The Universe Conspiracy – Pronoia

And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

I have been developing a unifying theory about success (I know that sound a bold claim) partly influenced by Philip K.Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? First published in 1968, the book served as the primary basis for my favourite film Blade Runner. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic near future, where Earth and its populations have been damaged greatly by nuclear war during World War Terminus. Most types of animals are endangered or extinct due to extreme radiation poisoning from the war. To own an animal is a sign of status, but what is emphasised more is the empathic emotions humans experience towards an animal. But there is a problem with my theory; it is developing too easily. Someone told me that it was ‘cool’ because the Universe was conspiring in my favour. I am suffering from pronoia apparently.

Joseph Heller’s line in Catch 22. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” – might have to be turned on its head for Hollywood star Susan Sarandon. “Just because you’re pronoiad, doesn’t mean they aren’t for you,” the actress might say. Susan Sarandon talked about her belief in ‘pronoia’ as she was revealing what a joyous experience it had been to make Cloud Atlas, the film adapted from the award-winning novel. Some might say this is nonsense because it is a Hollywood actress telling us this ‘fact’.

Pronoia is defined as the opposite state of mind as paranoia: having the sense that there is a conspiracy that exists to help the person. It is also used to describe a philosophy that the world is set up to secretly benefit people. Almost a Zippie mantra promoted by Saradon. A Zippie is a person who does something for nothing. Any supporter of free culture, free food, free books, free software is a Zippie – and the Universe conspiring a central belief.

But does it make the proposition wrong? As students of logic should know, not every appeal to authority is a fallacious appeal to authority.  A fallacy is committed only when the purported authority appealed to either does not in fact possess expertise on the subject at hand, or can reasonably be supposed to be less than objective.

Hence if you believed that PCs are better than Macs entirely on the say-so of either your technophobic orthodontist or the local PC dealer who has some overstock to get rid of, you would be committing a fallacy of appeal to authority — in the first case because your orthodontist, smart guy though he is, presumably hasn’t much knowledge of computers, in the second case because while the salesman might have such knowledge, there is reasonable doubt about whether he is giving you an unbiased opinion.

But if you believed that PCs are better than Macs because your computer science professor told you so, there would be no fallacy, because he presumably both has expertise on the matter and lacks any special reason to push PCs on you.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he’d be correct, of course; an argument can be mistaken even if it is non-fallacious. Similarly, not every ad hominem attack — an attack against the man or women — involves a fallacious ad hominem.  Attacking the person can be entirely legitimate and sometimes even called for, even in an argumentative context, when it is precisely the man / women whom is the problem.

Attacking a person involves a fallacy when what is at issue is whether some claim the person is making is true or some argument he is giving is cogent, and where the attacker either

  • essentially ignores the question of whether the claim is true or the argument cogent, and instead just attacks the person giving it or
  •  suggests either explicitly or implicitly that the claim can be rejected false or the argument rejected as not cogent on the basis of some irrelevant purported fault of the person giving it.

So the question arises – does pronoia exist, ignoring who told us it might?. I have been exploring the idea that it if you do the right thing often enough, good things happen. The sneaking suspicion others are conspiring to help you and you them. Pronoia is also a prevalent theme in the 1988 novel The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. In it, the protagonist, a young boy is told by an older man to pursue his dreams.

He tells the boy, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” The book also deals with omens, signs that the universe wants the boy to follow a specific path, which will lead to his goal of fulfilling a dream.

The writer and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow defined pronoia as the suspicion the Universe is a conspiracy on your behalf.The academic journal “Social Problems” published an article entitled “Pronoia” by Fred H. Goldner in 1982 (vol 30, pp.82-91). It received a good deal of publicity at the time including references to it in Psychology TodayWired Magazine published an article in issue 2.05 (May 1994) titled “Zippie!”. The cover of the magazine featured a psychedelic image of a smiling young man with wild hair, a funny hat, and crazy eyeglasses. 

The simplest definition of pronoia may be to say that it is the opposite of paranoia. A person suffering from paranoia suspects that persons or entities (e.g. governments / deities) conspire against them. A person enjoying pronoia feels that the world around them conspires to do them good.

The principal proponent of pronoia in the 21st century has been the astrologer, writer, poet, singer, and songwriter Rob Brezsny. Brezsny’s book Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings, published in 2005, explores the philosophy of pronoia.

 

Can we reject it on the basis of the non expert status of the writer? Well maybe we can relax and suspend our disbelief and imagine that if we do good things –  good things may happen to us in return. Maybe it does not matter in the long run. No act of kindness (no matter how small) is ever wasted.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Innovate and Cry

I made someone cry at work the other day. I did not mean to, in fact I was trying to encourage them. I am sorry, I was wrong.

I have seen something more dramatic happen in the last few months. The truism innovate or die is being challenged. Lasting success is more rare than ever, as the innovation rate rises and competition gets tougher. So, how do you keep up with the increasing complexity and innovation in the market? The most natural way, of course, is to unleash the innovative potential of the organisation. Which can be very painful. To do so, a creative climate is a necessity, but far from enough. Innovation excellence requires shared language, processes and platforms too.

