“Space, the final frontier” introduced Star Trek’s original series, but assessments of our human knowledge indicate that the space between our ears is more of a frontier than the space above our heads is. That is a major reason the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has proposed that the Next Big Thing be “to solve biology’s most mysterious problem: how the brain works.” (“Only Connect” [The Economist, February 23, 2013 edition]).
The project’s scale will be on par with the public and private investment made in the Human Genome Project, thus focusing funding and federal attention. Regardless of the project’s outcome, the main point is that knowledge of our brain is sparse. In fact, analogizing it to a road map:
It is like trying to navigate America with an atlas that shows the states, the big cities and the main highways, and has a few street maps of local neighbourhoods, but displays nothing in between. (“Hard Cell” [The Economist, March 9, 2013 edition]).
The secondary point is that scientists are becoming increasingly confident that technological advancements make this doable. Combine our low knowledge base with these advancements, and a strong case exists for the greatest advancement in this decade being in understanding ourselves. This will advance management theory well beyond its classical 1950’s roots of management by objectives much as it has spawned Behavioral Economics from Traditional Economics.
Thus, rather than view individuals as rational actors with free will (more), we will move toward viewing ourselves as heavily influenced by emotions, conditions and many other biological, genetic and chemical functions. Employers making this jump early will have a distinct advantage. So, if you’re looking for a new frontier to tackle, try examining the one between your ears. No one else really knows what’s there.
One of the more contrarian perspectives that has helped me appreciate people’s decisions is that emotions and its interpretive big sister, intuition, form their foundation. Even a logical decision comes about because of a person’s emotional preference for logic.
While this does not mean logic, reason and rationales are not involved; it does mean they take a secondary, dependent role similar to the way the frame of a house is dependent upon the foundation. In our decision-making, it means we select the rationale (frame) to fit our emotional preferences (foundation), which we more commonly experience as rationalizing.
Increasingly though, as technology and research methodologies advance, science supports this. For instance, the article, “Captain Kirk’s Revenge” (The Economist, December 23, 2006 edition), discusses a person who lost his emotional functions in his brain could not make decisions even though the rational portions were in tack. However, those who lost their rational functions could still do so if their emotional ones remained.
This is understandable when we consider people need motivation to make decisions and motivation is emotional. Rationales alone won’t motivate unless they stimulate our emotions. That is why the root word of emotions is “motion.” It’s active, whereas logic, reason and rationale are inert.
We further see the progress in this perspective with the research of Roderick Gilkey, Ricardo Caceda, and Clinton Kilts. In their article, “When Emotional Reasoning Trumps IQ” (Harvard Business Review, September 2010 edition), they found that the best strategic thinkers showed “significantly less neural activity in the prefrontal cortex [rational functional area of brain] than in the areas associated with ‘gut’ responses, empathy, and emotional intelligence.”
Since we are often experiencing these emotions on an unconscious level, we could feel completely rational. Consequently, all our decisions are emotional ones. We just might not believe it.
Many chemical reactions occur in our bodies. This we know, but how they affect our decisions and actions is another matter. The most commonly known (and often joked about) chemical reactions affecting our moods, decisions and actions are puberty, menstruation and menopause. Yes, I know some only affect women directly, but a women experiencing one of these chemical reactions also affects the moods, decisions and actions of the men in their lives.
In the article, “Rising to the Occasion” (The Economist, October 30, 2010 edition), the research of Patrick Markey of Villanova University and Charlotte Markey of Rutgers focuses on the another chemical reaction: the production of testosterone. Their research:
. . . suggests that males involved in a competition will experience a rise in testosterone levels if they win, and a fall if they lose.
High testosterone levels encourage aggressiveness and risk taking. Testosterone encourages men to rise to a competitive challenge even if it’s nothing but flipping a coin toss to see who wins. Yes, it’s interesting, but it goes deeper than that. It challenges the classic model of free will (more).
