Assume, for a moment, that I’m your manager. I call you into my office one day and say, “You’re doing pretty good work … but you’re going to have to get better at shooting free throws on the basketball court. If you want a promotion this year, you’ll need to make at least 75% of your free throws.”
What would you do? Assuming that you don’t resign on the spot, you would probably get a basketball, go to the free throw line, and start practicing free throws (also known as foul shots). Like most skills, you would probably find that your accuracy improves with practice. You might also hire a coach or watch some training videos, but the bottom line is practice, practice, practice.
Now, let’s change the scenario. I call you into my office and say, “You’re doing pretty good work … but you’re going to have to get better at creating ideas. If you want a promotion this year, you’ll need to increased the number of good ideas you generate by at least 75%.”
Now what? Well … I’d suggest that you start practicing the art of creating good ideas. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s not very different from practicing the art of shooting free throws.
But shooting free throws and creating ideas seem to be very different processes. Here’s how they feel:
The two activities seem very different but, actually, they’re not. In both cases, you’re doing the work. With free throws, you readily recognize what you’re doing. With ideas, you don’t. Free throws happen in your conscious mind, also known as System 2. New ideas, on the other hand, happen below the level of consciousness, in System 1. When System 1 works up an idea, it pops it into System 2 and you become aware of it.
We understand how to practice something in System 2 – we’re aware of our activity. But how do we practice in System 1? How can we practice something that we’re not aware of?
We think of our mind as controlling our body. But, as Amy Cuddy has pointed out, our bodily activities also influence our mental states. If we make ourselves big, we grow more confident. If we smile, our mood brightens.
So how do we use our bodies to teach our brains to have good ideas? First, we need to observe ourselves. What were you doing the last time you had a good idea? I’ve noticed that most of my good ideas pop into my head when I’m out for a walk. When I’m stuck on a difficult problem, I recognize that I need a good idea. I quit what I’m doing and go for a walk. Oftentimes, it works – my System 1 generates an idea and pops it into System 2.
In my critical thinking classes, I ask my students to raise their hands if they have ever in their lives had a good idea. All hands go up. Everybody has the ability to create good ideas. The question is practice.
Then I ask my students what they were doing the last time they had a good idea. The list includes: out for a walk, driving, riding in a car, bus, or train (but not an airplane), taking a shower, drifting off to sleep, and bicycling.
I also ask them what activities don’t generate good ideas. The list includes: when they’re stressed, highly focused, multitasking, overly tired, overly busy, or sitting in meetings.
So how do we practice the art of having good ideas? By doing more of those activities that generate good ideas (and fewer of those that don’t). The most productive activities – like walking – seem to occupy part of our attention while leaving much of our brainpower free to wander somewhat aimlessly. Our bodily activity influences and stimulates our System 1. The result is often a good idea.
Is that perfectly clear? Good. I’m going for a walk.
This fall, in addition to my regular academic courses, I’ll teach three one-day seminars designed for managers and executives.
These seminars draw on my academic courses and are repackaged for professionals who want to think more clearly and persuade more effectively. They also provide continuing education credits under the auspices of the University of Denver’s Center for Professional Development.
If you’re guiding your organization into an uncertain future, you’ll find them helpful. Here are the dates and titles along with links to the registration pages.
I hope to see you in one or more of these seminars. If you’re not in the Denver area, I can also take these on the road. Just let me know of your interest.
Julia and Elliot recently went to a wedding in Eureka, Colorado, a ghost town situated high in the San Juan Mountains. To say that Eureka is isolated is a vast understatement. Here are some things that the town doesn’t have: landlines, television, internet, wi-fi, mobile phone access, cable, newspapers, radio, and paved roads. When you’re there, you’re there.
Just before the wedding ceremony, ushers collected everyone’s cameras and mobile phones. The couple seemed to be saying to their guests: “We’re glad you’re here. We hope you’re with us fully and completely. Don’t fuss with your cameras and phones. Engage with us in a profound experience. Be here now.”
