Go away. You’re making me nervous!

Where’s the K?  Why is it so much harder to do some things when we’re being watched?  I’m not a touch typer, but I’m reasonably fast and fluent on a keyboard…unless there’s someone at my shoulder.  If I’m being observed, suddenly consonants start hiding!

The mere presence of people has been known to affect performance for many years.  Norman Triplett, back in 1898, noticed that cyclists consistently achieved faster race times when cycling with others.  He concluded that the “bodily presence of another contestant” alone was enough to improve performance.  Further research found that performance often improves when that ‘bodily presence isn’t even competing.  For example, simply having observers on tasks ranging from sports to mathematics and word puzzles, also raises performance.  This phenomenon became known as social facilitation.

So what about the disappearing letters on my keyboard?  It turns out that having people around you cuts both ways.  If the task is well learned or simple, performance improves when observed.  If, on the other hand, the task is complex or not-well learned, performance drops.  For example, when novice pool players are observed, they miss more shots than normal; the opposite effect is noticed in experts.  So when my sons attempt to demonstrate their new skills on a skateboard to grandparents, they end up saying ‘No, wait…I’ll get it right this time’ (a lot).

The effects of social facilitation are robust and everywhere.  Bizarrely, it even affects cockroaches!  Cockroaches complete straight runways faster when they are with other cockroaches than alone.  However, they are much slower on complex mazes when there are others around.

Why does this happen?  It’s to do with arousal (at least for humans…I can’t speak for cockroaches).  For simple or well-learned skills, the attention of others increases our arousal which leads to greater focus on what we’re doing.  This improves performance.  However, an increase in arousal when performing complex or new skills can divert cognitive resources from the task at hand, reducing effectiveness.   For example, when students were being monitored electronically, they learned less well on a web-based training program.

In addition, ‘arousal’ may mean something different for established versus new skills.  In the former case, arousal may mean stimulation.  In the latter it may mean fear of evaluation.  In fact, it has been shown that when people are observed doing complex tasks their cardiovascular system responds as it does for threatening situations.  This is further supported by some interesting
research in the world of sports.  For many years, crowds have believed ‘home field advantage’ comes from the strength of their support for their team.  It now appears that any amount of cheering for your team has no effect on the game.  However, jeering and booing the opposing team leads them to fluff more shots and commit more fouls.

As a final thought, social facilitation can increase ‘performance’ in unhelpful ways too.  Men eat 36% more when in the company of others; women eat 40% more!  So, if you’re on a diet, eat alone…unless of course you were to increase the complexity of the task and eat with chopsticks…


Epting, L. Kimberly, Riggs, Kristen N. Knowles, Joseph D. Hanky, John J. (2011) Cheers vs. jeers: effects of audience feedback on individual athletic performance. North American Journal of Psychology, June, 2011: 13: 2

Strauss, B. (2001). Social facilitation in motor tasks: a review of research and theory. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 3, 237-256.

Thompson, L.F.T., Sebastienelli, J.D.S., & Murray, N.P.M. (2009). Monitoring online training behaviors: awareness of electronic surveillance hinders e-learners. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39, p. 2191–2212.

Zajonc, Robert B., Alexander Heingartner, and Edward M. Herman. “Social Enhancement and Impairment of Performance in the Cockroach.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 13.2 (1969): 83-92.


This blog will change how you judge

How do you make judgements?  Would you be surprised if I told you that many of your judgements had little to do with the facts at all?   Consider even the most rational of all choices: what company to invest in.  How would you choose to invest your hard-earned money: a review of their trading record, a careful analysis of their annual report or an evaluation of the market trends in that industry?  How about how nice their name was?

It turns out, people’s choices of company to invest in are significantly affected by the name (or more specifically by the three-letter ‘ticker’ symbol that stock exchanges use).  In a study of real-world investments, a basket of shares with easy-to-pronounce names such as KAR outperformed those with less easy names such as RDO by 12% on their first day of trading and 33% over the first year.  That’s astonishing in the most hard-bitten, objective of industries.