Explore, play and create novelty.Innovation as an expression of human creativity and lateral thinking, is not the result of economic development, but rather the source of sustainable economic and social progress. I am privileged to be working at the cutting edge of empirical service innovation and it is very exciting. In restaurants and hotels I work closely with, I see that they are constantly attempting to find innovative ways to serve customers more effectively and efficiently. My experience of seeing innovating in a service business, is that it seems to work best if the innovations are:

  • aligned with you why or purpose,
  • meet (and predict) a future consumer need and
  • can be delivered by empowered staff.

Now more than ever, innovation is seen as key to growth, to acquiring and sustaining competitive advantage, and to building shareholder value for the long term. But is innovation deflecting us away fro giving excellent service? Of course service systems are the dynamic configurations of people, technologies, organisations and shared information that create and deliver value to customers, providers and other stakeholders.

I see the innovation process fast becoming more open and more global. Setting up shop in local markets around the world and getting customers more involved in innovation efforts are now a vital part of any successful innovation effort.The rising significance of service and the accelerated rate of change mean that service innovation is now a major challenge to all business sectors. Innovation is forward looking. Solving yesterday’s problems is important, but not innovative. Copying what others do well is often a good approach, but not innovative.

Hotels, restaurants and the service industry form a growing proportion of the world economy and are becoming central to the way businesses, governments, families and individuals work. Innovation, a term applied almost exclusively to technologies in the past, is increasingly used in relation to service systems. Ideas of service are, of course, not new. However, the scale, complexity and interdependence of today’s service systems have been driven to an unprecedented level, due to globalisation, demographic changes and technology developments. Over the course of modern history, innovation has proved fundamental for formal organisations. In the past decades, as market competition intensified and the business environment grew in complexity and uncertainty, innovation became essential not only to an organisation’s performance, as several studies have demonstrated, but to its very existence and survival.

Innovation can be seen as a new or improved ways of designing and delivering services. This may include innovation in service delivery systems, though often this will be regarded instead as a service product innovation. Innovation of this sort may be technological, technique or expertise-based. While radical innovation can be viewed as market driving idea which comes from the leader’s vision of market opportunity, the incremental innovation from the service team is equally powerful. Just don’t make them cry.

It is surely true that every company, in every industry, needs an innovation strategy. This can be a high-tech product innovation, packaging innovation in consumer goods, or process innovation at financial services companies. But this requires a zoom out then zoom in approach. This results in a new challenge to service innovation, the real-time nature of introducing new services. The service cannot be tested in a laboratory. At minimum it must be pilot tested with real guests in a real hotel. Real clients in the restaurant. Even though innovations are desirable, the customers and organisation may resist them. And that can be dangerous ground and can produce some negative feedback on social media.

My passion for excellence requires that innovation is most successful in service operations that seek the support of employees for innovations and, beyond that, encourage employees to participate in a culture of innovation. Many individual strands of knowledge and expertise relating to service systems already exist, but they often lie in unconnected silos. Perhaps my favourite expression,

Learn, Love, Laugh, Cry and Innovate.

I will try not to make anyone else cry tomorrow.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Unknown Pleasures

The title of one of my favourite (and iconic) albums is Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. The title probably comes from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I have (honestly) tried to read it, but it is a long novel in seven volumes known both for its length and its theme of involuntary memory, the most famous example being the episode of the madeleine. The narrator begins by noting, For a long time, I went to bed early. He comments on the way sleep seems to alter one’s surroundings, and the way habit makes one indifferent to them. As a neuroscience trainer, I love the idea of getting less sleep.

Listen to the silence, let it ring on. Eyes, dark grey lenses frightened of the sun. We would have a fine time living in the night, Left to blind destruction, Waiting for our sight. – Transmission (Joy Division)

Pleasure is usually describes as the broad class of mental states that humans and other animals experience as positive, enjoyable, or worth seeking. It includes more specific mental states such as happiness, entertainment, enjoyment, ecstasy, and euphoria. In psychology, the pleasure principle describes pleasure as a positive feedback mechanism, motivating the organism to recreate in the future the situation which it has just found pleasurable. According to this theory, organisms are similarly motivated to avoid situations that have caused pain in the past. And then punk came along and I was inspired to know more.

Joy Division were formed in Salford, Greater Manchester in 1976 during the first wave of punk rock. Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook had separately attended the legendary Sex Pistols show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976, and both embraced that group’s simplicity, speed and aggression. In fact according to legend every one of the 200 people there formed a band. Ian Curtis, who Sumner and Hook already knew, applied and, without having to audition, was taken on.

In 1979 I bought this amazing album I went that year so see them play live at West Runton Pavilion (North Norfolk) and met with Ian Curtis . I loved him and what Jon Savage described their music as, a definitive Northern Gothic statement: guilt-ridden, romantic, claustrophobic. His life is brought to many people’s attention in the stunning film Control.Curtis, who suffered from epilepsy and depression, committed suicide on 18 May 1980, on the eve of Joy Division’s first North American tour, resulting in the band’s dissolution and the subsequent formation of New Order.