In other words, old school says we are what we think and we control what we think. However, what we think could be the result of chemical processes beyond our control. For example, are we becoming more aggressive and riskier because of a conscious decision to do so or because of a chemical process that kicks under the right conditions?
That means goading is actively triggering the rise of testosterone to the point where people can’t resist. Conversely, men’s testosterone lowers when they lose so they won’t pursue losing positions. All of this chemical self-regulation occurs outside our conscious control.
How much of our actions and thoughts are nothing more than the result of chemical processes?
Business prizes quantification; yet, ironically, it restricts creativity and innovation in two ways:
- Encouraging electrical activity in our brains which restricts idea generation
- Compelling people to confine their ideas to the quantifiable ones
Evangelia G. Chrysikou’s article “Put Your Creative Brain to Work” (Scientific American Mind, July/August 2012 edition, pgs: 26-27) summarizes the body of research to date by saying “idea generation is associated with a state of lower cognitive control” and
. . . generating novel applications for objects also seems to benefit from less filtering of knowledge and experiences, which enables people to consider a greater variety of possible answers.
Essentially, high cognitive control of our brain emits different electrical waves (beta) than low cognitive control (alpha) does. In Heidi K. Gardner’s article, “Coming Through When It Matters Most” (Harvard Business Review, April 2012 edition), we find quantification correlates to people’s need for certainty and conservatism by writing:
In high pressure situations . . . [people] support their responses with hard, usually quantitative, evidence instead of anecdotes and comparisons . . . Enthusiasm for innovation and improvisation gives way to concern for strict professionalism and covering all the basis.
My previous post, “Knowledge States”, helps us see the restrictive nature of quantification by the amount of knowledge we filter from the problem when we do so. This is partially why altering our normal problem-solving process (i.e. don’t worry about quantifying the problem or aspects of it) can be such an effective problem-solving technique.
Thus, the focus on numbers not only alters us physiologically in terms of the electrical waves our brains emit but also mentally in terms of compelling us to filter out unquantifiable knowledge that might contain the solution. Let’s face reality: problems are like squirrels. Neither goes away simply because we cannot quantify them.
Tony Hey in his article, “The Big Idea: The Next Scientific Revolution” (Harvard Business Review, November 2010 edition ), and Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman in theirs, “To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple” (Harvard Business Review, May 2012 edition) talk about the challenges of too much information, too much choice. These become tougher when we are acquiring more information at an unprecedented rate. However, these trends also apply to everyday business activities.
For example, research is cited in Spenner’s and Freeman’s article concerning the following:
- Too much information will tend to cause us to postpone or neglect decisions
- People naturally tend to overthink and second-guess trivial decisions
- The harder a decision is the more important we seem to believe it is
- The more time we spend on a decision the more important it becomes in our minds
Now, if we combine these tendencies with the acceleration of information, we could easily have business leaders thrashing more and more with their decisions. In other words, if you believe your organization has problems making decisions now, it’s only going to get worse.
This creates an ironic paradox. While technological advancements allow us to produce and deliver products and services faster, they slow down our decision-making. This means we become even more wedded to our standard processes for longer periods, thus retarding adaptability. In short, we miss opportunities because we respond more slowly to new facts and circumstances; we can only handle decisions that fit within our standard parameters.
Therefore, the stockpile of unmade decisions will grow and clog our already overstressed decision-making processes. We will wrestle with more decisions longer than we ever did. We’ll have the information at our fingertips, but we’ll be indecisive about what to do with it.
For additional reading, consider “Your Brain on DDoS” by George Colombo (Twitter: @georgecolombo)
Whenever we conclude (and expect someone to change a behavior) by asking, “Do you understand?” we are exhibiting an education bias:
The belief we can change people’s behaviors through more education.
Another symptom of education bias is that more information will make a difference, especially if it’s currently unknown. However, as Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman, managing directors at Corporate Executive Board, wrote in their article, “To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple” (Harvard Business Review, May 2012 edition):
The marketer’s goal is to help customers feel confident about their choice. Just providing more information doesn’t help.