The place and the process reminded me of Daniel Kahneman’s definitions of the experiencing self and the remembering self. We can focus, engage our senses, and fully experience an activity. What we remember, however, is far different from what we experience. We typically remember two things: 1) the peak experience – the high point of the activity; 2) the end state – how things ended up. (For more on memory traps, click here).
The difference between the two selves has many implications. We remember things differently than they actually happened. This calls into question such things as eyewitness testimony and historical accounts. It may also be why we argue with our spouses – we simply remember things differently. It’s another good reason not to argue in the past tense. (For other reasons, click here).
The difference also affects how we plan our activities. We can plan to: 1) enhance the experience; or 2) enhance our memory of the experience. Let’s say you go to your favorite restaurant. If you want to enhance the experience, you should order your favorite dish. You can enjoy the anticipation and the experience itself. However, you won’t create a new memory. It will simply blend in with all the other times you’ve ordered the same dish. If you want a new memory, order something you’ve never had before. It may be great or not – you can’t anticipate – but it will be more memorable.*
FOMO, of course, is the Fear of Missing Out, which seems to be an increasing concern in today’s society. Everything is accessible and we don’t want to miss any of it. Technologies such a mobile phones, video chat, and instant messages democratize our experience. We can share anything with anyone at any time. We won’t miss a thing.
But, of course, we do miss things. In fact, the very act of inserting technologies into our experiences makes us miss some of the experience. We’re fussing with our cameras rather than experiencing the action. We’re checking baseball scores rather than engaging with others. The desire to miss nothing causes us to miss something: the intensity of the present moment.
FOMO shifts our attention from the experiencing self to the remembering self. We take pictures, which helps us remember and share an experience. But the act of taking pictures insulates us from the experience itself. We’ve inserted technology between our experiences and ourselves.
As you can probably guess, I’m not the first person to suggest that FOMO mania actually causes us to miss much more than we realize. The tech and culture blogger, Anil Dash, coined the term JOMO — the Joy Of Missing Out – more than two years ago. Christina Crook wrote a book called The Joy of Missing Out and popularized the idea of Internet fasts. Sarah Wilson points out that FOMO has eradicated traditional boundaries that separated public time from private time. It used to be easy to spend a quiet evening at home. Now we need to declare an Internet fast to get some alone time.
Though it’s not a new idea, I suspect that the JOMO message needs some more evangelists. As a famous American once said: Be Here Now.
*I adopted the restaurant example from an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast called Hungry, Hungry Hippocampus.
The 1989 Tour de France was decided in the last stage, a 15.2 mile time trial into Paris. The leader, Laurent Fignon, held a fifty second advantage over Greg LeMond. Both riders were strong time trialers. To make up fifty seconds in such a short race seemed impossible. Most observers assumed that Fignon would hold his lead and win the overall title.
In most time trials, coaches radio the riders to inform them of their speed, splits, and competitive position. In this final time trial, however, LeMond turned off his radio. He didn’t want to know. He feared that, if he knew too much, he might ease up. Instead, he raced flat out for the entire distance, averaging 33.9 miles per hour, a record at the time. In a stunning finish, LeMond gained 58 seconds on Fignon and won the race by a scant eight seconds. (Here’s a terrific video recap of the final stage).
LeMond’s strategy is today known as information avoidance. He chose not to accept information that he knew was freely available to him. LeMond knew that he might be distracted by the information. He chose instead to focus solely on his own performance – the only variable that he could control.
While information avoidance worked for LeMond, the strategy often yields suboptimal outcomes. We choose not to know something and the not knowing creates health hazards, financial obstacles, and a series of unfortunate events. Here are some examples.
In some ways, information avoidance is the flip side of the confirmation bias. We accept information that confirms our beliefs and avoid information that doesn’t. But there seems to be more to avoidance than simply the desire to avoid disconfirming information. Other contributors include:
Information avoidance can also teach us about persuasion. If we want to persuade people to change their opinion about something, making it scarier is probably self-defeating. People will be more likely to avoid the information rather than seeking it out. Similarly, bombarding people with more and more information is likely to be counter-productive. People under bombardment become defensive rather than open-minded.
