Welcome back to The Skeptic. This week we’ll be analyzing the claims made about the concept of “flow” in Talentism’s recent post “Why We Need a New Business Playbook”.
Talentism’s post does an adequate job explaining the general idea of flow; however, the subject is a big one, and the words of “flow” architect Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi may further illuminate the concept. Despite “flow” having a solid scientific foundation, it isn’t uncommon for people to talk about it as though it’s a mystical experience, overstating the benefits that have been shown in studies. Does Talentism’s discussion of flow stick with the science? Let’s look at some of the claims made.
Maximizing flow is correctly seen as a path to higher productivity and employee engagement.
Does flow increase productivity and engagement? Evidence says yes. On the productivity side, numerous studies and the bulk of Csikszentmihalyi’s considerable published output support the notion. And if skepticism should arise from noting that Csikszentimihayi’s has a vested interest in proving the benefits of flow, even the generally skeptical studies have shown that productivity will rise in flow states. As far as engagement goes, it’s an easy yes—flow is practically defined on engagement. Csikszentmihalyi even subtitled his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Student studies show an increase in engagement with an increase in flow, as expected. On the whole, the assertion that flow increases productivity and engagement is on solid ground.
Confusion prohibits flow
Confusion, for whatever reason, isn’t a word used often in research articles. From the context in “New Business Playbook”, the type of confusion being referred to is the type that creates “threat states” and causes the “amygdala hijack”.
The term “amygdala hijack” originated from Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, though it draws on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux and many other neuroscientists and neuropsychologists, whose work has shown conclusively that the amygdala is involved in fear and defense responses. (Note: Due to Goleman’s popularization of the term, the amygdala isn’t given it’s fair due in other processes. It’s also important for emotional learning and memory modulation.)
So, does the “amygdala hijack” prohibit flow? Best evidence says yes. Several studies have shown that threatening conditions hinder people’s motivation. Performance anxiety has also been shown to inhibit flow. Furthermore, states of anxiety have been shown to accompany a detrimental and self-explanatory condition known as “anti-flow”. Simply put, you can’t achieve flow when you feel like you are under threat.
Anxiety has consistently been shown to be a performance killer … Fear doesn’t help students achieve better test scores, inventors create new products, customer service people help customers, or people build healthy and productive relationships.
While the effect of test anxiety on performance should be obvious to most, the general idea expressed by “New Business Playbook” is that anxiety and fear have a negative effect on both cognitive abilities and relationships. This is true. Anxiety (both state and trait) has a broad range of effects on cognitive abilities, especially attentional control. This clearly inhibits flow, which is based on attentional control.
Intuitively, we know anxiety and threat can have a negative effect on relationships. Not only does it create stress that can fracture even the most closely held ties, but it will interfere with your general ability to function in social situations. It’s also interesting that there are indications that anxiety is decreased under a greater cognitive load, which is actually a flow indicator.
On the whole, the research again supports Talentism’s claims. We’ll keep checking in when they make science-based arguments in the future.