SCIENTIST AT WORK: Ellen J. Langer; A Scholar of the Absent Mind
作者: PHILIP J. HILTS / 4221次阅读 时间: 2012年10月31日
来源: nytime 标签: 埃伦兰格

SCIENTIST AT WORK: Ellen J. Langer; A Scholar of the Absent Mind


Published: September 23, 1997

ELLEN J. LANGER'S specialty may seem a little odd for a psychologist: she studies mindlessness.

Everyone exhibits it, of course. People misplace their keys. They enter a room only to realize they don't know why. They talk to mannequins before realizing that a reply isn't likely.

One of Dr. Langer's favorite examples of mindlessness concerns the time she used a brand new credit card in a department store. The clerk noticed she had not yet signed it, and handed it to her to sign the back. After passing the credit card through the machine, the clerk handed her the credit card receipt to sign.

''Then she held up the receipt I signed next to the card I had just signed, and she compared the signatures!'' Dr. Langer said. ''Amazing!''

Dr. Langer's studies have always centered on the degree to which humans are in control of their actions, or rather, the degree to which they maintain the illusion of control. Beginning in the late 1970's, her studies showed that mindless behavior was far more widespread than people liked to believe.

Based on that and other work, she became the first woman to be named a tenured professor in psychology at Harvard. In her recent work she has followed up her studies of mindlessness by working on antidotes -- the ''mindful'' attitude and how to cultivate it. She has written two popular books published by Addison-Wesley, ''Mindfulness'' (1989) and ''The Power of Mindful Learning'' (1997).

Her latest book argues that traditional methods of learning can produce mindless behavior because they tend to get people to ''overlearn'' a fact or a task and suggest that there is only one way to do it. She argues that is important to teach skills and facts conditionally, setting the stage for doubt and an awareness that different situations may call for different approaches or answers.

Dr. Langer, 50, was born in the Bronx, grew up in Yonkers, and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at New York University and a Ph.D. in psychology at Yale University. Colleagues say she is about the least mindless person they know. She is, as one colleague put it, ''aggressively thoughtful'' and full of creative energy.

Dr. Langer, said Dr. Robert Abelson, professor of psychology at Yale, ''enjoys being outrageous, and challenging conventional wisdom,'' adding, ''Dr. Langer even as a student noticed that while psychologists were always talking about thinking and behavior, it seemed to her that people were behaving thoughtlessly just as often.''

Psychologists have been aware for at least a century that some complicated behavior is performed automatically, that is, without conscious deliberation.

As Dr. Langer wrote, citing people who say hello to a mannequin or write a check in January with the last year's date, ''when in this mode we take in and use limited signals from the world around us (the female form, the familiar face of the check) without letting other signals (the motionless pose, a calendar) penetrate as well.''

People have in their repertoires thousands of ''scripts'' for talk or behavior that they act out when they are cued by something familiar. The array of behavior people can carry out without thinking is enormous.

When she first started the work it came as something of a challenge to mainstream psychology. When her career in the shortfalls of thinking began in the 1970's, psychology as a whole seemed to be moving in the opposite direction, turning to cognitive psychology in a big way. A rush of studies had begun on the details of human thinking and the importance of reasoning in human behavior.

''In the midst of that,'' said Dr. Daniel Wegner, a research psychologist at the University of Virginia, ''Ellen Langer started saying, 'Maybe, but we really are pretty mindless.' In the history of psychology there had been some work on mindlessness, or automaticity, but she revived it and extended it much farther.''

Dr. Wegner said that Dr. Langer's work is important and ''has really broadened our perspective in psychology,'' adding: ''She showed that mindless behavior is fairly widespread and general. She showed us that we have to take into account not only things that make sense, but the things that don't make sense.

''She was one of those pioneers who discovered early on that people are much less thoughtful in their everyday behavior than they wish they were. She has helped make us rethink the role of thought in behavior.''

In the 1970's and 1980's she carried out a series of landmark studies to make the point scientifically, the most famous of them referred to as ''The Copy Machine.''

In that study, she stationed someone at a copy machine in a busy graduate school office. When someone stepped up and began copying, Dr. Langer's plant would come up to the person and interrupt, asking to butt in and make copies. The interruption was allowed fairly often, about 60 percent of the time. But the permission was granted almost 95 percent of the time if the person stepping up to interrupt not only asked, ''May I use the copy machine?'' but added a reason, ''because I'm in a rush.''

That seems to make sense. People heard the reason and decided they were willing to step aside for a moment. What was odd, Dr. Langer found, was that if the interrupter asked, ''Can I use the machine?'' and added a meaningless phrase, ''because I have to make copies,'' the people at the machine also stepped aside nearly 95 percent of the time.