Whenever you look, remember or think, your brain has to work.  Some tasks are easier than others for the brain to process.  Easy tasks feel like they flow, whereas harder ones get a bit stuck.  Psychologists refer to this mental experience of processing ease as cognitive fluency.  The brain likes easy.  The brain is also a manic interpretation machine.  It interprets the positive feeling of fluency as meaning something positive.  So when you come to make a judgement about how much you like something; whether you believe it;  or how confident you are, this feeling of fluency influences you.  And you will be entirely unaware of this influence.

Which picture do you like more?

Most people prefer the picture on the left.  It is a more familiar image – looking like a zebra – than the more geometric one.  Familiar images are more fluent than unfamiliar ones.  Think of a cave man seeing an elephant for the first time.  The brain has to go into over-drive to observe and judge if the elephant is going to eat him or not.  Once the man is familiar with elephants, he (and his brain) can easily judge he’s safe.  So you can understand why he would come to prefer familiar things to the unfamiliar.   The ease of processing becomes a signal for the brain that suggests familiarity; which in turn says ‘Relax.  You are not lunch’.

This is called the mere exposure effect.  Present unfamiliar images to people. Show some of those images for a little longer than others (400ms compared to 100ms).  Afterwards people will reliably prefer the images they saw for longer.  Interestingly if you ask the person why they like them more, they will make up a reason – and it won’t be that they saw them for 400 rather than 100ms!  The fact is, people are entirely unconscious of the impact of cognitive fluency.

It’s not simply familiarity that influences judgements.  Let’s imagine you saw the statement ‘Osorno is in Chile’ and you were asked to judge the truth of this statement, would the clarity of the text affect your judgement?  When these statements are shown in clear text (e.g. black text on white) people are more likely to believe the statement than when the contrast is not strong (e.g. blue on black).  Or, moving beyond the visual, people judge the aphorism ‘Life is mostly strife’ as being truer than ‘Life is mostly struggle’ because rhymes are fluent.  Finally, the author of an essay is judged by experienced professors as being less intelligent if the font is difficult to read or the sentences longer!

Cognitive fluency doesn’t simply affect your judgements about the world, but also about yourself.  In a classic study, people were asked to judge how assertive they were.  Just before they were asked this question, they were given a task: to recall either 6 or 12 examples of times when they had been assertive.  Those who had been asked to remember 6 examples (the easier task) rated themselves as more assertive than those who had to remember 12.  This was irrespective of how assertive they actually were!  Those asked for 6 examples processed the task more easily and used that experience of cognitive fluency to make their judgement.  In this example, the experience of fluency plays a greater role in the judgement than the facts themselves.

This same effect has also been found with happiness.  If I asked you to identify 12 examples of happy times in your life (a hard task), you would subsequently rate your life as less happy than if I had asked you to only recall 6 times!  The brain unconsciously reasons ‘I’m struggling to think of 12; I can’t be happy.’

Cognitive fluency is pervasive, and unconscious.  Everything we do is more or less fluent. This knowledge can be hugely helpful if you want to influence people’s judgements, whether you want people to believe something or like (or buy) something:  Make it simple.  Make it easy.  Make it clear.

If, on the other hand, you want to protect yourself against unconscious influence, the trick is to be aware.  Studies show that once people are conscious of a possible bias caused by fluency, they begin to base their judgements on the facts rather than the processing ease.  So next time you’re thinking about investing, remind yourself to forget how nice the names are!

Now ask yourself, how are you seduced by the easy?





Alter, A.
L., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluency. Proceedings of the National Academy of
, 103, 9369-9372

Adam L. Alter and Daniel M. Oppenheimer (2009) Uniting the Tribes of Fluency to Form a Metacognitive Nation. Personality and Social Psychology Review; 13; 219 – 235

McGlone, M. S., & Tofighbakhsh, J. (2000). Birds of a feather flock conjointly (?): Rhyme as reason in aphorisms. Psychological Science , 11, 424-428


Creating Memories: Presenting to those born to forget

Imagine you never forgot anything.  How great would that be?  Wrong.  A perfect recall would be akin to madness.  Forgetting is one of the most useful things the brain does.  In a world where we are bombarded by so much information, so many experiences, forgetting is one of our best ways of filtering the useful and relevant from the not; the interesting from the dull.

