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Playing the student: attitudes to learning as social roles

9 Post author: Swimmer963 23 November 2012 02:56AM

This is a post about something I noticed myself doing this year, although I expect I’ve been doing it all along. It’s unlikely to be something that everyone does, so don’t be surprised if you don’t find this applies to you. It's also an exercise in introspection, i.e. likely to be inaccurate. 

Intro

If I add up all the years that I’ve been in school, it amounts to about 75% of my life so far–and at any one time, school has probably been the single activity that I spend the most hours on. I would still guess that 50% or less of my general academic knowledge was actually acquired in a school setting, but school has tests, and grades at the end of the year, and so has provided most of the positive/negative reinforcement related to learning. The ‘attitudes to learning’ that I’m talking about apply in a school setting, not when I’m learning stuff for fun.


Role #1: Overachiever

Up until seventh grade, I didn’t really socialize at school–but once I started talking to people, it felt like I needed a persona, so that I could just act ‘in character’ instead of having to think of things to say from scratch. Being a stereotypical overachiever provided me with easy material for small talk–I could talk about schoolwork to other people who were also overachievers.

Years later, after acquiring actual social skills in the less stereotyped environments of part-time work and university, I play the overachiever more as a way of reducing my anxiety in class. (School was easy for me up until my second year of nursing school, when we started having to do scary things like clinical placements and practical exams, instead of nice safe things like written exams.) If I can talk myself into always being curious and finding everything exciting and interesting and cool I want to do that!!!, I can’t find everything scary–or, at the very least, to other people it looks like I’m not scared.

 

Role #2: Too Cool for School

This isn’t one I’ve played too much, aside from my tendency to put studying for exams as maybe my fourth priority–after work, exercise, and sleep–and still having an A average. (I will still skip class to work a shift at the ER any day, but that doesn’t count–working there is almost more educational than class, in my mind.) As one of my LW Ottawa friends pointed out, there’s a sort of counter-signalling involved in being a ‘lazy’ student–if you can still pull off good grades without doing any work, you must be smart, so people notice this and respect it.

My brother is the prime example of this. He spent grades 9 through 11 alternately sleeping and playing on his iPhone in class, and maintained an average well over 80%. In grade 12 he started paying attention in class and occasionally doing homework, and graduated with, I believe, an average over 95%. He had a reputation throughout the whole school–as someone who was very smart, but also cool.

 
Role #3: Just Don’t Fail Me!

Weirdly enough, it wasn’t at school that I originally learned this role. As a teenager, I did competitive swimming. The combination of not having outstanding talent for athletics, plus the anxiety that came from my own performance depending on how fast the other swimmers were, made this about 100 times more terrifying than school. At some point I developed a weird sort of underconfidence, the opposite of using ‘Overachiever’ to deal with anxiety. My mind has now created, and made automatic, the following subroutine: “when an adult takes you aside to talk to you about anything related to ‘living up to your potential’, start crying.” I’m not sure what the original logic behind this was: get the adult to stop and pay attention to me? Get them to take me more seriously? Get them to take me less seriously? Or just the fact that I couldn’t stomach the fact of being ordinarily below average at something–I had to be in some way differently below average. Who knows if there was much logic behind it at all?  

Having this learned role comes back to bite me now, sometimes–the subroutine gets triggered in any situation that feels too much like my swim coach’s one-on-one pre-competition pep talks. Taekwondo triggers it once in a while. Weirdly enough, being evaluated in clinicals triggers it too–this didn’t originally make much sense, since it’s not competitive in the sense of ‘she wins, I lose.’ I think the associative chain there is through lifeguarding courses–the hands-on evaluation aspect used to be fairly terrifying for my younger self, and my monkey brain puts clinicals and lab evaluations into that category, as opposed to the nice safe category of written exams, where I can safely be Too Cool for School and still get good grades.  

The inconvenience of thinking about school this way really jumped out at me this fall. I started my semester of clinicals with a prof who was a) spectacularly non-intimidating compared to some others I’ve had, and b) who liked me from the very start, basically because I raised my hand a lot and answered questions intelligently during our more classroom-y initial orientation. I was all set up for a semester of playing ‘Overachiever’, until, quite near the beginning of the semester, I was suddenly expected to do something that I found scary, and I was tired and scared of looking confident but being wrong, and I fell back on ‘Just Don’t Fail Me!’ My prof was, understandably, shocked and confused as to why I was suddenly reacting to her as ‘the scary adult who has the power to pass or fail me and will definitely fail me unless I’m absolutely perfect, so I had better grovel.’ I think she actually felt guilty about whatever she had done to intimidate me–which was nothing.