The cover of the Unknown Pleasures album stimulated my love of Astronomy, Pulsars and the Universe (I still have the T shirt).The cover of their 1979 debut album is probably more well known than the album or band themselves. Famed cover art designer Peter Saville is credited with designing the cover, but as the myth goes it shows a series of radio frequency periods from the first pulsar discovered.I was studying brain science at the time and using complex mathematics like Fourier analysis to decode the data of action potential in nerve transmission. I thought the image on the cover (and it is largely cited correctly) as depicting the first pulsar discovered (CP 1919). In fact it’s not the first isolated plot of that pulsar, which was made in 1967. That honour goes to Jocelyn Bell Burnell from the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge, whom I was very lucky to meet when my father introduced (as head of medical research) in Cambridge.

Radio pulsars are neutron stars, huge, spinning ‘nuclei’ that contain some 1057 protons and neutrons. The large clump of nuclear matter, which has a mass about equal to that of the sun, is compressed into a sphere with a radius on the order of 10 kilometers. Consequently, the density of the star is enormous, slightly greater than the density of ordinary nuclear matter, which is itself some 10 trillion times denser than a lead brick. Currents of protons and electrons moving within the star generate a magnetic field. As the star rotates, a radio beacon, ignited by the combined effect of the magnetic field and the rotation, emanates from it and sweeps periodically through the surrounding space, rather like a lighthouse beam. Once per revolution the beacon cuts past the earth, giving rise to the beeping detected by radio telescopes.

Peter Saville, who had previously designed posters for Manchester’s Factory club in 1978, designed the cover of the album. Saville reversed the image from black-on-white to white-on-black and printed it on textured card for the original version of the album. The image itself according to Scientific American writer Jen Christiansen was by Harold D. Craft, Jr., was a graduate student at Cornell University in the early 70s, working with cosmic data a the massive Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. You can read Christiansen’s account of her investigation, and listen to her interviews with Craft at Scientific American. He and his colleagues were experimenting with some of the first digital measurements of radio waves from pulsars (collapsed stars that flash like lighthouses), using radar equipment at the observatory. By chance, Craft ended up writing the computer program that would produce this iconic image.

Unknown Pleasures’ cover was computer generated.

Craft said he had no idea that his image was being widely used on the cover of a famous record. “I went to the record store and, son of a gun, there it was. So I bought an album, and then there was a poster that [they] had of it, so I bought one of those too, just for no particular reason, except that it’s my image, and I ought to have a copy of it.”

Unknown Pleasures was recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, England between 1 and 17 April 1979, with Martin Hannett producing. Describing Hannett’s production techniques, Hook said,that Hannett was only as good as the material he had to work with, “We gave him great songs, and like a top chef, he added some salt and pepper and some herbs and served up the dish. But he needed our ingredients.”

The experience of pleasure is subjective and different individuals will experience different kinds and amounts of pleasure in the same situation. Many pleasurable experiences are associated with satisfying basic biological drives, such as eating, exercise, hygiene or sex. For real pleasure, try listening again to Unknown Pleasures again, now.

Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Be Amazing by Thin Slicing

This is truly amazing: the latest neuroscience research reveal that our decisions are made 7 seconds before we become aware of them. We already know that within 7 seconds of meeting people decide all sorts of things about them, from status to intelligence to promiscuity. But this new research questions the very notion of free will.

When you meet a new business acquaintance for the first time you do some quick brain references and heuristics (short cuts). It could be when you first meet your new boss, a recent addition to your team, or a potential client you want to sign up. There are lots non verbal clues that your brain scans for to make these decisions. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you say. The moment that someone sees you, his or her brain is asking as a hard wired survival mechanism:

  • Are you different?
  • Are you someone to approach or to avoid?
  • Are you friend or foe?
  • Do you have status and authority?
  • Are you trustworthy, competent, likeable, confident?

Indeed people decide on your trustworthiness is judged in a tenth of a second, or less based on your facial appearance. The Princeton researchers found this out by giving one group of university students 100 milliseconds to rate the attractiveness, competence, like-ability, aggressiveness, and trustworthiness of actors’ faces. Members of another group were able to take as long as they wanted. While other traits differed depending on time spent looking, trustworthiness was basically the same.

Psychologists call it thin slicing, the ability to find patterns in events based only on narrow windows, of experience.The term seems to have been coined in 1992 by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal in a paper in the Psychological Bulletin. One of the most popular books on thin-slicing is Blink written by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book, the author goes through and describes interesting examples and research which exploit the idea of thin-slicing. John Gottman, a well-known marital expert, describes how within an hour of observing a couple, he can gather with 95% accuracy if the couple will be together within 15 years. His accuracy goes down to 90% if he observes the couples for 15 minutes, supporting the phenomenon of thin-slicing.

Even more intriguingly, neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain found that decisions are made before you know. In the experiment participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their right or left hand. Using fMRI, researchers would scan the brains of the participants while all of this was going on in order to find out if they could in fact predict which hand the participants would use before they were consciously aware of the decision. By monitoring the micro patterns of activity in the front polar cortex, the researchers could predict which hand the participant would choose 7 seconds before the participant was aware of the decision.What might this mean, then, for the nebulous concept of free will? “We think our decisions are conscious, but these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg,” says John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, who led the study.