Now imagine you’re standing in front of a room full of people as forgetful as you.  The simple fact is that few people, when designing or delivering a presentation, give their audience the credit they deserve: they are world class forgetters.  This blog is about simple strategies you can employ to get your messages remembered.  Having interesting and relevant content is clearly important in making a memorable presentation; but it certainly isn’t everything.  You don’t have to become more confident, extrovert or funnier to make more of an impact either.  Simply play to the strengths of the brain – or more specifically the Working Memory – and you’ll create lasting memories.

Working memory has four elements: a central executive and three slave systems with horrible names (phonological loop, visuo-spatial sketchpad and the episodic buffer).  Each element has preferences; things that arouse it more.  Arouse them sufficiently and you’ll create enough of a neurotransmitter called glutamate to make a memory.  Bingo!  You’ve succeeded.

The Central Executive: Attention

The Central Executive is summarized in a single word: attention.  Unless you have the full attention of the brain, you will not be remembered.  The problem with attention is that there are so many competing demands for it at any time, but fail to grab it, and you’ll simply be blah-blah-blahing at a sea of politely nodding blank faces.  I have a 30 second rule.  I do something unexpected or make an unexpected request within the first half minute of any presentation.  Why?  The novel or unexpected causes the anterior cingulated cortex to fire.  This is the brain’s error-detection mechanism.  The message your audience picks up is that they cannot fully predict what will happen in the presentation, so they had better pay attention.  This doesn’t have to be crazy.  It might be as simple as starting talking from the back of the room; asking everyone to look under their chair (for something you placed there before the presentation); or standing up and doing something relevant (maybe just shaking hands).  It matters less what you do, than you consciously break the norm in some way.

Ever found that you remember routes much better when you were driving than when you were in the passenger seat?  This comes to the second principle of attention: our attention naturally focuses when we are doing something.  No matter how wonderful an oration you are giving, if your audience is in a passive role, like the passenger in a car, their attention is less strongly focused.  Every presentation should be sprinkled with activity, where people have to engage.  Ask reflective questions (and then pause); give people time to discuss with their neighbour; ask people to write something down.  For example, the NHS (the UK Health Service) found that patients are nearly 30% less likely to forget appointments when asked to write down the date and time rather than simply being given a pre-written appointments card.

Phonological Loop: Words

The phonological loop is the brains short-term store for words and sounds it hears.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how difficult listening is (and I’m not saying that just because I’m male).  Words arrive quicker than you can process them.  To convert these sounds into memories, the listener has to interpret what is being said and summarise it for themselves – and in doing this they have to switch off their attention to the incoming new words, missing stuff.  You need to make life easier for your audience.

I used to work with Dell.  They had a principle for presentations called ‘Answer First’.  The idea is that rather than building suspense through your presentation until you finally reveal (to trumpet blasts) your killer idea at the end, tell the audience your idea – your central message – right at the start.  Psychologically this works really well.  Firstly, it’s this idea you want people to remember and you probably have their attention most at the start.  More fundamentally though, by telling people ‘the answer’ you are removing some of the hard work needed to process, interpret and summarise what you are saying.  They effectively know the punch-line, so what you say after is just filling in the blanks.  This means they can listen to more words.

Once you have your one big idea which you present at the start, repeat it a lot (and key elements of your argument).  We know the phonological loop thrives on repetition.  Don’t feel the need to constantly entertain by keeping every word fresh.  Repeat, reinforce and re-state.   And don’t say a lot.  If you think of a scale of how much content you should include.  At one end are all the things you want to say because you they are interesting and they make you look clever.  At the other end are all the things people are able to or want to take in.  There is a huge gap between the two points.  Think what you want to say and halve it, and repeat it.

Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad: Images

The visuo-spatial sketchpad (the VSS for short) is where images are held for processing or forgetting. Like most of the Working Memory, the VSS likes novelty and simplicity.  Keep any visuals varied: use different colors and styles.  Clearly you don’t want your presentation to look a mess, but when you hit your key slides, you might do them with a different background i.e. change white to black.

