One of my areas of study is in how people make decisions about future events. Lately I’ve been thinking about this in the context of baseball and the rest of life.
If you’re pitching in a baseball game and your fastball is working wonders, you aren’t likely to change your strategy. You’ll keep pitching the fastball, because it’s working. But if three batters in a row have turned your fastballs into runs, you’ll consider trying something new for the next batter. This strategy, which I call “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it — but if it is broken, fix it!” seems reasonable enough for baseball pitches.
But what about when the amount of influence you have over a situation isn’t so clear? Like in the rest of our daily life?
For instance, you might do great during a job interview. You ask all the right questions, you give all the right answers. But you don’t get the job. Then it happens again, and again. Is this job interview situation like pitching, in which case you should change something about your interview strategy? Or is this situation more like playing roulette, where you have almost no control over the outcome regardless of what you do?
If it’s like roulette, what would be the smartest next move? Keep betting on “black” when red has come up three times? Or change your behavior to bet on “red”? According to current scientific theory, there is no smartest next move — each spin of a fair roulette table brings a completely new result, not influenced by previous spins. But multiple behavioral studies show that in these kind of low-control situations, people tend to keep betting on “black” after a string of “red” outcomes. This is what I call the “If it’s broken, don’t fix it” strategy. So it looks like people apply different rules to make decisions depending on how much control they think they have over a situation.
Back to the job interview scenario. If you think you have a lot of control over the situation, you’re likely to change your interview strategy (even though you already thought your strategy was good). After all, it seems you are consistently failing, and you have control, so you’d better try something new! On the other hand, if you feel powerless over the situation, then it’s more like the roulette wheel. You’ll keep using the same interview strategy again and again, because you don’t have any control, so there’s no reason that changing your strategy should make a difference.
What this seems to produce is a situation in which people who feel in control are more flexible in their approaches, and people who feel powerless are more rigid. It also means that people who feel more in control also get more experience using multiple strategies to solve problems, whereas people who feel powerless get much less experience and therefore develop less expertise. As you can see, the situation feeds back upon itself — feeling in control leads to more feelings of mastery; feeling helplessness leads to more opportunities to demonstrate one’s lack of control.
So what can you do when you feel like you’re failing? Whether you feel like you have control or not, it makes sense to act like a person who feels control. Change your strategy after a few failures. If you do have even a little bit of influence over the situation (and we usually do), this change could help. And, in the unusual case in which you don’t have any influence at all, changing your strategy at least gives you practice in a new way of doing things.