Social interactions as the origin and resolution of discrepancies

Social interactions can be the source of discrepancy experiences, i.e., a violation of expectations, a failure to act on real or expected motives, or a failure to act on expected motives (see “Experimental Existential Psychology, Social Neuroscience and Threat Management“). People may then go into states of inhibition or defensive spirals, or they may try to be capable of action again. The Loop2Loop model ( Jonas & Mühlberger, 2017; Steindl & Jonas, 2015; for a more detailed description, see “Our research“) describes that people not only react to each other in social interactions, but that these processes are mediated via motivational-affective and motivational-cognitive processes. However, social interactions can also help in the reduction of discrepancies, as should happen, for example, in counseling processes.

Managing change in social interaction

Consulting as a way into constructive approach

In organizations, politics, and consulting, it is often a matter of dealing with threats: Many challenges of our time, as well as change processes in companies, but also our own goals and visions cause discrepancies between actual and target states. For example, a person experiences a discrepancy between a current motive and the perceived reality in their everyday work. She may be unhappy in her current job because she would like to contribute more of herself and her competencies, but feels that she is only allowed to perform activities according to certain specifications. Her need is to find a job in which she is allowed to be self-determined and contribute her skills. This discrepancy between motive and reality can cause uncertainty and anxiety (Behavioral Inhibition System, BIS), resulting in a behavioral drive to reduce the discrepancy. However, when people do not know how to do this themselves, they often seek the help of counselors. Counselors can help to reduce the discrepancy and support the client to become able to act again, i.e., to activate the Behavioral Approach System (BAS) in a constructive way. Different consulting formats such as coaching, training, consulting or mentoring are used. Social psychological insights from our research can be beneficial in this process. For example, procedural justice can support dealing with change in an action-motivated way (Reiss, Prokhorova, Schulte-Cloos & Jonas, 2018). Consultation formats can also be helpful for organizational change and the participants’ own goals. In our research, we therefore address the following questions:

  • How can counseling processes and their effects be described psychologically (e.g., Behrendt, Mühlberger, Göritz, & Jonas, in press; Jonas, Mühlberger, Böhm, & Esser, 2017)?
  • Which discrepancies can be reduced by different consulting formats (coaching, training, supervision, mentoring, mediation)?
  • Which implications can be derived for designing consulting processes?
  • Which counseling format and which counseling techniques best fit the need and motivation of the client (e.g., Böhm, Mühlberger & Jonas, 2017; Mühlberger, Böhm, & Jonas, 2021; Mühlberger, Büche & Jonas, 2018)?

Counseling and networking to help students: The PLUSTRACK-Project: Active Studying by Linking Social and Digital Worlds

Students also often experience discrepancies in their studies. For example, a student is unhappy and not very motivated in his or her current studies because he or she would have expected more co-determination, but has the feeling that he or she has little to say in the courses and can only contribute a little (=discrepancy between motive and reality). Or a student expects more exchange with fellow students, but the courses of the first semester promote this only little (=discrepancy between cognitive focus and reality).

These discrepancies also activate the BIS, which can cause uncertainty and anxiety.

The project  PLUSTRACK, which is funded by the BMBWF and the University of Salzburg, aims to reduce these discrepancies. Students are offered various counseling formats (mentoring, coaching, training) to optimally accompany them on their study path. In addition, a community network platform is being developed that will make it easier for first-year students to start their studies, as well as offering appropriate support to students in advanced semesters and to teachers.

The goal is to provide students with optimal guidance and support during difficult stages of their studies, which should happen in two ways: On the one hand, that students get to know themselves better (e.g. Who am I? What are my wishes? What do I want to achieve?) and on the other hand, that students can network better with each other (e.g. Who are my fellow students? What are our similarities and differences? Who can I ask for support?). The long-term goal of our project is a better identification with one’s own studies and the university, better social integration and resulting motivation for the studies.

Change processes and justice in the context of future working environments – Work 4.0

The question of how to open people up to ideas and suggestions for improvement is relevant both in the interaction between two people and at the organizational and societal level. Since change is always associated with managing discrepancies, the question of how to support people in their ability to act is also relevant here:

– When do we open ourselves to new ideas?

– When do we commit ourselves to new ideas?

– What needs to happen in the social environment for this to happen?

The question of how acceptance is created must be separated from the question of how people can be activated to get involved themselves. Relevant influencing factors are justice (procedural and distributive), appreciation, respect (interpersonal justice) and control (informational and procedural).

The future world of work will become increasingly networked, digital and flexible. This is not only contributing to the emergence of new products and services, but is also emphatically changing previous modes of production and influencing the structures in organizations in the process. Familiar values are changing and new demands on work are emerging. On the one hand, there are opportunities in these changes, but on the other hand, there are also uncertainties. Society as a whole is called upon to shape the framework conditions in this process and to negotiate interests in such a way that all those affected benefit from the new developments. But how can we help ensure that individuals, with their individual needs, life situations and talents, feel well taken care of in future working environments? The design of work in organizations is of particular importance in this context. But in view of the increasing flexibilization in organizations, can framework conditions still be created at all that provide a certain degree of security and stability? Can people still feel connected to organizations when traditional structures are increasingly dissolving and employees are exposed to permanent change?

Psychological research on organizational justice has made it clear in recent decades that people show a greater willingness to embrace the unknown and feel less threatened by change when principles of justice are fulfilled. This research suggests that people will retain a connection to their company even in changing corporate structures if the change is designed fairly and the new working world is also experienced equitably.

Work should fulfill central psychological basic needs, needs for competence (participation, advancement, control, understanding), belonging or identity (contact, confirmation or recognition in the community) and autonomy or dignity (realization of one’s own values, enjoyment of work). But how can, for example, the need for belonging be fulfilled when people are confronted with new decision-making authorities, such as intelligent technical systems? What provides security in the rapid pace of technological change and a sense of identity? What helps people cope with the permanent stress that arises due to increasing fast pace, flexibility and unpredictability? Employees’ needs must be reconciled with companies’ economic requirements – but how can this be done? How can demands for the further development of employees be linked to their individual future perspectives/wishes?

In our research, we try to show how the consideration of principles of justice can contribute to making needs-based work possible – because principles of justice change our view of options for action and design opportunities and help to discover new potentials.