The biggest mistake people make in presentations comes from a misunderstanding of the use of visuals like powerpoint.  People often mistakenly think the presentation is the slide deck.  The presentation is what you say, the visuals are there to support you.  Let’s take the example of a presentation where there is a lot of text on the slide, or a complicated data table, and the speaker is also talking.  The Working Memory cannot deal with both the Phonological Loop and the VSS being hammered at once, it feels over-whelming, so the listener switches off or at best scrambles to make sense of all they take in.  The rule should be simple: either you’re talking or the slide deck is.  Not at the same time.  If you have a quote or text you want people to read; shut up!

Use your slides to help the listener summarise what they are hearing, making it easier to remember.  A slide with a single word on can powerfully reinforce what you are saying.  A strong and relevant image can do the same thing.  Done correctly, your words stimulating the Phonological Loop and the image firing up the VSS will synchronise and you’ll create a memory.

Episodic Buffer: Connections

The process of learning is a process of making associations between existing memories and new information; of weaving what you experience into a meaningful whole; a story.  The episodic buffer is a key focal point for this, looking explicitly for the connections.  Your job is to help people make those connections.  Refer to experiences they may have had (‘Like last year when…’), ask questions to have them relate your content to what they know already (‘This is similar to what we already call…’).  Most of all, the episodic buffer loves stories.  Stories work at visual, verbal and emotional levels; they convey lots of information and they are interesting.    Give anecdotes, share examples, paint scenarios; tell stories.

In a far-away land aboy was helping his father sell carpets in the market.  In truth he was far more interested in what he saw and heard than in selling.  He wandered through the stalls, watching, smelling, touching and tasting, but most of all, listening.  He loved to hear the stories people had to tell: stories of life and of love, stories of their day, funny stories and imaginary stories.  He listened, he pondered, he learned.  Over time he took each of these stories and wove it into a beautiful carpet.

One day, he sat down on his carpet in the market.  The threads he had woven started rising around him, entwining with other threads making beautiful new patterns, wondrous new stories.  As patterns emerged, he told what he saw.  Crowds arrived, enthralled at his stories; their stories.  He had created memories.


People are built to forget, so anyone who can deliver messages that are remembered has a huge advantage.

How will you create memories?

Time or untime: you decide

My watch broke a few weeks ago.  No big deal. However it’s summer, the children are at home, and my wife has broken her watch too (careless you might say).  The effect has been dramatic.  We get hardly anything done; routine has disappeared; days race by in a flash; and we are loving our untimed life.  So I started thinking about time, or more particularly, time awareness.

Time is weird.  We sense it, yet we have no sense organ to detect it.  It’s fixed and regular, yet we know it’s relative.  It doesn’t exist in any concrete sense, yet our lives are built around it.  Time affects everything.  Specifically, our awareness of time also affects our productivity, creativity and happiness.

Time Flies when you’re Having Fun

Unless you enjoy passing away the time looking at obscure, out-of-date car or home improvement magazines, time probably seems to slow when you’re in a doctor’s waiting room.  Boredom slows those second hands like little else (apart from anxiety and depression).  If those magazines happened to be erotic, on the other hand, research suggests that the time would fly by – or indeed any other type of magazine that genuinely interested you.

You can think of your internal sense of time as being like a ticking clock.  We make judgements on time by how many ticks we notice.  When we are bored, we really notice the ticks, so time seems to drag.  When we’re amused, we don’t notice many of the ticks, so time disappears.  Put another way, awareness of time slows it down; awareness in time speeds it up.  A watched kettle never boils.

In fact, we get so used to the time flies when you’re having fun effect, that we begin using speed of time to judge our enjoyment!  People doing something boring were told the task had only lasted half as long as it had actually taken.  They rated the activity significantly more enjoyable than those who weren’t tricked in this way.

