High Maintenance Interaction

Why you shouldn't talk to a nerd before taking an exam

Throughout my academic career, I've come across a variety of nerve-racking pre-exam moments. I remember vividly the various ways my classmates and I handled the last minutes before our final examinations: while some tried to relax and laugh away the tension, others studied until the last second, driving everyone crazy with stressed-out questioning. I'd have to admit to always being part of that latter group. My strategy was to harass the biggest nerd on the subject with all of my uncertainties and loads of questions. I always needed to find answers, but since the matter was crystal-clear to the poor guy I was stalking and he didn't understand any of my vaguely formulated questions, I only got more frustrated and insecure. Despite this fact, I never changed my strategy: although our communication was very effortful and fruitless, I figured that if anyone could improve my result on the exam, it had to be the expert. Guess what: I was wrong! In this article, I'll explain why and hopefully save all of you from that horrible feeling of stupidity I experienced so often due to my ideas of what constituted successful exam preparation.

I found enlightenment in an article by Finkel, Campbell, Brunell, Dalton, Scarbeck and Chartrand (2006). In this article, the authors demonstrate that inefficient  social coordination on an interpersonal task can impair  self-regulation on an individual level in an unrelated task. In other words, desperately trying to communicate with someone you do not understand and who does not understand you will worsen your performance on a following task you do by yourself. Before examining the deeper reasoning behind this thought, let’s first explore the terms in this sentence. If two individuals work together on a task, or even have a conversation together, they engage in interpersonal interaction. When the individuals are able to align their behaviours in an effortless and efficient manner, their interaction is characterized by effective social coordination. When the social coordination requires more energy than you would expect from the interaction, it could be referred to as  high maintenance interaction. The authors argue that engaging in high-maintenance interactions influences performance on subsequent, unrelated, individual tasks. To explain this line of reasoning, you first need to know something about the theory of  self-regulation (Baumeister, 1998).

There are plenty of moments every day when I need to regulate myself. This happens when I get up in the morning instead of snoozing ‘just one last time’, during lunch when I choose that tasteless salad instead of the delicious brownie, and at my daily 3 o’clock dip when I force myself into reading that article instead of checking my mailbox every 2 minutes. All these actions have a clear goal (getting to work on time, looking after my health and getting my job done), but it takes effort to direct my behavior in a way that benefits that goal. I have to inhibit an attractive alternative that comes to mind first: obviously I rather want to snooze until noon, eat chocolate during lunch and waste my time chatting with my friends when I’m in my afternoon-dip. The  self’s executive function can be looked upon as your behavioral conscience, inhibiting irrational desires and regulating behavior in a goal-directed manner.

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