What does this mean for you? Well, be aware that people pick up your attitude instantly (less than a second). Before you turn to greet someone, or enter the boardroom, or step onstage to make a presentation, think about the situation and make a conscious choice about the attitude you want to embody. I encourage people to use their eyes first. Looking at someone’s eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and openness. While you do this slowly raise your eyebrows. Open your eyes slightly more than normal to simulate the eyebrow flash that is the universal signal of recognition and acknowledgement.

There a universal truth about the power of the smile. A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome. Condition yourself to stand tall and move slowly. Status and power are nonverbally conveyed by height and space. Standing tall, pulling your shoulders back, and holding your head straight are all signals of confidence and competence. Leaning forward shows you’re engaged and interested. But be respectful of the other person’s space. That means, in most business situations, staying about two feet away.

Some people believe that thin slicing causes the phenomenon known as déjà vu as they happen within the same time frame of thin-slicing and might also have a direct correlation. So even if you think you have heard this all before, every encounter, from conferences to meetings to training sessions to business lunches, presents an opportunity to meet people, network, and expand your professional contacts by making a positive first impression.

You’ve got just seven seconds, but if you handle it well, seven seconds are all you need. But, I do find it a bit disconcerting that decisions are made by unconscious me 7 seconds before conscious me. Better still read my card below:

Be Amazing Every Day.

Brain Impulse Buying

If you’re reading this thinking that you aren’t susceptible to impulse buying, think again. In truth, we aren’t always rational thinkers when we buy things (online or in store). The fact of the matter is that your unconscious mind is often driving your behaviour as a consumer. It is under the influence of our basic evolutionary drives and the clever tactics of retailers. It is so easy to feel compelled to buy something that you may regret or justify later with some retro-fitted reasoning.

So what’s going on inside your head and what can you do to make fewer purchases that will turn out to be wasteful? Impulse buying can be defined as, a stimulus-controlled, spontaneous buying behaviour that is accompanied by strong positive emotions and low cognitive control. Bit of a mouthful, so to quote Lindsay Lohan, My mum says, ‘Go with your first instinct,’ but this can lead to impulse buying!

Research shows that a huge amount of our decision making is actually based on subtle subconscious factors. These tend to be accentuated when we are not focussing or distracted (sometimes deliberately). Indeed it appears that a wandering mind can not only lead to accidents and lost productivity but to powerful impulse buying. Yet the brain is the most complex organ in the Universe. It produces our every thought, action, memory, feeling and experience of the world. New research is indicating that focus is a crucial mindful choice and ideas of control (in retail) may be an illusion. Indeed real-time brain monitoring can be used to help people regain focus and might lead consumers to be more selective buyers as a result.

In the animal kingdom, humans are known for our big brains. This jelly-like mass of tissue, weighing in at around 1.4 kilograms, contains a staggering one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons. The pattern and strength of the neural connections is constantly changing and no two brains are alike. Yet it’s structure determines how memories are stored, habits learned and personalities shaped, by reinforcing certain patterns of brain activity, and losing others. Researchers have uncovered genetic variations that help determine the size of key brain regions. These variants may represent the genetic essence of humanity and choice. Maybe.

This supposed free choice is deeply influence by some simple external factors. Most shopping is far too dull and time consuming to carry out with conscious attention. Imagine if every item you bought was cross-referenced with every other product available in the market; you would need to look at price, product composition, reviews and maybe even the quality of customer service supporting it. Even if you could find all the information in comparable formats it would take hours to buy one item. So instead we use heuristics [unconsciously held rules and short cuts] that help us make quick decisions that we’ve learned generally work out well.

However, these shortcuts when combined with loss of concentration and focus may lead to the idea of how we make poor decisions to buy. Neuroscientists at Princeton University monitored the brain activity of students who were asked to perform a repetitive task that required close attention. The findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, show that people can learn to stop their minds from wandering if they are made aware it is happening. This means if we (as consumers) can use real time brain activity as a basis of feedback (the app must be round the corner) we might be able to train our brains to be more sensitive to when their attention is starting to wane and gain real focus.

Another article in ‘Science Daily’ looks at the research on how what’s going on inside our head affects our senses. Children from more challenging economic communities think coins are larger than they are, and hungry people think pictures of food are brighter. (Science Daily, 3 March 2012). They found that when words were flashed very fast on a screen (too fast to read, but slow enough to imprint on the brain), hungry people saw the food related words as brighter and were better at identifying the food-related words when shown on a list after they were flashed. This research indicates is that our perceptions increase toward items that our body wants or needs. Our illusion of control and that idea we have a choice in buying is being further challenged.These exciting pieces of research indicate that we can all become neurosales savvy (whether to sell or to buy sensibly). The secret is by asking 2 questions:

  • How do we get more focus?
  • What we are really lacking, or hungry for, in our day to day lives?

It all start by telling a good story. By turning percentages and figures into a good tale capture and keeps your customers’ attention. Statistics are great but you need people to pay attention to your numbers to help drive sales. Our brains are wired to process stories in a more engaged way. Brain scan work shows that when people read a story with a lot of action elements, their brains actually mimic the motions.