Since then I’ve been doing fine, progressing at the same rate as all the other students (maybe it says something about me that this isn’t very satisfying, and even kind of feels like failure in itself...I would like to be progressing faster). That is, until I’m alone with my prof and she tries to give me a pep talk about how I’m obviously very smart and doing fine, so I just need to improve my confidence. Then I start crying. At this point, I’m pretty sure she thinks I should be on anti-depressants–which is problematic in itself, but could be more problematic if she was the kind of prof who might fail me in my clinical for a lack of confidence. There’s no objective reason why I can’t hop back into Overachiever mode, since I managed both my clinicals last spring entirely in that mode. But part of my brain protests: ‘she’s seen you being insecure! She wouldn’t believe you as an overachiever, it would be too out of character!’ It starts to make sense once I stop seeing this behaviour as 'my learning style' and recognize it as a social role that I, at some point, probably subconsciously, decided I ought to play.

 

Conclusion

The main problem seems to be that my original mental models for social interaction–with adults, mostly–are overly simplistic and don’t cut reality at the joints. That’s not a huge problem in itself–I have better models now and most people I meet now say I have good communication skills, although I sometimes still come across as ‘odd’. The problem is that every once in a while, a situation happens, pattern recognition jumps into play, and whoa, I’m playing ‘Just Don’t Fail Me’. (It’s happened with the other two roles too, but they’re is less problematic.) Then I can’t get out of that role easily, because my social monkey brain is telling me it would be out of character and the other person would think it was weird. This is despite the fact that I no longer consciously care if I come across as weird, as long as people think I’m competent and trustworthy and nice, etc.

Just noticing this has helped a little–I catch my monkey brain and remind it ‘hey, this situation looks similar to Situation X that you created a stereotyped response for, but it’s not Situation X, so how about we just behave like a human being as usual’. Reminding myself that the world doesn’t break down into ‘adults’ and ‘children’–or, if it did once, I’m now on the other side of the divide–also helps. Failing that, I can consciously try to make sure I get into the 'right’ role–Overachiever or Too Cool For School, depending on the situation–and make that my default. 

Has anyone else noticed themselves doing something similar? I’m wondering if there are other roles that I play, maybe more subtly, at work or with friends. 

 

Comments (23)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 November 2012 04:23:03PM 15 points [-]

the following subroutine: “when an adult takes you aside to talk to you about anything related to ‘living up to your potential’, start crying.”

I find this has enough emotional truth to be funny. I'm not the only person who's found that pep talks work backwards-- they damage motivation rather than improving it.

I think the underlying connection between "living up to your potential" and pep talks is someone charging in, claiming that they know your mind better than you do, and trying to hijack your intrinsic motivations, not that I have boundary issues or anything like that.

Comment author: MixedNuts 24 November 2012 10:33:54AM 2 points [-]

I've found the appeal of pep talks is in what they say about the pep-talker. It's basically a way of saying "I like you, I want to cheer you up, I acknowledge that you're not at your best but I don't look down on you for it". It's nice that someone would say that. "Your meds will definitely kick in soon, you're not doing so bad, go for a walk and you'll feel better" is eye-rolling bullshit, but Doctor Reassuring Patient is adorable, and a mercifully easy script to navigate.

Comment author: Fadeway 24 November 2012 07:56:13AM 1 point [-]

For pep talks, I dislike them because they rely on the "I have this image of you" approach. The motivator is trying to get you to think they think you're great - if you don't agree, you will want to live up to the expectation regardless, as the alternative is disappointment, and disappointment hurts. For me, this gets me thinking about ways to win, which gets me back to my thoughts about not being very good, and thus the cycle is reinforced. I might try harder, but I won't feel good about it, and I'll feel paralyzed quickly, once it becomes apparent that whatever extra effort I've tried putting in hasn't elevated me to "great" and that disappointment is inevitable.

For me, positive pep talks (as opposed to those I see in military movies but never experienced myself, where people are told they're spineless trash and elevated from there) end up having a negative effect when the motivator (the fear of disappointing someone who believes in you) punishes me emotionally before the effort is actually over. Of course, this probably stems from the fact that, as you point out, few people would actually believe someone praising them and change their self-appraisal just based on that; thus, we end up trying to fulfill expectations without believing that we can.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 29 November 2012 04:01:49AM 0 points [-]

My model of pep talks is quite different. I assume that the pep talker is trying to give an infusion of motivation so that they can wind me up and not need to push any more.

