The New York Times raised some interesting psychological issues in an article published on Saturday by Kate Zernike about the ability to appear calm – a skill many people have recognised and praised in President Elect ‘No Drama Obama’.
Calmness is linked with levels of “neuroticism” – one of the Big Five personality traits that psychologists believe describe our characters. Like so many aspects of human nature, neuroticism is of course shaped by both our genes and experiences, but the main gist of Zernike’s article is that even highly neurotic people prone to anxiety can learn to control their nerves and at least give the appearance of being calm.
In psychological jargon this is known as emotional “self-regulation” and it’s increasingly being recognised as a key skill that explains why some people are more successful than others (see special issues of Cognitive Development and Applied Psychology on the topic).
Zernike’s article describes how self-regulation can be achieved by identifying the beliefs you hold that link a given situation and your typical behavioural response. For example, an angry boss might lead you to break down because of your intervening belief(s) “my boss hates me, everyone hates me, I’m a failure”. By changing your mental interpretation of the situation to a more rational version “my boss often gets angry with staff, this isn’t personal, actually he praised me the other day” – the breakdown can be averted. Indeed, attempting to break dysfunctional links between thoughts, feelings and behaviours is exactly how cognitive-behavioural therapy aims to help people deal with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
However, as the New York Times article points out, the story about calmness isn’t completely straightforward. Too much calm can come across as aloofness and a person with no anxieties whatever risks becoming a person who simply doesn’t care. Indeed, anxiety in moderation clearly has a vital function to play (there’s even some evidence to suggest that anxious people have fewer fatal accidents).
As Zernike explains, when it comes to leaders of nations, they need to strike the right balance between offering calm reassurance, whilst also conveying the sense that they are human, that they do truly care.
Link to New York Times article “The Cool Factor: Never Let Them See You Sweat”.