As Aristotle noted, persuasion consists of three facets: 1) ethos (credibility); 2) pathos (emotional connection); 3) logos (logic and information). Today, we often seek to persuade with logos – information and logic. But Aristotle taught that logos is the least persuasive facet. We typically use logos to justify a decision rather than to make a decision. Ethos and pathos are much more influential in making the decision. The recent research on information avoidance suggests that we’ll persuade more people with ethos and pathos than we ever will with logos. Aristotle was right.
Greg LeMond’s example shows that information avoidance can provide important benefits. But, as we develop our communication strategies, let’s keep the downsides in mind. We need to package our arguments in ways that will reduce information avoidance and lead to a healthier exchange of ideas.
My friend, Andy, once taught in the Semester at Sea program. The program has an ocean-going ship and brings undergraduates together for a semester of sea travel, classes, and port calls. Andy told me that he was fascinated watching these youngsters come together and form in-groups and out-groups. The cliques were fairly stable while the ship was at sea but more fluid when it was in port.
Andy told me, for instance, that some of the women described some of the men as “Ship cute, shore ugly.” The very concept of “cute” was flexible and depended entirely on context. When at sea, a limited supply of men caused the “cute” definition to expand. In port, with more men available, the definition of cute became more stringent.
We usually think of concepts as more-or-less fixed. They’re unlike other processes that expand over time. The military, for instance is familiar with “mission creep” – a mission may start with small and well-defined objectives but they often grow over time. Similarly, software developers understand “feature creep” – new features are added as the software is developed. But do concepts creep? The Semester at Sea example suggests that they do, depending on prevalence.
This was also the finding of a research paper published in a recent issue of Science magazine. (Click here). Led by David Levari, the researchers showed that “… people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it.” In the Semester at Sea example, as the stimulus (men) decreases, the concept of cute expands. According to Levari, et. al., this is a common phenomenon and not just related to hormonal youngsters isolated on a ship.
The researchers started with a very neutral stimulus – the color of dots. They presented 1,000 dots ranging in color from purple to blue and asked participants to identify the blue ones. They repeated the trial several hundred times. Participants were remarkably consistent in each trial. Dots identified as blue in the first trials were still identified as blue in the last trials.
The researchers then repeated the trials while reducing the number of blue dots. Would participants in the second set of trials – with decreased stimulus — expand their definition of “blue” and identify dots as blue that they had originally identified as purple? Indeed, they would. In fact, the number of purple-to-blue “crossover” dots was remarkably consistent through numerous trials.
The researchers also varied the instructions for the comparisons. In the first study, participants were told that the number of blue dots “might change” in the second pass. In a second study, participants were told that the number of blue dots would “definitely decrease.” In a third study, participants were instructed to “be consistent” and were offered monetary rewards for doing so. In some studies the number of blue dots declined gradually. In others, the blue dots decreased abruptly. These procedural changes had virtually no impact on the results. In all cases, declining numbers of blue dots resulted in an expanded definition of “blue”.
Does concept creep extend beyond dots? The researchers did similar trials with 800 images of human faces that had been rated on a continuum from “very threatening” to “not very threatening.” The results were essentially the same as the dot studies. When the researchers reduced the number of threatening faces, participants expanded their definition of “threatening.”
All these tests used visual stimuli. Does concept creep also apply to nonvisual stimuli? To test this, the researchers asked participants to evaluate whether 240 research proposals were ethical or not. The results were essentially the same. When the participants saw many unethical proposals, their definition of ethics was fairly stringent. When they saw fewer unethical proposals, their definition expanded.
It seems then that “prevalence-induced concept change” – as the researchers label it – is probably common in human behavior. Could this help explain some of the pessimism in today’s world? For example, numerous sources verify that the crime rate in the United States has declined over the past two decade. (See here, here, and here, for example). Yet many people believe that the crime rate has soared. Could concept creep be part of the problem? It certainly seems likely.
Yet again, our perception of reality differs from actual reality. Like other cognitive biases, concept creep distorts our perception in predictable ways. As the number of stimuli – from cute to blue to ethical – goes down, we expand our definition of what the concept actually means. As “bad news” decreases, we expand our definition of what is “bad”. No wonder we’re pessimistic.