Comment author: GDC3 01 December 2012 02:00:03AM 0 points [-]

In my case the usual reason they're demotivating is that I usually know that they think I can do it; they're just spelling out their model of me. Usually the model of me is so bad that I'm led to further discount their opinion, but they're signaling that they care which makes them more likely to be painfully disappointed in me. Basically those motivation talks are more than one kind of legitimate bad news. I don't need a script to be upset by them, but sometimes scripts make me care more. Childhood is one big lesson that your purpose in life is to impress and entertain adults. It can be very hard to shake.

Comment author: CCC 23 November 2012 07:41:08AM 11 points [-]

Hmmm. I have noticed something similar, to an extent, in myself.

That is to say, I sometimes do and say things, not because they are what I particularly want to do or say, but because they are "in character". (My choice of character is not the same as yours, however).

I've also used this as a basis for a slight alteration of myself. When signing up on a certain internet forum (no, not here, some time ago) I decided, beforehand, what person I wanted to be on that forum (calm, rational, sensible, not given to overt displays of emotion), largely because I thought it would be fun to pretend to be a human-level AI pretending to be human and see if anyone noticed (no-one seemed to until I got rather overt (picking 'round numbers' on the basis of their binary instead of their decimal representation), and then they thought, correctly, that I was merely playing a role). I later noticed that those factors that I had chosen to present on that forum were displaying themselves more strongly in other parts of my life as well. (It was only a slight effect, but it was noticeable).

I have also noticed, in the past, that people's expectations of what I will do can have quite an effect on me. (And not just on me - expectations have a measured effect on classroom performance.)


Based on my experience (the abovementioned one as well as others) it seems that the best way to create and entrench a new character is to do so in a place where no-one expects the old character. This can be accomplished by moving to a far-off city (though beware; the old characters may suddenly resurface when meeting a friend from home) or, more easily, by registering on some previously unvisited internet forum with an anonymous username. The more that the new character becomes entrenched through use, the easier it becomes to pull out the new character when necessary. The new character necessarily starts out as a mask, a mere way of presenting ones actions - but, over time, the mask's features sink through into the person under the mask, and one becomes more and more the person that one pretends to be.

This is why it is important to be polite and friendly on the internet; it makes it easier to be polite and friendly off the internet, and that results in the advantages of having others have a better opinion of you, and being more willing to provide help when requested.

Comment author: MugaSofer 23 November 2012 11:30:54AM 0 points [-]

Out of interest, what forum was this? Do people regularly roleplay there?

Comment author: CCC 23 November 2012 01:39:02PM 2 points [-]

Out of interest, what forum was this?

It's a simple phpBB board dedicated to fans of an old, no longer running TV series.

Do people regularly roleplay there?

Yes, in a very unstructured, somewhat silly, freeform sort of way (that evolved from the fanfiction section of the forum). There aren't rules, as such, but Deus Ex Machina and spotlight-hogging is frowned upon - using other people's characters in a scene is (oddly enough) fine, as long as they are portrayed in character. (And I use an AI character in those threads; before long, I was not the only one).

Comment author: [deleted] 23 November 2012 10:42:18AM 5 points [-]

there’s a sort of counter-signalling involved in being a ‘lazy’ student–if you can still pull off good grades without doing any work, you must be smart, so people notice this and respect it.

IME getting hammered drunk the night before an exam and still getting the highest grade inspires even more awe than that.

Comment author: Tenoke 23 November 2012 12:42:27PM 9 points [-]

This is a prime example of self handicapping, we as a society should probably not encourage that kind of a behavior. Having said that, I am exactly the kind of person that does things like that and I even go further.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 November 2012 09:26:33PM *  2 points [-]

But... it... is... awesome...

Anyway, when I did that I was (and still am) very surprised by how little I was cognitively impaired, especially given that I had slept very little in the previous couple days. My hangovers usually last very short, but not when I'm sleep-deprived. (I did collapse on my bed as soon as I got home after the exam and not wake up until my mother phoned me five hours later, though.)

and I even go further.

Like what?

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 November 2012 12:41:34AM 3 points [-]

I did the same thing once (by accident, actually, in the sense that I hadn't yet explored the limits of my alcohol tolerance.) Passed out on my friend's stairs, had to be carried into a bedroom where I proceeded to vomit on myself, etc. Woke up the next morning at 7:30, left an apology note on the floor and wobbled out of my friend's house, did grocery shopping on the way home, studied for a few hours, wrote my programming exam (got 84%, which was bad for me but probably still one of the higher marks in the class), coached a kids' swim meet, and made it to dinner at my other friend's house.

I wouldn't do it again–it is self-handicapping–but telling the story does get reactions of awe.