Another area some retailers have learned to focus on is that we’re very susceptible to the loss aversion switch. Loss aversion, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, describes our innate concern to avoid feeling bad in the future. Normally this would affect our purchase decisions by causing us to prevaricate over a purchase: “Might I feel bad if I buy this and don’t have the money for something else?” But add in a discount that we’re told or we assume won’t last forever and our unconscious focus switches to the fear we’ll miss out on the deal. Retailers take advantage of this by packaging up products as bulk buys, or they include ‘free’ extras. We get the impression that it must be good value, and we go with this feeling rather than researching any further.

Our heuristic susceptibility to value and apparent discounts isn’t just down to the loss aversion switch; many of us have an innate desire to save. Retailers and manufacturers play on this by telling us how much money we could save by buying and using their product. Perhaps thousands of years ago, knowing that it was important to store up food and wood for the winter would be the difference between life and death. These days most of us no longer need to worry about our day-to-day survival, but the evolutionary drive remains. In short, we find it hard to resist the idea that we’ll be saving money or time.

Though we have already discovered an enormous amount about the brain, huge and crucial mysteries remain. One of the most important is how does the brain produces our conscious experiences? The vast majority of the brain’s activity is subconscious. But our conscious thoughts, sensations and perceptions, what define us as humans, cannot yet be explained in terms of brain activities.

Objectivity is an elusive virtue in buying.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Samsung, Big Data & Dumb Heuristics

Gerd Gigerenzer is a strong advocate of the idea that simple heuristics can make us smart. Yet heuristic might be the root cause of our deep fear of big data, big brother and our data being misused. Imagine you’re a turkey at Christmas. Every day you are approached by a man with a bucket of corn who feeds you. What kind of mental model of what happens when he appears, do you think you will build up? Gigerenzer is the Director of the Max Plank Institute for Human Development and might use this story to demonstrate how high tech firms approach big data to predict the future from past decisions. These organisation make predictions based on the past that are only ever correct by chance and we believe them in order to absolve ourselves of responsibility for when things go wrong. According to many it’s a waste of time, money and talent. Because systems will always go wrong. Because, of course, Christmas always comes.

In psychology, heuristics are simple, efficient rules which people often use to form judgments and make decisions. They are mental shortcuts that usually involve focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others. This occurs when you talk with groups about Big Data. People’s gut reactions (heuristics) to things tell them that information about themselves or their loved ones, collected and disseminated, is bound to be used for evil rather than good. But how valid are their concerns about big data and this digital collection of our thoughts? Collecting information on us might fuel the fear of big data. Or as in this brilliant tweet, suggesting Samsung SmartTV instruction manual is taken from George Orwell’s 1984.

The Samsung revelation on Monday 19th February 2015 in the Daily Telegraph,

‘Samsung SmartTV customers warned personal conversations may be recorded. Voice recognition software could transmit ‘personal or sensitive’ information Families are being warned that modern televisions are recording their conversations and could transmit the messages to “third parties”. Many of the latest sets have microphones so viewers can change channel, turn on a DVD or browse the internet by speaking at the screen or remote.But the small print of the privacy policies for these so-called Smart TVs contain warnings that general conversations are also being recorded.Television companies advise users who are concerned to avoid discussing “personal” matters in their livings rooms.The practice, which emerged on internet forums yesterday, led customers on social media to draw comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984. It is unclear whether the information is used for marketing purposes or held on computer that could be hacked by criminals.’

Count on the great Isaac Asimov to have presaged it, much like he did online education, the fate of space exploration and even the rise of Smart TVs. In his legendary Foundation trilogy, Asimov conceives his hero, Hari Seldon, as a masterful mathematician who can predict the future through complex mathematical equations rooted in aggregate measurements about the state of society at any given point in time. Like Seldon, who can’t anticipate what any individual person will do but can foreshadow larger cultural outcomes, big data is the real-life equivalent of Asimov’s idea, which he termed psychohistory, an invaluable tool for big-picture insight into our collective future.
But here comes the irrational fear again. The human brain comprises two distinct parts (if not 3): the old simple brain in the back, which produces impulses and instincts that help us to survive, and the new brain in the front of the head, which we use to control those impulses.The problem is that, sometimes, the two conflict. For example, we might crave fast food even while knowing it’s bad for us. Or we might feel fear when standing on top of the Shard even though we know we’re not going to fall. New research challenged the idea that human beings are rational actors, but provided a theory of information processing to explain how people make estimates or choices.

Heuristics mean we (traditionally) don’t need complex models of the world to make good decisions. These rules work well under most circumstances, but they can lead to systematic deviations from logic, probability or rational choice theory. The resulting errors are called cognitive biases and many different types have been documented. Heuristics usually govern automatic, intuitive judgments but can also be used as deliberate mental strategies when working from limited information.

