February 4, 2010

Social performers enjoy greater Flow than solitary hobbyists

I just read through two books on Flow, the state of mind where you're totally immersed in an activity, you lose self-consciousness, time passes by faster, etc. It's what athletes mean when they say they're "in the zone." What's so striking about this concept -- which does really exist -- is how biased its proponents are toward solitary Flow activities and against in-front-of-an-audience Flow activities. It's understandable that they'd rank a chess player or scientist above a dancer or basketball player, given that most professional psychologists were never the social and popular kids in high school. Still, it's time to correct some glaring misunderstandings about which activities lead to greater Flow among their practitioners.

In Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, Czikszentmihalyi provides four concrete examples of Flow activities: rockclimbing, playing chess, surgery -- as the surgeon -- and dancing to rock music. (The rock music referred to is later '60s and earlier '70s.) He grudgingly admits that dancing has all of the hallmarks of a Flow activity, and interviews with people who "get into the groove" (the dancer's "in the zone") show quite clearly that their mental experience is exactly that described by the Flow idea. If anything, they make it sound like they're much more energized, focused, and in a state of rapture than a rockclimber or a sculptor or a computer programmer.

However, he sees some flaws in rock dancing that lead him to characterize the experience as "shallow flow" in contrast to the "deep flow" that the three by-themselves Flowers enjoy. These three flaws, and my responses to them, are:

1) Ambiguity of feedback. Flow happens when the person matches their skill level to the challenge level, ideally pursuing a high-level challenge with high-level skills. He believes the feedback you get about attaining this ideal is unambiguous for the solitary Flow activities but ambiguous for dancing. How can you tell you're doing well? It seems much clearer in chess than in dancing. *

- For all Flow activities, the only unambiguous feedback you get relates to the barebones level of competence -- does a chess player make a series of illegal moves, does a rockclimber move steadily downward in altitude, does a surgeon see blood squirting all over the walls, and does a dancer lose his balance and fall? These are like the rules of grammar -- once you break them, you notice right away, and the feedback is crystal-clear. If you cannot even surmount these minimal obstacles, you are not any good at the activity and will never experience Flow because you cannot meet a high challenge with high skills.

Beyond those things, though, everything else you do is improvisational rather than like following a rigid script, and the feedback you get is necessarily ambiguous. Sure, rock dancers may be unsure of whether or not they're giving a good performance, aside from not losing their balance, keeping time with the beat, etc. But then how does a rockclimber know for sure that he's doing well? He's not going steadily downward -- great for him -- but could he be moving faster? Could he chose a more elegant path to the top? Should he have moved an arm then leg, or should he have moved one leg and then the other? None of this is clear.

How does a chess player know he's setting a high challenge and meeting it with high skill? There are so many options open to him at every step of the way, and some may lead to a faster win, a more bewildering and shocking win, and so on. His only feedback is what his opponent does, and that doesn't give him much to go on, other than to assure him that at least he isn't royally screwing up.

When a surgeon cuts into someone, nothing is exactly the same as it was the last time, and again he has so many options open to him at each step, even if not an infinite amount. There are all sorts of unanticipated obstacles, or opportunities for an epiphany: "Hey, I don't have to do it the way everyone else does -- there's a simpler way!" Once more, the feedback he gets doesn't tell him with complete certainty whether he's going as fast as he can, as seamlessly as he can, as inventively, or whatever.

So, for the part of Flow activities that actually give it the Flow feeling -- those that set up a high challenge and demand high skills -- there is no unambiguous feedback. That only comes from the parts of the activity that confirm his basic competence. Everything else is like aesthetics, not grammar, and therefore while not ungoverned, it is open to honest debate.

Indeed, social performances like dancing, live music, live acting, and doing spectator sports are more likely to give the performer quality feedback. Why? Because there's an audience full of impartial judges -- they're not the performer himself (who is subject to self-deception about what the feedback says about how good he is), nor his friends or relatives (who are also going to deceive themselves or politely lie in his favor). If you aren't setting a high challenge and meeting it with high skills in a dance club, then guess what -- no one will notice you, cheer you own, reach out their hand so that you'll pull them up, spontaneously praise you or confess that you're their hero, etc.

How does a rockclimber, chess player, or surgeon get such high-quality unbiased feedback? Unless they're performing before an impartial audience, they obviously cannot. Going it alone, or mostly with buddies, relatives, and workplace subordinates, is asking to get more self-deception, white lies, and butt-kissing in the feedback.

2) Greater chance for self-consciousness to spoil the loss of self. Here Csikszentmihalyi only quotes from the bad, awkward dancers -- who unsurprisingly feel incredibly self-conscious. But he makes a larger point about the social setting raising the chance of feeling stared at in a bad way. More solitary activities lower the feeling of being in the spotlight.

- Obviously it's only the good dancers who matter in assessing how self-conscious dancers feel during Flow. And they report that they completely lose themselves -- not just among the crowd of other people, but also in the darkness and in the music itself. Most performers, aside from athletes, perform in a mostly dark space too. I do notice that when the lights are brighter than usual during a song, I can't get into the groove as well. I know they're staring at me dark or light, but seeing their eyeballs drives that home. Still, provided the lighting is suitably dim, that's not a problem.

