The Science Essentials
I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.
We’re living in a golden age of behavioral science, where every passing week seems to deliver fresh insights into the way we think, feel, and act. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and economists are busy unraveling the important mysteries of our time, questions like: “How can I conquer my inbox?” “Why do perfectly reasonable people get their wires crossed?” “What would it take for me to stop procrastinating right now (or later today, or tomorrow)?” Scientific research has ever more to say in answer to these sorts of pressing questions.
You might reasonably wonder what’s changed. Why are so many media articles suddenly illustrated with pictures of brains? The three disciplines that form the backbone of this book-psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience-have been around for a century or more, after all. But right now we’re sitting at the intersection of some big trends that are making these three behavioral sciences more applicable to our everyday lives. Let me describe some of that backstory, before I lay out the three big crosscutting science themes that run through the rest of the book.
Psychology: Greater Focus on WellBeing
For much of its history, psychology was mostly concerned with investigating the causes of negative behavior. Researchers did important work to understand pathologies such as paranoia and depression; they explored the dynamics of fear and aggression. Given this, it’s perhaps no surprise that one of psychology’s most wellknown experiments was Stanley Milgram’s controversial exploration of how far people were willing to submit to authority-the one where he tested whether volunteers would be willing to give potentially fatal electrical shocks to strangers when told to do so by someone in a white coat.1 (A disturbing number of them obeyed.) Obviously, this kind of research did a lot to illuminate the complexities of the human mind, and has laid the foundations of modern behavioral science. But the findings didn’t readily translate into uplifting guidance for living a good life.
In recent years, however, the balance has shifted toward exploring the conditions that invite positive behavior. Perhaps the most visible catalyst for the shift came when Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. Seligman’s own research had previously focused on the study of helplessness. But he announced with some fanfare that the theme for his term of office would be “positive psychology,” the serious study of what it takes for us to be the best version of ourselves. And since then, psychologists have directed more energy toward understanding the jollier side of human experience-what helps us thrive, lifts our spirits, and boosts our productivity. These are exactly the sort of things that most of us are hungry to know more about, especially on those days when our workplaces feel like a Milgram experiment.
Economics: More Realism in Theories of Behavior
At the same time, economics has also moved toward a more rounded view of the human condition. At its heart, economics is the study of the way people make choices: how we weigh the costs and benefits of different options, and what we decide to do as a result. The choices might be mundane, like deciding which snack to buy, or they might be consequential, like deciding which multimilliondollar project goes forward. Either way, to predict people’s choices, economists used to build theoretical models that assumed humans always accurately and independently assessed the benefits of each option open to them. But those models weren’t able to explain a lot of reallife behavior: for example, the way we often make snap decisions based on little information; the fact that we sometimes change our minds, based on what others think; the way we occasionally do nice things for other people without any expectation of payback.
This spurred two psychologists-Daniel Kahneman of Princeton and Amos Tversky of Stanford-to cross enemy lines in 1979 and publish an article in Econometrica, an influential economics journal. In the article, they highlighted that people don’t behave like machines when it comes to the choices they make.2 Emotional and social considerations drive many of our choices, often for good reason and in quite predictable ways. And with that, they sparked a revolution. Soon there was a new movement called “behavioral economics” that was devoted to applying the powerful analytical tools of economics to the way that real people make decisions in the real world. The result? Well, Kahneman went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. But more important for us is that economists now have a much more nuanced and accurate understanding of the choices we make from day to day, and what it takes for us to nudge our behavior one way or another.
Neuroscience: More Sophisticated Measurement of Brain Activity
Finally, neuroscience has benefitted from dramatic advances in techniques for observing ordinary brains in action. Neuroscientists have long had access to a range of scanning techniques that helped reveal the structures and activities of the brain. Those scanning technologies often came at a cost of exposing the brain’s owner to a good deal of radiation-so they weren’t ideal for nonmedical research. Since the 1990s, though, steady improvements in less risky imaging technologies (including the discovery of functional MRI scanning) have made it easier for neuroscientists to watch what happens to healthy people’s brains while normal things are happening to them. That means researchers can see which areas of the brain become active when a person is tickled by kindness or energized by accomplishment. They can observe the neural activity associated with someone feeling unhappy or stressed (for reasons beyond the fact that they’re lying in a noisy metal tube or have electrodes strapped to their heads).
As a result, neuroscientists are gaining an increasingly refined understanding of the biological mechanisms behind our everyday thoughts, feelings, and actions. And that means they’re exploring the kind of behavioral topics that also fascinate psychologists and economists-for example, questions about the way we solve challenging problems and handle complex social interactions. In fact, many of the studies I cite in this book result from collaborations across the three behavioral science disciplines; it feels as if we’re living in an era of “neuropsychoeconomics.” (Or something like that.) And this multidisciplinary mash‑up is great news for us. It means we get to benefit from complementary perspectives (biological, observational, and analytical) on topics that matter to us in the workplace-which in turn results in richer guidance on ways for us to stay in top form.
So all in all, it’s an excellent time to be thinking about the way that science can help us flourish.
Three Big Themes
Now, how do we apply all this evolving, exciting science to the everyday details of our working lives? That’s where How to Have a Good Day comes in. This book is dedicated to translating the most valuable research into the context of today’s working world-the tough assignments, the packed schedules, the complex relationships-to show you how to make every day reliably more enjoyable and productive.