No matter how much I know about heuristics and concentrate on avoiding the sunk cost fallacy, I still naturally gravitate towards it. The term sunk cost refers to any cost (not just monetary, but also time and effort) that has been paid already and cannot be recovered. So, a payment of time or money that’s gone forever. The reason we can’t ignore the cost, even though it’s already been paid, is that we wired to feel loss far more strongly than gain. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains this in his book, Thinking Fast and SlowOrganisms that placed more urgency on avoiding threats than they did on maximising opportunities were more likely to pass on their genes. So, over time, the prospect of losses has become a more powerful motivator on your behaviour than the promise of gains

The sunk cost fallacy plays on this tendency of ours to emphasise loss over gain. A brilliant 1985 (nearly 1984) research study by Hal Arkes and Catherine Blumer is a great example of how it works. They asked subjects to assume they had spent £1000 on a ticket for a ski trip in the Switzerland, but soon after found a better ski trip in France for £500 and bought a ticket for this trip too. They then asked the people in the study to imagine they learned the two trips overlapped and the tickets couldn’t be refunded or resold. Which one do you think they chose, the £1000 good vacation, or the £500 great one?

  • Over half of the people in the study went with the more expensive trip. It may not have promised to be as fun, but the loss seemed greater.

The sunk cost fallacy leads us to miss or ignore the logical facts presented to us, and instead make irrational decisions based on our emotions (see the news and big data fears) without even realising we’re doing so. The fallacy prevents you from realising the best choice is to do whatever promises the better experience in the future, not which negates the feeling of loss in the past.

Could it be that our fear of Big Data emanates from this short cutting old brain structure? What exactly are we really afraid of? If big data can help us overcome these heuristic brain errors, it holds the promise of righting the balance of quality over quantity in our culture of information overabundance, helping us to extract meaning from (digital) matter. Just as the old brain interprets images in art and film as being real (this is why we feel afraid when watching horror movies) perhaps it conflates our hypothetical big data fears with reality.

Our best bet is to try to separate the current facts we have from anything that happened in the past. In a society that tweets more words every hour than all of the surviving ancient Greek texts combined, we certainly could use that.

Samsung can only hope we can separate the two very quickly.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Big Idea: Trivial Bikeshedding Management

Did you know that today is National Trivia Day* and 50 years ago (last Wednesday 5th February, 1965) trivia was invented? Well sort of true; a Columbia Spectatorarticle appeared on this day and used the term trivia to topics like,

  • Who played the Old Gypsy Woman in The Wolfman?
  • Answer: Maria Ouspenskaya (I did not know this either).

Columbia University students Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, who had proposed the new use of the term in their original article swiftly created the earliest inter-collegiate quiz bowls that tested culturally (and emotionally) significant yet essentially unimportant facts, which they dubbed trivia contests. The expression has also come to suggest information of the kind useful almost exclusively for answering quiz questions, hence the brand name Trivial Pursuit (1982).

The word originates from the Latin neuter noun trivium (plural trivia) is from tri- “triple” and via “way”, meaning a place where three ways meet. The word trivia was also used to describe a place where three roads met in Ancient Rome. Often misquoted with the comedic line that 2 are irrelevant (trivial) as only the one leading back to Rome is important. They did not, as some wag (Frank Skinner) suggested, pin pieces of rubbish information at these cross roads.

More accurately trivia are the three lower Artes Liberales: grammar, logic andrhetoric. These were the topics of basic education, foundational to the quadrivia of higher education, and hence the material of basic education and an important building block for all undergraduates. In management terms I came across Parkinson’s law of triviality on my MBA course years ago. It also known as ‘bikeshedding’ and was first described by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1957. His argument was that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Parkinson observed and illustrated that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time with pointless discussions on relatively trivial and unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the less-trivial proposed design of the nuclear power plant itself, which is far more important but also a far more difficult and complex task to criticise constructively. As he put it:

The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.

A reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those that work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualise a cheap, simple bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add a touch and show personal contribution.

Thus bike shedding involves discussions about relatively unimportant issues which result in extensive debate. Know that feeling at many a management meetings?

It may be the result of individuals who wish to contribute feeling that they do not have the knowledge or expertise to contribute on more significant issues. Bike shedding can result in discussions that, whilst on-topic, nevertheless effectively drown out other discussions on more significant issues.

My top 7 favourite pieces of trivia are currently:

  1. On Good Friday in 1930, the BBC reported, “There is no news.” Instead, they played piano music.
  2. In the 1980s, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel was spending $2,500 a month on rubber bands just to hold all their cash.
  3. M&M’s actually stands for “Mars & Murrie’s,” the last names of the candy’s founders.
  4. In 1907, an ad campaign for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes offered a free box of cereal to any woman who would wink at her grocer.
  5. The Arkansas School for the Deaf’s nickname is the Leopards.
  6. The Vatican Bank is the world’s only bank that allows ATM users to perform transactions in Latin.
  7. The unkempt Shaggy of Scooby-Doo fame has a rather proper real name of Norville Rogers.

*There is a National Trivia Day, but it is January 4th.

Be Amazing Every Day

Your Vast Prediction Machine

Think of the brain as a vast prediction machine. I drove my car to the station this morning; what colour is it?The brain’s desire to know the answer (I don’t have a car but to help your brain, let’s call it red) and indeed what the future holds in general is a powerful motivator in everyday life. We know that massive neuronal resources are devoted to predicting what will happen each moment.

