Our psychological line of scrimmage is always moving

We change in response to the realignment of psychological forces in our lives. These forces can be represented as arrows pushing us toward some goal (driving forces) or pushing in the opposite direction (restraining forces). If the number and strength of driving forces is greater than the restraining forces, then we are motivated to change. Often, our restraining forces keep us unmotivated — we resist change.

In an earlier column, I indicated that we humans have a tendency to resist change. If we were always changing, we would eventually lose the ability to adjust and would become exhausted, psychologically and physically. So, some resistance is normal and even life-sustaining.

Obviously, we must adjust to the opportunities and threats in our lives, or we are doomed as well. A good metaphor for this psychological field of change and resistance forces is the game of football. When “your team” is moving down the field toward its end zone, the change forces of the offense are overpowering the resistance forces of the opposing team’s defense.

Our motivation to change, to achieve a goal, sometimes overcomes the defensive forces in our lives. Our psychological line of scrimmage moves toward the goal line. The social psychologist Kurt Lewin describes the mental equivalent of this moving line of scrimmage as a quasi-stable equilibrium.

Sometimes we can move the ball to the goal in one play, but usually the defensive forces in our lives only let us progress enough for a first down. If our offense is strong enough, we gradually move the balance of forces ahead. If not, the defensive forces can stop us or even push our line of scrimmage backward. Therefore, our psychological line of scrimmage, our quasi-stable equilibrium, is constantly shifting.

How can we influence the balance of forces that affect us? We can employ social power. Five types of social power have been described by the social psychologists French and Raven.

Coercive power is the ability to punish someone for not doing what we want. We motivate others through the threat of punishment.

Reward power is the ability to provide a positive incentive to influence someone to do what we want.

Legitimate power is vested in someone by his or her position in society or an organization. Judges, police officers, teachers and parents exercise this power when they invoke their authority over someone.

Referent power is operating when someone is personally admired by others. That person may influence others to do what they want, such as pay to attend their concert if they are a rock star.

Expert power can influence those who value the information provided by the expert. For example, we usually follow the advice of doctors because they have had years of medical training.

It is obvious that we, as children, had far less social power than the adults in our lives. We might have tried to get our parents to change by throwing a temper tantrum (coercive power), but they soon adjusted and used their legitimate power by having us stay in our rooms until we could behave. Or, they might have rewarded our good behavior as a way of getting us to do what they wanted.

As we matured, we developed the skills to use legitimate power by enacting roles associated with our positions effectively. People will usually respond to us as we wish when we exert our legitimate power appropriately.

We may learn to exert referent power by associating with those who are admired by others. In high school, for example, some students hang out with popular kids in hopes of increasing their stature.

We go to school and work hard to have expertise. To the extent we have expert power we may, for example, influence our employers to give us a raise.

When we examine the major forces in our lives, we can try to add forces that move us toward our goal and take away those that keep us from changing. Our lives would be pretty dismal if the balance of forces, our line of scrimmage, never moved.

Bill Liggett has a doctorate in applied social psychology and retired from School District 51 as director of research and program evaluation in 2007. His current life change is to prepare himself and his 1946 Ercoupe to fly cross country.


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