Saturday, November 22, 2008

When greed motivates behavior

For a start, let me apologize. Writing is a responsibility – a tremendous one. And when I undertook writing this blog, it was never my intent to do anything but deliver on that responsibility. My initial goal was to write at least 100 articles per year, with at least 50% of them on tennis, and the rest loosely divided between “life” and “love”.

And then along came John chipmunk-cheeked McCain, with Sarah-the-Bitch Palin, and Barrack Hussein (
yes, Hussein, get over it) Obama, and I got more than a bit distracted. And for that too, I apologize.

My intent on starting this blog was to write at least one article every 3.65 days. Really, it would be greedy of you to expect more.

Yes I have greed on the brain. I think that it is a massive factor to explain the precipice that we seem about to fall off of. And yes I know that a preposition is not a good thing to end a sentence with. But how else could I make my point?

I have an ex-boyfriend who believes that greed is the best explanation for men’s infidelity. I probably need to mention that he was not a psychologist. But inasmuch as he was dating one, he frequently felt moved to try to attempt to give his two cents on explaining human behavior. And he felt that psychologists had become so enamored of anxiety and depression and anger as motives for human actions that we had simply lost sight of baser motives such as envy, and coveting, and greed.

What triggered his observations was a series of in-depth columns I had written on infidelity in relationships. He endured the series and the unending commentary it had inspired – and then told me that I was completely wrong.

Infidelity in his view had nothing to do with discontent or desire Рtwin motives I had put forward to explain why men cheat on the women they claim to love. Instead, in his view, it was all about greed. He felt that infidelity was inspired by wanting more than your fair share. He argued that in my feminine naivet̩, I had completely missed the truth that some men were just greedy, had been greedy since childhood having never learned to be content with their portion. He maintained that such men would spend the rest of their lives wanting to acquire more and more and more. He believed that base greed more than any other emotion adequately explained their behavior.

I must admit that at the time, I took some solace in his strong language, thinking (stupidly) that his self-awareness was a protection against his ever being inspired by a similar motive. Silly me. He was not speaking about himself. He was commenting only on a blind spot in human motivation that he honestly felt that psychologists had completely missed. In hindsight, I think that he was right. Let’s not count the levels.

It was hard not to ponder on greed as the price of oil kept rising and rising throughout the North American summer. You and I may have started taking the bus but someone(s) somewhere must have been profiting by this epiglottal squeeze. Who profits when a specific commodity suddenly becomes scarce or unaffordable? Who benefits when something needed overnight ends up out of the reach of the average? Really, this is all so reminiscent of Frank Hebert’s “Dune”, isn’t it?

I have long had an interest in altruism – the very opposite of greed in many ways – and have tried to keep track of some of the research that examines human selflessness. There is a great deal of research to back up the assertion that altruism is innate to human nature, that its absence needs to be explained, not its presence. What then about greed?

Greed has been defined as the selfish desire for the pursuit of money, wealth, power, food, or other possessions, especially when denying the same to others. Are we born greedy or do we learn to want more than our fair share? And if greed is learned behavior, how is it learned? Can it be unlearned? Are there gender differences on this dimension? There is so much about this motive for human behavior that we do not know.

I do believe that the greed of a few is a principal factor in the economic death grip that has seized hold of the world economy. It was greed that made some American realtors and brokers sell subprime mortgages to the clueless poor who would soon discover that they would not be able to afford their shiny new houses. It was greed that motivated banks to buy and sell these questionable pieces of paper, collapsing them into bundles of worthlessness that could be floated on the free market. And as the meltdown continues to affect us all, somewhere there are a handful of Shylocks who continue to count their pounds of flesh.

A lot of brilliant psychologists are among the staff of those advertising firms that persuade us to buy unnecessary commodities. In fact the best advertising influences us to blur the boundary between wants and needs. In truth, we can all live more healthily without either Pepsi or Coke, but a lot of money has been spent in persuading us to choose between the two. Greed will always remain a motivator for behavior because it enriches and profits the conscienceless gluttons among us.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Reflections in Haiku – The Top Ten Women of 2008

According to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour website, these are the top ten female players of 2008:

1. Jelena Jankovic (photo bottom right)
2. Serena Williams

3. Dinara Safina

4. Elena Dementieva
(middle photo)
5. Ana Ivanovic

6. Venus Williams (top photo, right)

7. Vera Zvonareva

8. Svetlana Kuznetsova

9. Maria Sharapova

10. Agnieszka Radwanska

Here are ten haikus in recognition of their achievement:

Radwanska the Pole
Made a million bucks
sweet herstory

Sharapova’s rank
Accurately reflects her
Limited progress

Kuznetsova please

Find a coach and stick with him

Or her, I don’t care

Vera’s tears erased
A year of brutal work
Back to the drawing-board

Venus Williams
Seems to have recommitted

To braids and tennis

Ms. Ivanovic seems caught

Between twin loves:

Modeling and tennis

Dementieva knows
That serving is not

The only way to win

Safina worked hard

For everything she’s achieved

Congrats little sis

Come clean Serena.