Using research by the neuroscientists at Cal Tech it is becoming clearer that the brain needs to resolve some difficult and seemingly opposing issues to thrive.

Much is known about how people make decisions under varying levels of probability (risk). Less is known about the neural basis of decision-making when probabilities are uncertain because of missing information (ambiguity). Yet we know the brain loves certainty. This is the assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure (or even comfort). Some people pursue this need by striving to control all aspects of their lives, while others obtain certainty by giving up control and adopting a philosophy, faith or belief system.

Your brain is doing something quite remarkable right now. There around 40 environmental cues you can consciously pay attention to right now. Remember we have at least 27 senses (see here). Subconsciously this number is well over two-million. That’s a huge amount of data that can be used for prediction. The brain likes to know what is going on by recognising patterns in the world. It likes to feel certain. We learn much more than we ever consciously understand. Most of the signals that are peripherally perceived enter the brain without our awareness and interact on unconscious levels. This is why we say that learners become their experience and remember what they experience, not just what they are told.

Jeff Hawkins inventor of the Palm Pilot and more recently founder of a neuroscience institute explains the brain’s predilection for prediction in his book (On Intelligence),

Your brain receives patterns from the outside world, stores them as memories, and makes predictions by combining what it has seen before and what is happening now… Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence.

Meaning is not always available on the surface. Meaning often happens intuitively in ways that we don’t understand. So that, when we learn, we use both conscious and unconscious processes. In teaching, you may not reach a student immediately, but two years later he / she may be somewhere else and suddenly join the dots and get it.

The brain requires at the same time as this certainty a measure of uncertainty, causing variety. This is to avoid the boredom reflex and requires our brain to look for distraction. The evolution of play and creation of novelty stem from this quest for uncertainty. The need for the unknown, for change and new stimuli also makes us feel alive and engaged. This is in part caused by the hunger for information, just for the sake of it. Often that information doesn’t make us more effective or adaptive, it just reduces a sense of relative uncertainty.

Your brain loves a quick burst of dopamine we get when a circuit is completed. It feels good – but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us all the time. All of this explains many otherwise strange phenomenon. Knowing that we automatically avoid uncertainty explains why any kind of change can be hard – it’s inherently uncertain. It explains why we prefer things we know over things that might be more fun, or better for us, but are new and therefore uncertain. It might also explain why we prefer the certainty of focusing on problems and finding answers in data from the past, rather than risking the uncertainty of new, creative solutions.

This means that we are naturally programmed to search for meaning. This principle is survival oriented and is the basis of why your brain wanted to know the colour of my car (which I don’t have). The brain needs and automatically registers the familiar while simultaneously searching for and responding to additional stimuli.

We want to know what things mean to us. The brain likes to think ahead and picture the future, mapping out how things will be, not just for each moment, but also for the longer term. The paradox of certainty and uncertainty combined with significance and meaning.

Be Amazing Every Day.

Silence Your Brain!

Peter was after a talking parrot, so he went to the local pet shop in the hope of securing such a find. He was in luck. The shop assistant assured her that the parrot would learn and repeat any word or phrase it heard. Peter was delighted. However, a week later, the parrot still hadn’t spoken a word. Peter returned to the shop to complain, however, it appeared that the assistant was accurate in what he had said and refused a refund. Why didn’t the parrot talk? [answer at the end, but remember the parrot repeats every single word it hears].

Shut up! Like the mute button on the TV remote control, our brains filter out unwanted noise so we can focus on what we’re listening to. Most of us will be familiar with the experience of silently talking to ourselves in our head. That inner monologue usually conducted in silence. Self doubts, insecurities and a general soundtrack or commentary to life.

Have you ever been at the supermarket and realise that you’ve forgotten to pick up something you needed. You might say (outloud), ‘saugages!’ or whatever your temperoary lapse of recall was. Or maybe you have got an important meeting with your boss later in the day, and you’re simulating, (silently in your head) how you think the conversation might go, possibly hearing both your own voice and your boss’s voice responding. This is the phenomenon that psychologists call inner speech, and they’ve been trying to study it pretty much since the dawn of psychology as a scientific discipline.

Our Brain’s have a built in filter for unwanted noise. When it comes to following our own speech, a new brain study from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that instead of one homogenous mute button, we have a network of volume settings that can selectively silence and amplify the sounds we make and hear. They discovered that neurones in one part of the patients’ hearing mechanism were dimmed when they talked, while neurones in other parts lit up. Their findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, offer clues about how we hear ourselves above the noise of our surroundings and monitor what we say. Previous studies have shown a selective auditory system in monkeys that can amplify their self-produced mating, food and danger alert calls, but until this latest study, it was not clear how the human auditory system is wired.

With this in mind it might make more sense when we need to really listen to something that is important. Say you have to listen to fill a prescription or enter data that is potentially life threatening if you get it wrong. When we want to listen carefully to someone, the first thing we do is stop talking. The second more surprising thing we do is stop moving altogether. This strategy helps us hear better by preventing unwanted sounds generated by our own movements.