On the other hand…

I was on a great stag do cycling on the Isle of Aran many years ago.  At the end of the 2 days I found it hard to believe that only 48 hours had passed.  Listening to the internal clock is not our only approach to perceiving time, memory plays a part too.  We judge time’s passage by how much we can recall of a period of time.  The brain makes a simple assumption that sheer quantity of memory is a good yardstick of how long something took.  Remember a lot, it must have lasted a long time.  Deep attention on something, good or bad, creates more memories.   So if you’re actively engaged in something, or doing something amazing (or really scary) at that moment time may seem to fly, but the overall passage of time seems long.

This is why the first week of your holiday always seems to last longer than the second week: the experiences are more novel and therefore more memorable.  It is also why, when trying to explain the duration of a holiday, you may find yourself saying how quickly it went, but at the same time, it seems ages since you arrived.

Using Time

Given how full our lives are, an increased awareness of time can give us a little buzz, a shot of urgency.  It draws attention to how little time we actually have, and in so doing, increases our pace and our focus.  Can this be helpful?  Research has fairly consistently shown that heightened awareness of time increases productivity.  So if you want to increase the amount of stuff you can do in a day or a meeting, increase your awareness of time by putting a big clock on your desk for example.

On the other hand, increased time awareness has a downside: research in the field shows that people think less deeply when focused on time.  This is particularly the case with creativity.  The cognitive processes in creativity involve exploration, kicking things around, going back to the start.  They are messy.  They are also time consuming and seemingly inefficient.  Increased time awareness drives us to increase our efficiency, so we play around less, take a more direct route, and produce more mundane results.

I also have a hunch that it’s harder to simply be in the moment if you are highly aware of time.  An awareness of time pulls the focus of our attention to the future (or the past) but out of now.  As we mark time we observe our seconds, minutes, hours and days pass, but maybe we miss the moments.  We become less good at hanging out, relishing, or connecting.  Put another way, an awareness of time is great for doing, and bad for being.

My Watch

As for me, will I get a new watch?  Of course I will (I’m no hippie!).  What this period has made me mindful of is how to use time better: how to use my watch as Red Bull, stimulating me to clear my to-do list; and how to untime key chunks of my days, to allow me to dive deep into thought or the moment.

Don’t wear your watch tomorrow.

(Thanks Jeremy Dean for the inspiration – @psyblog)

Remote control your creativity

On many evenings, power in our house is defined as being the one holding the TV remote.  As we flop down into the sofa, chores done, one of us casually reaches for the controls half buried under cushions…

Now imagine a TV without controls.  A TV that gets stuck on channels – often the wrong channel – and that doesn’t allow you to adjust the volume, or even turn it off.  Welcome to your brain.

I want to look at one particular scenario.  I want to look at how pointing a remote control at yourself might improve your creativity.

The Channel Button

Suppose that every time you encountered a problem you had to start from scratch and figure it out.  Even tying your shoelaces would be a nightmare if each morning you faced the challenge of working out afresh how to tangle those strings in order to keep your shoes on.  Clearly, this would be impossible.

Each time you successfully solve a problem, your pattern of thinking is stored.  Like a channel on a TV.  All you need to do, when you encounter a problem, is select the right ‘channel’.  Fantastic;  much more efficient.   What’s even better news is that our range of channels increases with experience, with each new problem type we successfully resolve.

There is a problem though.  The brain is crazy about automation.  Since our conscious processing power is so limited, the brain stores as much as it can into pre-conscious areas.  Then, when we encounter a problem type, ‘click’ the brain chooses the appropriate channel; most of the time.

When we get stuck on a problem, when we’re struggling to come up with ideas, it’s because we’re on the wrong channel.  We’re stuck on the channel the brain auto-selected.  This is called fixation.

Example: You find a pipe, a carrot and a couple of sticks in a field.  Why?  Your brain may have auto-selected ‘rubbish’, or the world ‘field’ may have triggered you to think in terms of agricultural channels.  You only solve this puzzle when you select more wintery channels: snowman.