Comment author: Tenoke 23 November 2012 10:00:39PM 3 points [-]

I study only the day before the exam, sometimes get high(would get drunk as well if I can find someone to do it with) immediately before an exam, I start my courseworks a few hours before they are due etc. I guess feeling like a badass is/was more important to me than slightly higher grades.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 23 November 2012 08:33:54AM 5 points [-]

I have seen a few students playing the "Too Cool for School (and still having an A average)" strategy. On a high school it sometimes comes with an evil twist -- as soon as you are sure that you have enough knowledge to get an A from the given topic, start disrupting the lesson. This signals that you don't work and prevents your classmates from also getting an A; both parts contribute to your status. The strategy works if enough of your classmates either don't understand it, or they are OK with the "cool" part without the "smart" part, so they will join you in disrupting.

Comment author: undermind 24 November 2012 10:45:52PM 3 points [-]

Upvoted for early parts of the post, especially " it felt like I needed a persona, so that I could just act ‘in character’ instead of having to think of things to say from scratch."

Comment author: Fadeway 24 November 2012 07:54:46AM *  3 points [-]

I share similar behaviors, although with key differences, and you just alerted me - I should be careful with my failure mode. It's gotten to a point where I don't want to try improving particular skillsets around my parents. I've already shown them that I'm bad at them, and that I'm not interested; trying to improve through my usual all-or-nothing approach would feel very awkward, a 180 personality turn.

Comment author: AlexanderD 23 November 2012 04:04:07AM 3 points [-]

You might find an investigation of dramaturgical theory in sociology to be helpful.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 November 2012 06:27:14AM *  3 points [-]

The border phenomena is highlighted by Victor Turner's liminality-concept, and thus prolonged in the imaginable field: semiotics of ritual. The management of thresholds may be operated on several axes; the most crude is exclusion-inclusion, similar to the basic digital on-off (1 - 0); to be a part or not may be seen as the fundamental asset in a society; but as far society is perceived as a rhizomatic conglomerate; rather such than a unitary, or arborescent whole; border-control, so to say, becomes in a paradoxical fashion the central issue.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 23 November 2012 08:00:17AM 13 points [-]

Did he just say: "Man, your either belong or not, there ain't nothing in between"?

Comment author: MooreQuestions 29 November 2012 12:23:31AM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure how well it classifies, but I find that my "overacheiver" and "just don't fail me" are facets of the same thought. It's probably an arrogance thing, but going from "this is good, I'm doing well, I've done this right" to "no, you haven't" to "oh god oh god oh god i'm such a moron" etc etc is rather quicker and easier and (shudder) more intuitive than I would like. And it's not like I'm a pilot or anything where that's the appropriate response!

Too Cool for School got me through High School, but when I got to uni and failed miserably it made me question how and why I was there, and I got out after 18 months.

Comment author: Swimmer963 29 November 2012 03:05:45AM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure how well it classifies, but I find that my "overacheiver" and "just don't fail me" are facets of the same thought.

Definitely not the case for me, but there's no reason why it couldn't be the case for you. Although you're right, it probably isn't the appropriate response.

Comment author: pleeppleep 23 November 2012 04:27:47AM *  0 points [-]

So, would any intentionally crafted cached self count for his? Is a cached self formed for the purpose of education fundamentally different from one formed for anything else? I don't really see what you're going for here.

In any case, I always found it pretty obvious that I did something similar to this. (I always liked to imagine it's because I sometimes pretend to be a supporting character in some kind of story so I can enjoy breaking the fourth wall)

The most common "character" I play would probably be best described as a mildly unbalanced sociopath who lives in his own head and has a warped, but relentless sense of humor. Think "Black Hat Guy" from XKCD only severely less competent, and in high school. I'm pretty sure it came from trying the "too cool for school" route, failing at it, and covering for said failure by acting crazy. I don't really think of non-peers that I don't feel comfortable overtly manipulating as people so much as scenery, like rocks, so any role I try out will mostly be for the sake of dealing with other students, as opposed to teachers.

So, I'm not really sure what the point of this post is other than bringing up a specific type of cached self, but it is fun to talk about personal quirks, so I'm gonna upvote this anyway for giving me the chance to. It should probably go in "Discussion", though.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 November 2012 12:46:02PM 4 points [-]

So, would any intentionally crafted cached self count for his? Is a cached self formed for the purpose of education fundamentally different from one formed for anything else? I don't really see what you're going for here.

Well, the education system isn't like 'real life' in a lot of ways. So it's easier to create cached selves that aren't useful anywhere else, and then accidentally start using them in other ways.

So, I'm not really sure what the point of this post is other than bringing up a specific type of cached self.

I hadn't noticed I was doing it until recently, which means there are likely to be others who do it, maybe at school, maybe at work, and who also haven't noticed yet. And it hasn't been harmless for me so far.