On Peer Pressure and Brain Scans

This week’s learning is from Quiet by Susan Cain and is part of a series on “Brainstorming and Peer Pressure”. (Part 1, 2, 3)

In 2005, Gregory Burns decided to conduct an updated version of the original experiments on peer pressure. In the “alone” case, 32 volunteers (men and women between 19-41 years) were subjected to various vision tests. They got 86.2% of the answers correct.

In the “group” case, they were asked to answer these questions with planted actors who confidently gave wrong answers. Here, they only got 59% correct.

The interesting addition was FMRI scans of their brains. These results were both disturbing and illuminating –

Alone Case: The scans showed activity in the Occipital (visual) cortex, parietal cortex and some activity in the pre-frontal cortex when they made the conscious decision to answer the question. All normal.

Group Case: The area of interest here was the pre-frontal cortex. If participants KNEW they were wrong but went with peer pressure, then activity was expected in the pre-frontal cortex as they would be actively deciding against the right answer. But, if the activity was in the visual, spatial area, it meant that the group had managed to somehow change the way they “perceived” the same images.
And, that’s exactly what happened..

Thus, peer pressure was shown to change the participant’s view of a situation. Groups are like mind altering substances. If the group believes the answer is A, you genuinely believe the answer is A.


Sketch by EB

Luckily, this was not always the case. Sometimes, individuals did pick the right answers. Here, the researchers observed activity in the amygdala, a small organ associated with upsetting emotions like the fear of rejection. Burns called it the pain of independence. And, these pains are critical to the survival of order in our society since our systems – elections, democracy, etc., depend on dissenting voices to drive change.

Here’s to ensuring we watch out for peer pressure effects during team meetings this week!

How much will you optimize?

Every efficiency geek worth his/her salt knows that it’s easy to ignore the overheads that come with creating efficient system. Efficiency is best applied to things and, to a certain extent, to help hack human productivity. A focus on optimization, however, comes with a big downside – it’s very easy to lose focus on the real goal.

For instance, you could spend a lifetime trying to travel cheap – hack mileage and hotel programs, couch surf at a different place every day of the week, bookmark websites that watch airfares, etc. It’s great if this sort of stuff gets you energized. But, if the purpose is just to be able to afford travel, then it might be better to spend all that time getting to a job that pays you more.

All of a sudden, you can throw away all that travel related overhead and focus on what really matters – acquire skills that people want to pay you for!

It’s all about getting to the right question. And optimization tends to assume the role of the default answer once we set down the path.

It isn’t the case, of course.

Fun Friday: What’s Your Animal Spirit?

Brad Feld had a fun post the other day on “Animal Spirit.”

“I’ve always felt like a bear. A big, cuddly, nice, soft bear. Mellow. I like to sleep. I like to eat. I wander around, a little curiously larger than comfortable in my slightly oversized body.”

This was the first time I’d heard of this concept, and I thought it would make for a great “Fun Friday” topic. I didn’t have to give it too much thought. I guess I always knew my animal spirit is a dog. In particular, I think it’s a Saint Bernard.

Why a dog? I am restless, full of energy, clumsy (I knock things over all the time!) and eager to learn. I also toggle between working hard and sleeping lots and am fiercely loyal to a small framily group.

Why Saint Bernard in particular? They need strong hands/influences early else they can get unruly (In the context of my life, the danger MAY have passed). They are good in crisis as rescuer dogs and it generally takes a lot to piss them off. Don’t, though.

And, of course, they are damn good looking. ;-)

Image Source

And yes, I am biased towards Saint Bernard thanks to having watched the Beethoven series of movies many many times as a kid.

So, what’s your animal spirit? Happy end-of-the-week all!

You Don’t Know If a Good Day is a Good Day

I interviewed Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures for the Real Leaders project last Friday (The interview will be up in 2 and a half weeks). The wonderful thing about doing these interviews is that there are so many inspirational little nuggets from the stories of the folk we interview.

Albert had a great insight about good and bad days. He said “You don’t really know if a good day is a good day.” He went on to contrast two events – an event in his first start-up that was perceived as a big success and a deal that fell through after two years of negotiations. The first was met with great celebration while the second felt devastating.

In hindsight, however, the big success turned out to not be a success after all, while the failed negotiation turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. As the deal fell through, he explored new paths and went on to build a successful career as a venture capitalist. His learning was not too get too excited about the successes or too depressed about the failures. You never know what the future has in store.

What a wonderful insight! Loved it.

