

Dealing with positive, optimistic people who look at the world in bright sunshine is often a joy. They tend to approach problems with enthusiasm and actively explore options and alternatives. They are also more inclined to work on joint solutions and are less likely to use tactics associated with a competitive mindset. There is a saying in the military that optimism is a "force multiplier"—which means that, all things being equal, the side with the best morale and most optimistic views is more likely to prevail. I’ve found this to be true in business as well.

Any virtue taken to extremes, however, can become a vice. If we have very positive people on our team, we should ensure they aren’t cooperative to the point where they give in, or empathize so much with the views of others that they do not defend their own—or our—interests. Wearing rose-colored glasses is not always a good thing.

We also work with people who have a more negative affect and who look at things wearing sunglasses of a darker color. Social psychologists have noted that people with a negative affect have a tendency to be less resilient and may be less able to cope with stress. Such people also make for challenging negotiating partners, because people inclined to a higher negative worldview are usually more competitive. It is harder to get them to engage in joint problem solving, and they are more inclined to say no or walk away as soon as their needs are met.

There is a classic Japanese koan, or teaching story, about an old man and two travelers. The old man, a Zen master, is passing the day sitting on a rock by a road leading to a city in the valley below. The first traveler stops and talks to him about the people in the city. "What are they like?" he asks. The old man replies, "What are the people like where you come from?" The traveler says, "Oh, they’re terrible people, greedy and mean spirited." The old man says, "They’re pretty much the same in the city down there." Later, a second traveler appears. He asks the old man the same question. "What are the people like in that city up ahead?" The old man again says, "What are the people like where you come from?" The traveler replies, "They’re wonderful people, generous and kind." The old man says, "They’re pretty much the same in the city below."

Social psychologists have confirmed that people do tend to find the things they expect. Positive and optimistic people expect the world to be positive and optimistic and, at least for them, it is. Of course, a wise human resources consultant will want to ensure her clients build teams that blend optimism with a bit of real-world experience. As arms control negotiators used to say, "Trust, but verify."

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