In one of the more famous creativity tests first used by Karl Dunker in 1945, people are given a candle, book of matches and a box of thumb tacks.  They are told to attach the candle to a wall so that the candle doesn’t drip when lit.  People typically try and use the thumb tacks to stick the candle directly to the wall, or melt the side of the candle so they can attach it.  The solution is to tip the tacks out of the box, put the candle in it and attach the box to the wall using the tacks.  People get stuck on a channel which continues to see the box as something that simply holds the tacks.  Interestingly, if the problem is presented with the tacks lying alongside an empty box, most people get the answer pretty quickly.

Creativity happens when we are able see a problem from a different perspective, using a different pattern of thinking.  In fact, when people are being creative, one of the most active parts of the brain is the medial prefrontal cortex: the brain’s channel button.  Consistently creative people are not simply good at thinking about problems, they’re good at spotting how they are thinking.  Specifically, they recognise when their channel isn’t working and go surfing.

The Volume Button

When you’re working on a problem, ever had that feeling that you’re close to a breakthrough?  You can feel the brain grasping for something…you don’t know what, but you sense you’re close.  It turns out people can be pretty accurate at assessing how close they are to having a creative breakthrough.  How can this be, since the creative process is far from linear?

Creativity is all about making new connections, combining information and ideas together in ways that haven’t been done before.  The brain picks up weak signals from outside its current pattern of thinking, and recognises it may be close to an aha moment.  Mark Beeman – a leading creativity neuroscientist – found that about 1.5 seconds before a breakthrough, people almost go blind.  The fact is, our visual sense is so dominant it can drown out quiet internal signals, crying out to be heard.  So alpha waves flood into
the visual cortex, blocking visual signals.  The brain is saying ‘Shhhh.  What was that?’

Meetings can be frenetic.  Pressure can be intense.  Environments can be stimulating.  However, creative people have learnt to turn the volume down at key moments, either by choosing to change environments or by shutting out the noise.  They turn the focus of their attention from the shrieking external world to the still quiet place of lost memories and distant thoughts.  They pick up those weak signals and make strong connections.

The Power (or Standby) Button
Join all nine dots, without ever taking your pencil off the paper, in as few lines as possible.

What is the solution?  How many lines do you need?

Any blog on creativity wouldn’t be complete without the famous, nine dot challenge that spurned the term ‘thinking outside the box.  The solution involves going outside the box to enable you to complete the challenge in only four straight lines.  Did you get it?

I rather hope not.  I included this example to demonstrate one of the biggest barriers to creativity: solutions.  The correct answer to the nine dot challenge above is 1.  The instruction never mentioned the lines had to be straight!  However, we’re often so sure we ‘know’ the solution that any further search for ideas stops.

The brain is such a busy fellow that once it finds a solution it thinks ‘job done’ and shuts up shop.  So while it might seem odd, one of the most important functions of the brain during creativity is inhibition: stopping previous solutions from prematurely terminating the creative search, or at least interfering with it.  These previous solutions may not have been from a long time ago, they may be the first new idea that came to mind in the very meeting you’re in.  The ability to keep your full attention on your
creative quest, to go beyond the obvious and the previous, is central to creativity.

Creativity is a process, not a solution.  Creative people are great at parking good solutions once identified: ‘that’s Plan A, now what about Plan B?’  They hit the power button and put solutions on standby to allow them to keep searching.

Remote Control your Creativity

The most consistently creative people aren’t necessarily the most experienced, or the cleverest.  They are also not born with some unique creativity gene.  They have learned to pay attention to what’s going on inside their head.  They have learned to switch channels, turn down the volume and hit the standby button for previous solutions.  Your TV remote allows you conscious control over the images, information and ideas that flow into your house.  Next time you want to be creative, point it at yourself.

You’re using the wrong arguments to influence people

You have been hired as a consultant to write a card to be left in all of a hotel’s rooms. The purpose of this card is to encourage more people to recycle their towels.

What would you write?

I have asked this question of many groups, and their answers show huge creativity in style and wording. They make compelling arguments to recycle towels such as:

• ‘Waste is killing our planet. Don’t waste energy. Recycle your towels’

• ‘For every towel you recycle, we will pay 25c to Friends of the Earth’

• ‘Recycle your towels and we’ll give you $5’


Do these approaches work?