In other words, we need to tap into the feeling side of an interaction, not just the thinking side. While this seems intuitive, we often sacrifice it for beliefs such as “knowledge is power” which is just a reinforcement of the idea that more information is better (i.e. more knowledge means more power). In reality, it’s how we process and implement knowledge that generates power.
Moreover, as the articles “Too Much Information” (The Economist, July 2, 2011 edition) and “You Choose – The Tyranny of Choice” (The Economist, December 18, 2010 edition) discuss: at some point more information makes us powerless. This is why Tony Hey in his article, “The Big Idea: The Next Scientific Revolution” (Harvard Business Review, November 2010 edition ), goes even further to declare the processing of information the next scientific revolution.
We can offset our education bias by remembering the two aspects of interpersonal relationships. It’s not just about “Do you understand?” or more information (thinking aspect [red]), but how people feel about their decisions or changes (feeling aspect [blue]). Change is primarily about tapping into the feeling, emotional and intuitive (blue) aspects of people and not the aspects promoted by an education bias (red).
How many times have you heard, “Don’t reinvent the wheel”? Why is it then that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has issued over 30,000 wheel patents since 1790? Moreover, as patent attorney, Lawrence Ebert, indicates, they’re approving about three hundred new ones a year. However, even Lawrence doesn’t tell the whole story.
You see, he only quoted figures from Patent Class 295 (Railway Wheels and Axles) and Class 301 (Land Vehicles: Wheels & Axles). He didn’t include wheels from Class D21 (Games, Toys, and Sports Equipment) which includes the following:
- Subclass 375: Roulette wheels
- Subclass 175-177: Steering wheels
- Subclass 204-213: Toy wheels
- Subclass 458: Pinwheel
- Subclass 477: Toys with steering wheels
- Subclass 543: Paddle wheels
- Subclass 779: Skating wheels for roller skates and skateboards
- Subclass 667: Fly Wheels
- Subclass 763: Rollers
- Subclass 563: Wheels for toy vehicles
- Subclass 829: Ferris wheel
Furthermore, he didn’t include Class 472 which contains crank wheels such as those powering our bicycles. He also didn’t include pulleys which fall under Class 474 and various kinds of tires (Class 152) and wheels that fit around other wheels (Class D12)
Now, just imagine if no one “reinvented the wheel.” We wouldn’t have all these wonderful wheels not to mention many folks wouldn’t have jobs and businesses. In short, many people wouldn’t be making the money they’re making now. Technological advancement has come because we like to reinvent things, always making them better and more adaptable to a need.
So, when people say, “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” take them up on the challenge and show them how you can make the “wheel” better and more profitable. Don’t let their lack of creativity chain your creativity and innovativeness to the ground.
As I had mentioned in The Rise of Intuition, the biggest advancement we’ll see in the next five to fifteen years will not be in biotechnology, cloud computing, medical treatments, alternative energy, personal computing devices or any other tangible technology. It will be in understanding ourselves as human beings.
Technology and new research methodologies are fueling this revolution. In these previous posts, I highlighted what these methodologies are showing about what influences us:
Now, in the October 29, 2011 issue of The Economist, the article, “Mind-goggling,” tells of four different technologies capable of reading our minds:
While the readings are crude today, work is rapidly progressing. Remember the medical tricorder Doctor McCoy used in Star Trek to scan bodies? Even as fantastic as that was, Spock still had to read minds via a mind meld. Now, imagine if McCoy had a brain tricorder capable of reading thoughts.
These technological advances are going to revolutionize our understanding of how we work. Early returns show an increasing amount of complex brain activity occurring on a subconscious level beyond the classical reflexive functions. This will directly challenge our concept of free will (more) as I have written earlier.
Amazingly, this revolution is silently flying under our radars and continuously fails to garner the hype of the other advancements I mentioned. Of course, this may be fitting since the revolution will likely uncover many thoughts and emotions that live outside of our consciousness.