The idea, she said, is that the listener at the copy machine heard a two-part statement: a request and something like a reason. That was all their mental script for such a situation required. They never did reflect on the fact that the interrupter's ''reason'' was not meaningful.

The people at the copy machine only began to listen more carefully to the request and judge the reason for it when those interrupting had a large number of pages to copy. They were asking for a big favor, and in this case, adding ''because I have to make copies'' had no effect. Only when people added that they had to hurry would people step aside.

Her most influential studies were some of the earliest to establish the notion of ''learned helplessness'' in nursing homes. She and a co-author, Dr. Judith Rodin, now president of the University of Pennsylvania, found that giving the elderly residents some control in their lives -- such as when to watch movies, where to visit with relatives, whether and how to raise plants -- they fared better. They felt better, and were more able to handle visitors and tasks in the home. In follow-up studies over the next two years they found those in the group given some control continued to be more active, and in fact, ultimately lived longer.

All this apparently stemmed, she said, from an intervention by experimenters that lasted only a few weeks. ''That so weak a manipulation had any effect suggests how important increased control is for these people, for whom decision-making has been virtually nonexistent,'' she wrote in a paper.

In one of the simplest experiments, she asked elderly patients to put together jigsaw puzzles, and measured their success. One group was simply asked to do it, another given ''encouragement only'' and a third was actively helped by the nursing staff to assemble the puzzles. She found that those who were helped performed most poorly and considered the task difficult, while those who did the work themselves performed better and found the task easier.

''When you provide people with opportunities to make choices, they live longer, they are happier,'' she said in an interview. ''Sometimes the situation in nursing homes goes to the opposite extreme, and people entering a nursing home essentially give up their personhood. The staff ends up talking to visiting relatives about care of the elderly and ignoring the elderly themselves.''

After spending the first part of her career demonstrating that people often behave mindlessly, Dr. Langer is now showing how people can overcome that tendency. She says she also vaguely recalls switching from the negative to the positive after someone suggested that in psychology people studied their own worries. ''I didn't want to be thought of as mindless,'' she jokes, ''so I changed the name of what I was studying from mindlessness to mindfulness.''

Dr. Langer, an avid tennis player, uses an example from that sport: ''At tennis camp I was taught exactly how to hold my racket and toss the ball when serving. We were all taught the same way. When I later watched the U.S. Open, I noticed that none of the top players served the way I was taught, and, more important, each of them served slightly differently.''

Because each person has different attributes -- hand size, height, muscle development -- one way of serving cannot be right.

Thus it is important to teach everything conditionally. ''For example,'' she said, ''you can teach 'here is one way of serving,' or, 'if an incoming ball has backspin, here is one way that you can use to return it.' '' This method accounts for the fact that each instance is different, and a person's responses must be changed moment to moment, day to day.

In her studies of learning, she found that just changing the way instructions are worded, from ''this is the answer'' to ''this is one answer'' can have a significant effect on how facts or tasks are learned.

In one study, high school students were taught lessons in physics by videotape. But with half the students, the video was preceded by verbal instructions that the tape was only one way of looking at the physics problems, and that students should consider other ideas and methods. When tested, both groups were equally able to repeat the facts given in the videotape, but only the group with the extra instructions tended to use other methods and information from their previous experience.

In another study, she divided students who were starting piano lessons into two groups, those who would learn the scales in the traditional rote manner and those who would learn them ''mindfully.'' The chief difference was that the ''mindful'' group was instructed to be creative and to vary their playing as much as possible.

When independent evaluators later listened to tapes of the students, without knowing which were assigned to each group, they rated the ''mindful learners'' as more competent over all and more creative, Dr. Langer wrote.

Other studies show that memory is improved by ''mindful'' learning, even down to the simplest task of trying to remember a series of pictures.

Rote learning can be destructive not because repetition is unnecessary -- tennis players may hit thousands of similar forehand shots before attaining some competence -- but because it teaches a person to use one mindless response. ''Teaching skills and facts in a conditional way sets the stage for doubt and an awareness of how different situations may call for subtle differences in what we bring to them,'' Dr. Langer wrote.

She has done studies showing that when people learn by rote, the small steps that make up the skill come together in larger and larger units. The smaller components may thus be ''lost,'' so people are then unable to vary them. Yet it is by adjusting and varying these pieces that people can improve their performances.

It is vital to include the possibility of different answers at the time of learning, because once a rigid pattern of response is set, ''it is hellishly difficult to change,'' Dr. Langer said, adding, ''But if you learn some flexibility from the beginning, it's much easier to vary your response.''

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