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat both imposters just the same.” | ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling

Work Hacks Wednesdays: Collect All Positive Feedback You Receive

2 simple steps –

1. “Smile” Folder: Keep a “smile” folder on your Outlook/Gmail and collect all positive feedback you receive. Be meticulous about this. Every time, you receive an email commending you on fantastic work, transfer it to the smile folder.

2. Positive Feedback Doc: Keep a document/One Note/EverNote page for all your positive feedback. I’ve written a few times before about scheduling check ins and reviews proactively. Ensure that you spend some time on things that are working well, take notes on your phone, and email them to yourself. Again, be meticulous about transferring them to this positive feedback doc.

This positive feedback doc turns out to be a wealth of information. We learn both from our successes and failures. So, it’s always useful to know what you did well so you can do it again, especially if it was done out on accident. Additionally, you may discover an area of strength that you didn’t know about.

And, finally, when you have that really bad day (not if, when..), the smile folder and the positive feedback doc will go a long way in making it better.

The Richard Parker Accountability Learning

I loved the depth of the “Life of Pi” movie.

I think the idea that the fear of Richard Parker, the tiger, kept Pi alert while they were adrift in the ocean is a powerful one. The concept here is accountability.

Organizations have this built in thanks to bosses and boards of directors. I think we need accountability as human beings. And, like all things, I think accountability is a muscle that needs to be developed. It takes many years of practice and external guidance to develop the sort of will power that comes with accountability. A few master it very early.

For the rest of us, it helps to think about the Richard Parker’s in our lives – i.e. people whose wisdom we respect, and yet, people who we would hate letting down because they scare us just that little bit.


The downside to any such practice is that it can become a habit, a safe comfort zone. The tough part here is to keep doing this with the view that the ideal end state is when we are accountable just to ourselves.

The journey to that end state will be tough, painful and imperfect. Just like all good things..

Too Polished

I find it really ironical that graduation speakers advice the crowd to “dream”, “dare”, “fail”, etc., when they themselves do not dare to put away their typed out speech, and just speak. There must be a reason, of course. Some of these graduation speakers have probably given 1000’s of impromptu speeches in their life time. But, somehow, it seems that the norms get hold of them during a graduation speech.

It’s smooth. Too smooth, perhaps. And way too polished. In doing so, they insulate themselves from making a mistake but give up on being human.

A lot of growing up IS having our edges smoothened and polished. We learn to dress appropriately, eat appropriately and behave appropriately. The trouble with all this smoothening is that we often are taught to think “appropriately” as well. Don’t ask too many questions or bring up too radical an idea.

The trouble with the perfectly polished is that there is no edge. And, if there is no edge, there is no tension. And, if there is no tension, there is no giant leap, no progress, and certainly no magic.

On Vision Studies and Evaluation Apprehension

This week’s book learning is from Quiet by Susan Cain and is part of a series on “Brainstorming and Peer Pressure”. (Part 1, 2)

Between the years 1951-56, psychologist Solomon Ashe conducted a series of experiments on “group influence.”

Student volunteers in a group were subjected to a straight forward vision test. 3 lines of varying lengths were shown and they were asked to indicate the longest and shortest lines. 95% answered correctly.
However, when Ashe planted actors in the group who confidently gave the same incorrect answer, the correct answers plunged to 25%.

This was staggering. 75% of the participants went along with the group’s wrong answer to at least 1 question despite the answer being painfully obvious.

Are groups really that detrimental to performance? Two separate studies seemed to indicate as much –
– During the 1988-89 basketball season, two NCAA basketball teams played 11 games without spectators owing to a measles outbreak leading to schools banning spectators. The players played much better on every measurable statistic, even when compared to their performance in front of adoring home fans.
– Participants who were tested on anagram puzzles performed much worse when someone was watching.

So, audiences may be rousing, but they are incredibly stressful.


Sketch by EB

This “evaluation apprehension” is one of the big reasons group brainstorming doesn’t result in creative ideas!

But, Ashe’s experiment took the question a step further – what exactly happened to the students when the actors started giving wrong answers? Did they consciously answer to “fit in?” Coming up next week..

Here’s to minimizing evaluation apprehension on critical tasks this week!

The Tuna Sandwich and Coke Can

During my ten months at the Indian Indian School, Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), my lunch time routine was set – the moment the lunch bell rang, I would run down to the basketball court with about 20 others, munching my tuna sandwich lunch. One of the gang (on rotation) would have a coke can which he would finish quickly while the others waited impatiently. He would then proceed to crush it.