This interplay between movement and hearing also has a counterpart deep in the brain. Indeed, indirect evidence has long suggested that the brain’s motor cortex, which controls movement, somehow influences the auditory cortex, which gives rise to our conscious perception of sound. A new study, in Nature, combines cutting-edge methods in electrophysiology, optogenetics and behavioural analysis to reveal exactly how the motor cortex, seemingly in anticipation of movement, can tweak the volume control in the auditory cortex. The findings contribute to the basic knowledge of how communication between the brain’s motor and auditory cortexes might affect hearing during speech or musical performance.

And the parrot? The parrot was deaf. Therefore it couldn’t repeat a single word it had heard – as it had heard no words at all.

Be Amazing Every Day

Innovation is full of Paradox.

Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins.

Tom Peter’s again, right on the money. Paradox can prove to be very revealing about human nature and leadership. Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory. He once said, ‘Now that we have met with paradox we have some hope of making progress.’ 

At the most basic level, a paradox is a statement that is self contradictory because it often contains two statements that are both true, but in general, cannot both be true at the same time. What generates real innovation is actually understanding why (and how) paradox can inspire people.

The origins of innovation can be found in the evolution and development of the neocortex. These higher centres of the human brain are the source of abstract thought and also our very human quality of learning from failure. The ability to Explore, Play and Create Novelty in a safe environment becomes critical. The word ‘innovate’ can be traced all the way back to 1440. It comes from the Middle French word [which apparently on my Linkedin profile is something I am an expert in] ‘innovacyon’, meaning ‘renewal’ or ‘new way of doing things’. This echoes Peter Drucker’s brilliant reflection on innovation,

Change that creates a new dimension of performance.

The act of introducing something new (innovation) begins with an internal brain process. We can look at where by using tools like fMRI to determine which areas ‘light up’ during the process but it’s origin is unclear. Somewhere there is spark, a neuro-chemical reactions and the beginning of the fascination over an idea. This state of innovation, constant fascination and being intensely interested in something, is a primitive survival mechanism that might not help survival (you might eat the wrong killer berry). Yet by making a safe environment, where we can explore, play and create novelty we create a spark that both motivates and innovates.

Daniel Pink beautifully describes (in his book Drive) the paradox of money as a motivator (watch the surprising results it delivers). Companies need to allow more autonomy and self direction. That’s why Google gives its workforce 20% of their time to explore projects on their own. That’s why 3M and W.L. Gore do something similar. They know that the root of innovation is fascination and failure.

Wise leaders accept their setbacks as necessary footsteps on the path towards success. In The Innovation Paradox, Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes argue that failure has its upside, success its downside. These two are not as distinct as we imagine. They co-exist, are even interdependent. Both are steps toward achievement.

It’s not success or failure, but success and failure.

Every company worth knowing has identified innovation as a core competency needing to be developed. However a large percentage of our time and our organisation’s energy is necessarily spent on activities that don’t require innovation. We also know that scaling up an innovation depends on the operation of relatively routine tasks and processes, many of which are in place and already have been proved effective. What’s needed in organisations whom aspire to a culture of innovation, is the energy to create a spark and then embrace success and failure as equals.

The key to the innovator paradox then is the development of this neurochemical spark within people. So what sparks people? If you do some analysis of the most creativity and innovate people in history, you will find that the spark lies deep in their brain. They are able to be curious and creative. They become fascinated, even obsessed by ideas. While it can certainly be supported by systems, it can never be reduced to systems. Because that’s where innovation starts, with the innovator and the inspired individual, compelled by their DNA to make a difference. Then all that person needs is from you is time, some resources, meaningful collaboration, and periodic reality checks from someone who understands what fascination is all about.

One’s only rival is one’s own potentialities. One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities. In this sense, every man can be a king, and must therefore be treated like a king. – Abraham Maslow

If you study the lives of people who have had those Eureka moments, you may well note that their breakthroughs almost always came after extensive periods of intense, conscious effort. They worked, they struggled, they explored, played and created novelty. They gave up, they recommitted and then the breakthrough came, often at unexpected moments. The conscious mind works overtime in an attempt to solve a problem or achieve a goal. Unable to come up with the breakthrough, the challenge gets turned over to the subconscious mind, which then proceeds to figure it out in its own, without time pressure and focus.

Coming up with the right question is at least half of getting the right answer. If you want a breakthrough idea, begin by coming up with a breakthrough question. Find the one that communicates the essence of what you’re trying to create. Perhaps Einstein said it best when he declared, Not everything that can be counted counts; and not everything that counts can be counted. He was referring, of course, to the part of the human brain that ‘knows’ intuitively; the part that is tuned in, connected, and innately creative.

If you, or the people who report to you, are not currently in a state of innate fascination, it’s time to turn things around. That is, of course if you really want to spark some innovation. Throughout history, the best managers and leaders always have allowed this special space of paradox and innovation to exist. Since failures so often lead to successes, and vice-versa, rather than try to sort these two out, wise managers focus on the innovation process and what can be learned from it.

What exists on the other side of failure, is fuel for your untapped creativity.

Be Amazing Every Day.

[If you don’t get this message, call me; if you do get it, don’t call. Spread the word.]