I have written repeatedly that people do not often behave rationally, and Tali Sharot’s book, An Influential Mind,helps show that much of this irrationality is hardwired into our brains. Sharot writes how our brains are “hard-wired”, which makes it challenging to break bad habits. Instead, by understanding how we our brain works, we can adjust both our own bad habits and help others.
We are all hedonists
Not much of a surprise but people are wired to strive for pleasure. The corollary, and more important takeaway, is that this principle cannot be unlearned. It is a waste of time and resources to try to get people (or yourself) not to pursue pleasure. Instead, it is best to channel this pursuit in yourself and in others.
When motivating your employees or potential customers, it is much stronger if you do it by offering them “pleasure.” When offered a reward, the brain kicks into gear, and people experience quick and alert responses. If the potential result is something bad, the brain turns sluggish, and their responses suffer. Thus, the carrot is better than the stick in driving optimal behavior.
Control is important
Having control of one’s life is a very instinctual desire, it provides happiness. People are happier when they are in control. Sharot points out the same situation exists in the office. If you want happier employees, make sure they have input in making decisions that touch their daily work.
Studies have shown people are happier, and even live longer, if they have to participate and work for something rather than be served. Elderly people did better at a care home where they had to prepare their own meals. In the work environment, it is often superior to have the team that needs to create a product or develop software involved in crafting the product specifications, rather than just handing them the final spec and asking them to build it.
Humans are not flexible
One negative way of thinking that Sharot attacks is how once someone has made up their mind, they tend to ignore contrary information and forge ahead regardless. I have experience (all too frequently) how a colleague is sure they have the right strategy or process, does not listen to others, and then fails. This happens even when everyone else sees the negative outcome. It may have been launching a new product that will have no demand or analysing data incorrectly and making decisions based on that analysis, then when the product is launched or project is done, it turns out to be an abject failure. Upon retrospection, the question is asked how did this mistake happen.
Research has found this inflexible decision-making is programmed into the brain. In an experiment, brain activity of participants was measured during the decision-making process and brain activity dropped significantly upon receiving bad information (that is, information that was contradictory to their original decision). This shows that when people commit to a decision, there is a natural defense mechanism that helps them avoid learning it is a bad decision.
To combat this defense mechanism, Sharot shows it is better to focus on presenting new factual information rather than arguing against the preconception. If you are trying to convince somebody their mobile game project will fail, do not attack the concept or the demo but present new information. Talk about new games on the market or new options. Do not try to discredit the belief, as people become resistant and defensive, often getting stronger in original idea. Instead, provide different, positive information.
Moods are contagious
The moods of others around you helps determine your mood. Based on MRI scans during political speeches, researchers learned that listeners often feel connected to the rest of the audience. This learning shows why people at a rally often react the same at particular points of a speech. Other research showed that negative posts on FB lead to more negative posts, while the inverse is also true. Good and bad moods are contagious, people’s brains synchronize. Their brains are connected, so moods are contagious.
There are several implications of contagious moods:
- In a workplace, it is critical to maintain the mood and morale of your team. If several people on the team (or company) turn negative, it is likely to infect the entire organization.
- Negative social media sentiment about a product could not only turn a few people against it but create a negative overall perception.
- On a personal level, one or two family members can put the entire family in a good or bad mood, especially if they bring experiences from work or school home with them.
Entertainment trumps information
Related to the pursuit of pleasure, people pay more attention to entertainment than they do important information. Politics provide a great validation of this concept, Trump has tens of million Twitter followers because his tweets are entertaining. More people view a video of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing on a roof than discussing healthcare.
Another great example is the safety warnings on airplanes. It is probably more important to know what to do if there is an emergency landing than if you can reach the next level on Clash, but which one do most people focus on?
The lesson when building a product or game is that most tutorials will fail, instead people need to learn while being entertained. It also impacts how you communicate, an email or pop up listing benefits or features is not as effective as a fun GIF.
There is also a workplace impact of preferring entertainment to information. Sharot discusses that it might be easier to resolve a workplace conflict with a fun, novel solution rather than a lecture on the right way to do things.
Understanding the brain helps motivate yourself and others
The better you understand how the brain is structured and people’s motivation, the better you can interact with your family, colleagues and customers. Some of the most robust methods encompass remembering that everyone is motivated by pleasure seeking and reward and that people like to feel in control.
- Our brains are “hard-wired”, which makes it challenging to break bad habits. By understanding how we our brain works, we can adjust both our own habits while helping others be more productive.
- People’s brains are designed to seek pleasure. Related to the pursuit of pleasure, people pay more attention to entertainment than they do important information.
- Having control of one’s life is a very instinctual desire, it provides happiness.