Moreover, when there's a crowd of people before you, your loss of self-consciousness is heightened because you're not only losing yourself in the activity and the physical environment but also into a sea of people. You're feeding off of their energy, and they're feeding off of yours simultaneously, like yin-yang. A rockclimber can only be at one with his physical motions and the environment.

More importantly, it's not true that the presence of a crowd ramps up the potential for self-consciousness. We automatically imagine a spectator or crowd when we're doing solitary Flow activities -- the patrons at the gallery where our sculpture will be on display, the panel of judges in a rockclimbing contest we're preparing for, our martinet math teacher who told us never to write "hack" proofs but to make them elegant, and so on. When you suspect you're not rising to the occasion, the feeling that you're failing your judges is only slightly dampened when they're in your head rather than in the flesh.

I will concede, though, that dancing in dance clubs (rather than in a ballet performance) somewhat opens the door to self-consciousness through other ways. If girls jump on stage and pinch your butt or bend over and start shoving their ass in your crotch, you become more aware of yourself. Overall, these interruptions of Flow are a trivial damper -- like the audience applauding in the middle of a piece of music rather than holding it till the end.

3) Opportunity to drop the activity in the middle, rather than be caught up in it. Csikszentmihalyi believes that unlike rockclimbing, chess, and surgery -- where once you start you proceed inexorably to the end -- you can quit rock dancing during any of the breaks between songs, or even in the middle of a song if you wanted to! This makes dancing less absorbing of an activity, since you have freer exit.

- Again, only someone who can't dance would think that a dancer would just stop mid-song and leave. Like surgeons and rockclimbers who all take some kind of break, dancers might rest between songs to replenish their energy. But otherwise they aim to go until the club closes. Other than those required breaks, dancing absorbs close to 100% of a dancer's focus.

And besides, who says that rockclimbers, chess players, and surgeons are so drawn into their activity that once they start, they are assured of finishing? Does a rockclimber say, "Well, I made my first movement up off the ground, so by mathematical induction, I've scaled the entire cliff"? Each time he's lifted a limb from the rock and secured it in a new place, this gives him a natural time to say, "OK, I've made enough moves -- this isn't going anywhere," or "Just one more move and then I'll have given my arms a good enough workout, and I can go home."

Right after a surgeon washes his hands, he's literally on auto-pilot and couldn't stop to, say, attend to more pressing matters if an emergency patient needed him, or let another surgeon step in to finish the job? The pause between each snip gives him the opportunity to say, "Good enough so far -- I'm needed elsewhere," or "Somebody else can take it from here." When playing chess, a player is given a natural chance to just get up and leave the table -- namely after any move is made, like the breaks between songs in a dance club. So it's simply not true that solitary Flow activities don't have built-in pauses that tempt their practitioners to give up.

To sum up, the three criticisms leveled at rock dancing -- and by implication any Flow activity that consists of a performer before an audience -- are wrong. Indeed, the first criticism actually rules in favor of social performances because these give the person higher-quality feedback about how great of a challenge they're setting and how great their skills are. All the wishing in the world from adherents of Eastern philosophy or Positive Psychology won't make woodwork in one's basement a greater source of Flow than dancing, acting, jamming out, telling jokes, or dribbling a basketball before an audience. That's clear enough just by watching performers -- they are more absorbed, lost in the moment, and energized, and they're getting much less ambiguous feedback than someone whose only jury is himself or his hobby buddies.

I see the Flow proponents as a special case of the general tendency among modern intellectuals to favor individualistic or atomistic solutions to leading a good life, even if they admit that people feel happier in closely knit communities where people are like each other. They need to go back and read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which largely inspires my response to the Flow concept. The Stoics, the early Christians, the myriad entrepreneurial schools of classical Greek philosophy -- they too focused more on how to lead a fulfilling life based on how you interact socially with your fellow man, not about how to find the right solitary hobby, how to trick yourself into eating less, or how to contemplate life in a better way. Just get out there and be active and social!

* Actually, his exposition after the list of flaws describes the ambiguity of the tasks involved in the activity, not of the feedback. For example, some dancers feel ambiguous about whether they're dancing for its own sake (Flow) or in order to make a thinly veiled pass at a girl they want to bed (non-Flow). This ambiguity is also present for rockclimbing, chess, and surgery -- how do they know they're "really" doing it for its own sake rather than to keep their muscles in attractive shape, to have a way to signal their IQ to others, and to impress the cute nurse he wants to bed? Dancing is no different.


  1. Eh, I'll bet everyone has Flow situations, it's just extroverts will get into it easier in social situations, introverts in solitary activities.

    My own experience with Flow would seem to bear this out...as an extrovert, if I'm hosting something or leading an activity I'll sometimes lose self-consiousness to the point of *blink-blink* "Okay, what was I just saying there?" Whereas while I enjoy, say, pointalism sketching I don't get nearly the level of zen imersion my introvert sisters do.

  2. Regarding the self-consciousness issue, it would seem to me that if it's spoiled by self-consciousness, then it isn't a real Flow, or at least not a strong one. When I practice stand-up comedy by myself I have to force myself to push through the routine because the silence makes me aware of my own thoughts; when I'm performing in front of an audience on the other hand, I lose myself in their feedback and have no trouble remembering my jokes.

    Also, is chess so cerebral that it's not even considered a social activity?


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