Were those an actress’ tears

Or real disappointment?

Heavy mascara
Can't drive Porsche with broken toe

Drama queen
’s on court

Sunday, November 9, 2008

There’s no crying in tennis!

I was shocked to see Serena Williams twice burst into tears as she was soundly thrashed by her sister last Thursday. Of the two sisters, Serena has always appeared to be the mentally stronger. And then today Venus did it again – she made an opponent cry.

I really thought Vera Zvonareva had stopped with the crying. Throughout this tournament in Doha, she has looked so bold, so confident, so fit. Indeed, throughout this year, I can honestly describe her as composed. She has looked nothing like the Vera of yore, a fragile young woman who would sob at the slightest error, her face turning beet-red, as huge wet tears stream down her cheeks.

But throughout 2008, that Vera never appeared on court. Instead, she has been replaced by a composed yo
ung woman who announced to all comers that she is a force to be reckoned with. This new Vera has been on a tear, coming from behind to qualify for the year-end championships in Doha, and steam-rolling over everyone on the way to the finals.

So when Vera burst into tears after losing her serve in the third set, I must admit that I felt disappointed in her. You see, Vera did not just tear up briefly and move on. That I may have been able to deal with. No, she threw herself on the ground and her entire body started heaving dramatically. Then she sat down, hid her face under a towel, and continued to sob. With this emotional display, she was signaling to her opponent that she was going to lose the match. And she did.

I am reminded of the movie in which Tom Hanks looks on nonplus
sed as one of the female baseball-playing characters burst into tears. Tom then announces in a confused tone, “There’s no crying in baseball”. I found myself yelling at the TV screen, “Vera, quit it, there’s no crying in tennis!” As if she could hear me. As if it would make a difference.

Listen, I am not without empathy for this young woman. As a player myself, I know how hard it is to feel your command of a game just slip away. And I can even imagine that some might argue that releasing the tension from your b
ody via a few tears might have a beneficial effect. Perhaps. I would think that deep breathing and maintaining a positive mental focus would be better strategies than giving in to tears. The reason for this is because crying in such situations is usually preceded and accompanied by negative thoughts – and no one can afford to take the risk of thinking negatively when a resurgent Venus Williams is on the other side of the net.

I don’t know what it is that Vera did that got her to stop crying in the first place. I’d like to believe that she worked with a sports psychologist. That is certainly what I would have recommended were I a member of her training team. Sports psychologists spe
cialize in helping players get over their mental blocks to winning. They teach sports players how to concentrate and maintain positive focus, how to manage on-court stress, how to improve their moods, how to build their self-confidence in their ability to play at the highest level of the sport, and how to ignore or tune out distractions (such as a screaming partisan crowd).

Some players have gone on record about having used sports psychologists. Todd Martin has been open about using the assistance of a sports psychologist to help him get over his mental block against playing Pete Sampras. And when Todd eventually beat his nemesis, I remember thinking that the profession had been vindicated.

Sports psychology is now commonly integrated into many tennis-training programs. Most of the better NCAA pro
grams have a sports psychologist on staff. There is no stigma attached to seeking out the assistance of this individual. In fact, today most players understand that this is what achieving peak performance actually requires.

I remember once being invited to speak to a group of Junior players who were leaving to participate in an ITF tournament. I did it but I was quite annoyed. I was annoyed that it had not occurred to any of the coaches to invite my participation until the day before the team was about to depart. So there I was, in a crowded stock room turned conference room, giving a group of pre-teens what amounted to little more than a pep talk. I would have loved to have been offered the opportunity to work with them throughout their physical preparation. Tennis is more than a physical sport. It is a psychologically very demanding game. A last-minute pep talk could not possibly be enough. And it wasn’t.

Vera played awesome tennis today. But Venus, clearly the mentally stronger of the two, came back from a set down to prevail. They were both ranked lowest in the line-up going into Doha. It is ironic that they outlasted everyone ranked above them to end up facing each other in the finals. The only difference between them today lay in their levels of mental fitness.