Voila! Our football was ready. There would be 30 odd groups like this one on the basket ball court. That was the marked territory of the 4th and 5th grade. We had more than 30 sections of 40 students each in every class. I think the court was larger than normal size but in the 45 minutes that followed, it didn’t matter. Neither did the heat (it is a desert, after all). We were just young boys looking for an outlet to our energy as we didn’t have the opportunity to play outside of school. And boy, did we have fun.

I learnt a few very important lessons from this experience. First, if you have a goal that you are dedicated to, all the noise around you just didn’t matter. In this case, all we could see was our coke can. (On occasion, we did splurge on a tennis ball…)

Second, a big part of great memories comes from making the most of meagre resources. The senior boys monopolized the football field and lack of pocket money meant we almost always didn’t have the right “equipment.” So, we made do with a coke can – who would have thought?

Finally, fun can be extremely low cost. As we grow up, we often get caught up in the right place, right food, right drink, etc. If you’re determined to have fun, you will.. the choice is ours.

Don’t Travel While You Are Young

I came across this post making the case for “Travel while you are young.” Such posts are not uncommon – a search of the phrase on Google will tell you as much. I thought I’d provide the counter point.

As I write this, I know fully well that this is going to be the sort of “un-sexy” post that will only be read by the regulars in this community. The posts that make their waves across the blogosphere are the ones with “sexy” advice – the kind that make you look dreamily beyond the computer screen/cubicle and make you wonder if you should hand in your papers and walk into the promise land of “follow your passion” and “travel while you are young.”

So, don’t travel when you are young? Yup, focus on being so good they can’t ignore you instead. Invest in your learning. Work long hours while you can. Work weekends. Get really really good. Travel, but let that not be the goal. Let the goal be to develop skills that will help you make a positive difference to the world.

And, while we are it, don’t buy into nonsense about age. By societal terms, you are always either too young or too old to do something. Luckily, Bill Gates didn’t listen to such advice. Neither did Mark Zuckerberg or Colonel Sanders. And, neither should you.

I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of the points such posts push. For instance, this post in question has a couple of  good points about habits. I just disagree with the assertion that travel is the seeming answer to making an “investment” in life that we make in our years of empowerment. And I will explain why.

Let’s start with a question – what is the purpose of this life? While we do not have a definite answer to this question, we do have two largely accepted schools of thought. The first asserts that the purpose of life is to pursue happiness while the second asserts its all about finding meaning which comes from committing to a cause greater than your own.

If happiness is the goal
: There are two kinds of happiness – pleasure (short term) and gratification (long term). That exquisite bar of chocolate and that road trip on the Gold Coast are examples of pleasure. Gratification, on the other hand, comes from all those long and painful hours you put in to get good at what you do; that sense of focus and exhilaration at work/study/play when you completely lose yourself in what you are doing. Psychologists call this state “flow.”

Travel is pleasure. Pleasure is very important to our well being in small doses. But, it is not what brings long term gratification and happiness.

If purpose is the goal: Travel isn’t about committing to a cause greater than one self unless being self centred is a cause. And, it really isn’t all that hard.

Put simply, anybody with a bit of cash and time to kill can travel. If only it were that simple to make a lasting difference in this world…

So, let’s not make the act of travel look heroic. You might have many reasons to do it – you might love traveling, you might love frequent vacations, you might have time to kill with some spare cash, or you might have been European in the “good old days” when the welfare system made sure you had a free education.

That’s not to say it can’t be heroic either – if you volunteer at orphanages in a 100 countries, good on you. Hanging out at the beach or eating at a local’s house doesn’t count – unless the purpose is pleasure. And, once again, it’s okay to go after pleasure if you call it that.

And, in a true celebration of unsolicited advice, I’d like to add a piece of my own (oh, the irony) – Go after the “un-sexy.”

Think of all the “un-sexy” advice you have received in your life – never tell a lie, keep your promises, study hard, work harder, exercise regularly, eat healthy, be the best at what you do, read good books, be there for people who need you, etc. That’s the stuff that actually DOES make us happy in the long run.

Or, as JLM eloquently puts it – ‘That Geek in high school who you used to make fun of, Football Team Captain, just sold his company for $300,000,000 and is taking your old girlfriend to the Turks & Caicos for the next two weeks.  She says she has a few things to teach him and apparently he’s a fast learner.  They said “hi”.’

What about making a difference and changing the world, then? Does the un-sexy stuff accomplish that?

That’s not guaranteed. It never is. But, at least you will give yourself a shot.

And, the people who give themselves a shot at making a difference and changing the world are the ones that actually do.