When I’ve written about the illusion of free will, I’ve focused on the advancement of technology and research methodologies to uncover subconscious thought patterns. However, these advancements are also discovering a connection between chemical reactions and some of our emotions.
In the September 24, 2011 issue of The Economist, the article, “Rogue Hormones,” reports on the research of John Coates, a neuroscientist from Cambridge University. His research of derivative traders showed that when they “are on a winning streak their testosterone levels surge, sparking such euphoria that they underestimate risk.” This biochemical process produces extremely “powerful emotions” encouraging traders to “go crazy.”
This helps to explain why we often learn more from our failures than our successes and why success can deliver us to a state of hubris, an exalted arrogance that can corrupt our decision-making processes. Such biochemical processes help explain why such exuberance can infect many people to think and act similarly without communicating with each other while each is believing he is responding of his own free will. Thus, such events as financial bubbles and housing bubbles can occur on a broad scale.
A way to mitigate this effect is to diversify your workforce to include many types of personalities in decision-making positions. For instance, the article concluded that hiring women, who generally have about 10% as much testosterone as men, could help offset “irrational exuberance.” Experience can also help especially if it contains crises brought about by excessive risk taking. Moreover, even from strictly a gender perspective, not all men will experience the same increases in testosterone levels from success making them prone to erroneous risk assessments.
Of course, it’s not easy to manage a diverse workforce.
I’ve seen positive thinking do much harm to some folks; if they can’t keep their smiley face on, they feel they’re failing. Moreover, if they fail and don’t know why, they begin to question their attitude thus compounding their problems. Too many times looking at why they can’t do something is declared negativity by their friends, colleagues and family. However, these “negative” thoughts can spurn motivation, preparation and problem solving.
I came upon an excellent article by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz in the May/June 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind titled, “Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?” They summarize research on positive thinking from many angles by concluding that many of the benefits pushed by the self-help movement are tenuous. In one, they declare:
Pessimists were less prone to depression than were optimists after experiencing negative events such as a friend’s death.
Optimists, especially when bolstered by success, can suffer from overconfidence and Pollyannaism, creating financial and business difficulties. They are also less likely to take corrective action because their optimism is a breeding ground for complacency. We see this in something as non-business as losing weight.
Recently, improved technology and research methodologies have taught us that biology and our subconscious influence us far more than we ever thought. “Who we are” is different than “who we think we are” so positive thinking’s influence is temporary at best. That is why it requires constant maintenance very much like a sandcastle does on a beach; we need to address the underlying biological and emotional elements of our being in order to find a more permanent and natural solution.
Optimism and pessimism work best together. One without the other produces a rosy picture on one hand and a bleak one on the other.
The other day a colleague forwarded this link to the BNET blog speaking to intuition. Embedded in it was a link to an article that appeared in Psychology Today back in November 1, 2002. It provided early insight into the scientific advancements into the study of intuition.
Whenever I speak to people individually or collectively about interpersonal skills for disciplines such as sales, management, leadership and influencing, I emphasize that the most dramatic advancements we’ll see in the next 5-15 years will not be in areas such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, communications or even sensors but rather in how we understand ourselves, especially our decision making and knowledge acquisition abilities.
Increasingly, science is finding – as the Psychology Today article noted back in 2002 – that we make decisions and acquire knowledge before we are consciously aware of them. Yes, there are problems with trusting intuition unquestionably; however, there are problems with doing the same with the most well reasoned and supported scientific findings. You cannot make decisions by facts and figures alone. There will always be unknowns; intuition helps here.
The key is integrating both intuitive and cognitive functions. The danger we face now as the article implied is that we are generally living under the illusion that our decisions are largely conscious (cognitive) ones. We are prejudice in thinking our consciences are in control. Of course, this control calms our insecurities; control is often analogous to safety and security. In reality, many factors beneath our radar influence our feelings and thoughts. They encourage us to choose rationales to justify our wants.
Thus, every one of our decisions has emotions influencing it no matter how rationale and scientifically supported we believe they are.