Before we dive into the advice on creating the seven building blocks of a good day, I’m going to highlight three important scientific themes that cut across the boundaries of the disciplines and recur throughout the book, to give you a foundation for the evidence and advice you’ll find in each chapter. (If you’d prefer to skip ahead to Part I of the book and get started on the practical applications, that’s fine-there’s a glossary at the end of the book and you can always come back to this section later.) The three themes, in brief, are:
1. The twosystem brain: The brain’s activity is split across two complementary systems-one deliberate and controlled, the other automatic and instinctive. The combination of the two makes us smart and productive. But we can make our cognitive resources go even further if we adjust the way we work to reflect each system’s strengths and weaknesses.
2. The discoverdefend axis: Subconsciously, we’re constantly on the lookout for threats to defend against and rewards to discover. It takes very little to put our brains into defensive mode, and we’re not at our smartest in that mode. However, a dose of selfawareness and the pursuit of certain types of rewards can help us move back into clearerthinking discovery mode.
3. The mindbody loop: The state of our bodies and that of our minds are far more deeply entwined than we generally realize. As a result, certain simple physical interventions can immediately boost our intellectual performance, emotional resilience, and personal confidence.
Theme 1: The TwoSystem Brain
Our brains are impressive, by any measure. They keep our bodily functions humming while offering us immense storage capacity for complex memories and ideas. They’re also capable of remarkable processing and calculating feats, giving us the ability to do things as diverse as mental arithmetic, guessing other people’s motivations, keeping our cool in the face of provocation, and telling corny jokes. If brains were smartphones, they’d be flying off the shelves.
To make all of this possible, our brains run two very different systems in parallel. Each has its own strengths, and it’s the combination of the two that gives us so much intellectual horsepower. Psychologists had observed for many years that our minds seemed to have two quite different modes-one more analytical, the other more instinctive.3 But it was Daniel Kahneman who brought the concept into the public spotlight when he accepted his Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. He centered his acceptance speech on describing the distinction between “effortless intuition” and “deliberate reasoning,” concepts central to his bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow.4 Let’s examine what he meant, and what that means for us in the workplace.
The Deliberate System
First, let’s talk about the system we’re more aware of, the one that controls the things we do consciously and carefully. Most of it sits in the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, and it goes by a lot of different names. In scientific circles, it’s sometimes known as the “controlled,” “explicit,” or “reflective” system. Daniel Kahneman calls it the “slow” system, because it’s indeed the slower of the two systems.5 I’m going to refer to it as the deliberate system.
This deliberate system is broadly responsible for the sort of grown‑up behavior that would surprise us in a toddler (or even a teenager): reasoning, selfcontrol, and forward thinking.
By reasoning, I don’t just mean logical thinking; I mean any effort to work out the best response to a situation that isn’t routine. Whether we’re fixing an errorladen document or figuring out how to help a stressedout colleague, we’re leaning on our deliberate system and asking it to do the following: review some information, connect that information to our past experience, make sense of it all, generate options, and evaluate those options wisely. Logic might be involved in that process, but so might empathy and creativity.
Selfcontrol is also a broader concept than you might think. Most obviously, it’s involved whenever we resist temptation-for example, when we manage to bite our tongue rather than blurt out the foolish thing that we desperately want to say to our coworker with the new haircut. But our deliberate system’s selfcontrol function is also central to something scientists call “emotional regulation”-that is, not losing our cool when we’re upset-and to our ability to concentrate in the face of distractions.
Finally, our hardworking deliberate system is responsible for planning-that is, setting goals and working out how to get there. That requires us to think abstractly: to imagine what the future looks like, to consider the various paths to get there, and to assess the eventual benefits of setting off on any of those paths. We run this sort of complex calculation every day, even when our goal is just to organize ourselves to get to a meeting on time.
In short, the deliberate system is responsible for putting us on our best behavior. When it’s in full control, it makes us wise, selfpossessed, and reliable. But let’s be honest: we’re not always like that. That’s because our deliberate system has several limitations.
Smart-but Small, Sequential, and Slow
First, it has limited capacity, because it relies heavily on something called working memory. Part notepad for incoming new data, part librarian for accessing stored experience, our working memory is the space where we hold information in our conscious mind as we figure out what to do with it. And our notepad only has so much space on it. For years it was thought we could hold about seven pieces of information in our minds at once, but more recent research suggests it’s three or four at most.6
Those three or four chunks of information can be big or small. For example, suppose you have an elaborate new idea for a project. Your working memory is full of your thoughts on this new idea. But then the name of a colleague comes to mind-someone you’re supposed to call. Then, a message pops up on the screen in front of you. Maybe there’s a blinking light on your phone. And all these things demand space in your working memory. Suddenly your deliberate system can’t think as clearly about your new project idea, because some of your ideas have been moved off the notepad to make space for the name, the message, and the light. (What was that idea again?) So the size of our working memory places a limit on the deliberate system’s ability to excel at all the reasoning, selfcontrol, and planning activities I described above.
1. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.
2. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 263-291.
3. Keith Stanovich and Richard West, in particular, wrote an influential paper defining the two systems as System 1 and System 2, terminology that Daniel Kahneman also uses. Stanovich, K.E., & West, R.F. (2000). Individual difference in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 645-726.
4. A version of Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on December 8, 2002, was published as: Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on judgment and choice: Mapping bounded rationality. American Psychologist, 58(9), 697–720.
5. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
6. When a string of data--for example, a group of digits--is sufficiently closely connected in our memories that recalling one part of it draws forth the rest, it can count as one “chunk.” So the reason that we might remember a seven-digit phone number is because we’ve turned it into two chunks of three and four digits, respectively—or even, with repetition, one single chunk. See: Cowan, N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in Brain Research 169, 323–338. See also: Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 87–185.
Copyright © 2016 by Caroline Webb. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.