Our brains, and the brains of other animals, have evolved to find information rewarding. In fact, we strive to decrease uncertainty whenever possible because not knowing is stressful. However, while we find information rewarding, we find a certain kind of information particularly rewarding. According to research conducted by Bojana Kuzmanovic from The Max Planck Institute in Germany, when we discover information that supports our assumptions, the reward centres of our brain illuminate with delight.
This means we must work extra hard to think critically. According to Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, we are cognitive misers -that is, we are forever trying to conserve our cognitive energy. The average human brain makes up only 2% of our body weight but accounts for 20-30% of our energy and oxygen. Despite its relatively small size, the brain has a large energy budget. To optimise energy consumption, our bodies seek to conserve energy. According to our wonderful guest on the Innovation Show next week (November 23 2021), Elliot Aronson, given our limited capacity to process information, we attempt to adopt strategies that simplify complex problems. We accomplish this by ignoring some information to reduce our cognitive load or we “overuse” other information to keep from having to search for more. We do this by trying to preserve that which is already established—to maintain our preexisting knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes. (This is what a computer does when it stores frequently visited pages in a working memory called a cache.) As a result of this cognitive misery, we are often willing to accept less-than-perfect conclusions because they can be almost good enough. In our rush to move on – which is reflective of a business environment dominated by short-term financial targets – we ignore vital chunks of information.
Critical thinking uses considerably more cognitive energy than a quick fix.
Many busy leaders do not have the luxury to devote time to think critically.
Taking time to consider the various angles of an argument and challenge our assumptions and previously-stored solutions seems like a pipe dream for many leaders.
A quick recap of what we have established so far before I add a further challenge.
- The brain rewards us for (re)discovering information that confirms our solutions.
- We are cognitive misers, so we default to previously stored solution or mental shortcuts (known as heuristics).
- Leaders are time strapped and devoting time to thinking can feel like they are wasting time.
Now, imagine you had one of those rare individuals in your team who has the cognitive energy to go against the grain, to question the status quo, to upset the apple cart and raise the question, “Is this the right thing to do? Is this the right strategy? Are we on the bus to Abilene?” Let’s assume this is a pain in the backside for you, deep inside your palm is slapping your forehead, saying “Damn you Aidan for piping up just when we had a (let’s admit it: far-from-perfect-half-baked-but-signed-off) solution. That is you and you can be sure it is a pain for the other yes men and women in your troops. Gerry over there could care less about this strategy, as long as logistics keeps delivering he just wants to get through this meeting. As for Mary, sales are on fire selling your well-worn products, so nothing to worry about in her world. But then here’s Aidan. Oh, Aidan, you really are “L’enfant terrible”, we have yet to see your crappy half-baked minimal viable products pay off and here you are questioning our five-year plan!!! You’d best keep quiet son!
gainsay: “contradict,” c.1300, literally “say against,” from Old English gegn- “against”
If you are a gainsayer, you simply can’t help yourself, you have to speak up when you feel something just ain’t right, but that does not mean it is easy for you. For the leaders reading this week’s Thursday Thought, please realise this. It is not easy for the gainsayer, in fact, science shows how it is actually painful.
If you are familiar with the Solomon Asch conformity experiment skip ahead to the image of the brain (and relish in the dopamine hit you received for discovering the information you already knew 🙂
In 1951, Polish psychologist and pioneer of social psychology in the United States Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments on conformity. Groups of eight participants took part in a simple task. All but one participant were party to this experiment. The true focus of the study was to track how the chosen subject would react to the behaviour of the other seven. There were several sets of two cards shown to all eight participants, one card had one line on it, while the other card had three lines labelled “A”, “B”, and “C” (as per below). One of the “A”, “B”, “C” lines was the same length as the one on the first card. The other two lines were clearly longer or shorter. The task was to choose which one matched. To ensure we are on the same page, the answer below would be C.
Seven participants were coached on how to behave to the remaining participant or “subject”. The seven would give the correct response for a long period of time and on others a clearly incorrect response. The group of eight was seated so that the subject always responded last. The aim of the experiment was to measure how many subjects would change their answer to conform to the answers of the 7 collaborators, despite it being wrong.A sizeable minority of responses conformed to the seven collaborator’s (incorrect) answers (a total of 36.8 per cent). When the subjects were interviewed after the study and they discovered the real aim of the study, they admitted that they were “just going along” because they did not want to stand out from the crowd.
Gainsaying, Standing Out and Standing Up is Painful
Gregory Berns and associates reenacted the aforementioned experiment by Solomon Asch, but this time with a modern twist. His team monitored participants’ neural activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These scans revealed a major difference between participants who yielded to and those who resisted group pressure. Subjects who resisted conformity showed a great deal of activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with pain and emotional discomfort.
Going against the group is painful. Burns’ work suggests that not only are our brains not wired for truly independent thought, but it takes a huge amount of effort to overcome the fear of standing up for one’s own beliefs and speaking out. Those people who speak up with the intention to course correct the business before a calamity should be welcomed, but they are often ostracised and outcast.
This is not new, as the journalist, businessman, and essayist Walter Bagehot observed in the late 1800s, “One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea. It makes you think that after all, your favourite notions may be wrong, your firmest beliefs ill-founded. Naturally, therefore, common men hate a new idea, and are disposed more or less to ill-treat the original man who brings it.”
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