I chose the three card examples deliberately, because these seem to represent not only the most common versions of cards people produce when I ask them at events. They also represent the approaches we most often take when we are trying to influence people or change behaviour. We tend to appeal to peoples values, make a rational case (often positioned as an ‘if…then’ statement), or we try and bribe. To state that we are not affected by arguments to our heart, our head or our wallet would just not be correct. The point is that we’re not only affected by those arguments.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Robert Cialdini, one of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of influence, has looked in detail at this question. For example, in a study of energy-saving behaviour in Californians, he found the biggest influencer over actual behaviour was not any cost-saving argument, or even the strength of their professed environmental beliefs. It was what their neighbours did. When people found out that they were using more energy than their neighbours, they decreased consumption over the next few weeks by 5.7%. People complied with the social norm.

What other people do has a powerful effect on our behaviour – for good and for bad. So be careful to use social norms wisely. Highlight how many people are acting badly, and you actually influence more people over to the dark side! In a study in Arizona National Park, a sign was put up saying ‘Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest’, the amount of stolen wood tripled (compared to no sign)! The sign had created a social norm that stealing wood was the thing to do! Returning to the Californian study above, when people found out that they were using less energy than their neighbours, their consumption actually increased by 8.6%!

Cialdini explored the positive impact of social norms on towel re-use. He wrote a card which said that most guests recycled their towels at least once during their stay (a true message). This simple wording change on the card increased the percentage of recycled towels by 26%. However, since social norms have the strongest influence when we perceive the norm group as being like us, Cialdini made a further adaption. He changed the card so it included the words ‘Most guests who stayed in this room…’. The percentage of recycled towels rose by 33% over the standard message.

Social Obligations

The promise of a donation to charity makes sense and is bound to have some influence…surely. It is a geat xample of an ‘if…then’ approach. In fact, this design had no influence in behaviour as compared to a standard, pro-environmental plea. A minor change in the wording, however, can have a dramatic effect. If the card reads ‘In anticipation of you recycling your towel, the hotel has already made a donation on your behalf to Friends of the Earth’, the percentage of towels recycled increases by 45%. Why does this happen? We live by social rules, and one of the most powerful is social reciprocity. I give, you give back; you give, I give back. By giving first, the hotel creates a powerful social need for us to even the balance sheet. So we feel compelled to reciprocate and recycle our towels.

What about the bribe? Surely a direct appeal to our self-interest must motivate us to act? In a well-known case from Israel, a group of child care facilities in Haifa began fining parents for lateness. What happened next astonished those involved: the percentage of parents arriving late doubled. The fine had effectively removed any sense of social obligation. It then became a simple cost-benefit question: is it worth 10 shekels for me to turn up late today?

What’s the Point?

Social influence is pervasive, powerful and largely unconscious. We don’t think of using these factors because we don’t think they affect us. We make assumptions about the cause of our behaviour, and that of others, which are incorrect. We assume people act as they do because of who they are (their values or personality), because it makes sense (logic) or because it is in their self-interest to do so. The fact is, there is another huge driver to our behaviour: the social context. Focus only on the argument and not on the social context and at best, you’ll influence people less than you could. At worst, you may find your arguments backfire on you.

Be honest now…why do you recycle?

I bet your answer wasn’t ‘Because other people around me do’. If it wasn’t, you’d be wrong (at least in part).

Play isn’t the opposite of work…or at least it shouldn’t be

Play has little place in most modern organisations. Unless you work in Silicon Valley or for a wacky design agency with play dens and fireman’s poles, it just isn’t the norm at work. As young children, any distinction between play and work is meaningless; they do everything through play. As we grow, we learn how to recognise different situations require different behaviours. This learning is stored as behavioural scripts – a kind of autopilot system – which get activated whenever we enter particular environments. With hardly any conscious effort, your behaviour automatically shifts as you enter a library, your local pub or work. We learn to segregate play from work at school, which is then reinforced when we enter employment. So, on entering work we shift, automatically, into non-play mode.

The problem with scripts, like any of the brains shortcuts, is that they are blunt instruments. Scripts are triggered by broad environmental characteristics. Many times within work, where a playful approach would prove powerful, it gets over-looked. We stay in character. Going off-script and being more playful takes conscious effort, and feels weird. Yet the payoffs can be significant. Play is a primary drive. Impulses for play originate from the most primitive regions of the brain, which also deal with breathing and keeping your heart beating. Jaak Panksepp, one of the world’s foremost experts on human and animal play, describes play as a key source of joy which provides the emotional fuel to build your mental capabilities. Play is mood-enhancing, generating a positive state of mind more able to creatively solve problems. Play creates new neural connections. It helps you learn and have insights. It may even make your brain bigger – at least it does in rats. Finally, it will minimise your desire to throttle your boss: murderers don’t play according to Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist specialising in play.

One key approach to play at work is through building. It has been estimated that 50% of all play in children involves some form of construction. The value in building is both in the process – which can be fun and insightful – but also in what happens with the product of the build. Michael Schrage from MIT has found a pattern across some of the world’s most innovative companies: they build rapid prototypes. The genius of a prototype – whether a physical object, a simulation or an excel spread sheet – is that it encourages people to interact with it. Prototypes bring the conceptual into the concrete world allowing people to play with it. If you’ve ever rebuilt or redesigned part of your house you’ll understand this well. No matter how well you visualize and plan, once you start to see it take shape, once you sit at the new kitchen bar, you see things with a clarity you could never do while looking at paper drawings. Ideas flow as people see, touch and manipulate things, and innovation results.

Play is risky though (just think of all those bumps and bruises you got learning to skateboard), and as adults we get risk averse. To really benefit from building things, they have to be done quickly; roughly thrown together at the earliest stage of design. Building something that looks dumb, that isn’t well thought through, opens us up to ridicule or disapproval. We’d prefer to keep our ideas and designs to ourselves until they have been perfected; hoping to reveal them with a flourish to rapturous applause.

Play has rules. The rules of the prototyping game aren’t the same as those for presenting designs or finished products: they’re not for people to decide if they like the idea or not. It’s not a ‘yes/no’ game but an ‘and’ game. Children are great at ‘and’ games. I was once building lego with my nephew and niece. We were building a boat. My nephew said, ‘let’s make it an evil boat, and add guns and bombs’. To which my niece added, with no element of irony or hesitation, ‘and let’s add curtains and cushions’. As adults, even when we avoid the ‘yes/no’ game, we play the ‘or’ game instead: it’s your idea or mine.

The ‘and’ game is not necessarily a team sport. One of the most valuable forms of play at work is exploration. To play with an idea, you wander around exploring the idea or problem, with no clear goal or expected output. This is a purely cumulative activity, following random thoughts, building a bigger picture. The time for making sense of your findings or ruminations will come later. For now you’re playing with hunches, led by your interest, motivated by curiosity. Exploration is great fun, and it’s a real waste of time; most of the time. It might, however, produce something great.

Given how time poor many of us feel, it’s pretty difficult to give yourself permission to ramble intellectually, playing with possibilities. An uncertain outcome is a poor trade for the certain loss of several hours of prime task execution time. Exploratory play produces what Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes as ‘lumpy outcomes’: most of it is wasted effort, but every now and then you strike gold…such as the theory of relativity. Albert Einstein famously attributed his discovery to cumulative play, imagining riding on a light beam. Play may stop you completing your to-do list, but it might help you come up with something amazing, make a real breakthrough.

Play is a mood-altering activity. It rapidly gets us into an ideal state for creativity. You can achieve the same with mind-altering drugs – I just don’t advise you try. You can also learn the ability to control your mental state through years of practice along with therapy or meditation! However getting into a playful mood is a whole lot easier. We’ve done the practice. We practiced for most of our lives (or at least the first ten years anyway). Just choose to play and let the mood sort itself out.

Play can be a risk, and it may get in the way of your being good at your job and delivering all that you want to, but it may just help you to be great. Let’s break down the distinction between work and play. Let’s fight our scripts and weave play through our working lives. Let’s make a difference.

How could you play more?