Q and A | Brain Research Experts



Four experts discuss the relevance of brain research

By Jaime Rall

We asked four experts to discuss what legislators can learn from scientific research into how we make decisions. Our expert panel included Tony Greenwald, a University of Washington professor of psychology and co-author of “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People”; Gary Klein, research psychologist and author of “Seeing What Others Don’t”; John Medina, molecular biologist and author of “Brain Rules”; and David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work” and director of the NeuroLeadership Institute.

State Legislatures: Why should legislators pay attention to scientific discoveries about how we make decisions?

David Rock: What we’re discovering about the brain by studying it directly is that many of our intuitions about human nature are wrong. We’re discovering how people really change, how we’re really influenced, how we make decisions, all these things. If you’re involved in governing, it’s good to stay close to what we’re learning about human nature.

Tony Greenwald: People are people. Legislators, medical doctors, police, executives, they’re functioning like humans do. You don’t leave your humanity behind when you go into your professional environment.

SL: What are some key takeaways from the research?

Gary Klein: No one should ever “trust their gut” because intuitions, valuable as they are, can mislead us. That said, we should never trust analyses either, because these can also mislead us. Intuitions may give us answers that aren’t exactly right, but analyses can be way off. Analyses need to be double-checked, the same as intuitions. Of course, if we are under extreme time pressure we may have to trust our gut and hope for the best.

John Medina: Every legislator on the planet ought to know about a cognitive gadget called “executive function” that plays a huge role in how we make decisions. Executive function has two parts: cognitive control and emotional regulation. People with good executive function are usually fairly pleasant to be around because you don’t have to walk on eggshells in their presence. They are also often very good mathematicians.

Rock: A tremendous amount of how we make decisions and solve problems is driven by unconscious processing deep in the brain—mechanisms we have no conscious access to. If you think about conscious processing, what we call the “mind,” as a cubic foot, then unconscious processing would be the size of the Milky Way by comparison. There’s just so much more going on behind the scenes than it appears. Second, if you have a brain, you’re biased. And we have no conscious access to noticing that, or changing that very easily, in ourselves. Just knowing that biases exist doesn’t make you more conscious of it, either. You have to put checks and balances in place to mitigate bias, rather than just trying not to be biased. The more you can understand about the unconscious mechanisms, the more successful you can be, the better decisions you can make, and the less bias you can have.

SL: What is one of the most surprising or counterintuitive findings?

Greenwald: People don’t give enough credit to the way the mind operates without conscious awareness. They think if they know they’re at risk for making a bad decision, being influenced by whatever bias, they can avoid that. But in fact, they don’t understand well enough how the mind works, that those things immediately affect judgment without benefit of thought.

Klein: We shouldn’t be deceived by how confident a person appears. Too often we mistake confidence for competence.

Medina: We tend to make decisions best when we are physically fit. It is clear from the research that aerobically fit people have higher levels of executive function than sedentary people. There may even be a “sweet spot” where the brain’s decision-making functions are at their best. Most people know it as an “endorphin rush,” the hour or two (or three) after a stout aerobic workout.

Rock: We think people are motivated by money or fame, but we are much more driven by social motivations than we realized before we studied the brain directly. A status threat or a sense of unfairness actually activates the pain center of the brain the same way as physical pain.

SL: If you could create a legislative environment to help policymakers make their best possible decisions, what would it look like?

Klein: I would eliminate the macho notion that decision makers and their staff should work through exhaustion. Research shows that sleep deprivation severely compromises cognitive functioning.

Medina: Legislators would replace their desks with treadmills, walking as often as they could to boost that executive function (staff, too!)—and they would take a 30-minute nap every afternoon at their calculated nap zone, which does the same thing. They would also be required to take a one-day social entrainment course of the kind we are starting to give physicians. This course has been shown to improve physician bedside manner remarkably, and to reduce litigation, mostly because it improves their ability to peer inside someone else’s head, understand their motivations and intentions, and be kind with what they see. In psychology, this is called pro-social “Theory of Mind”; that’s probably another way of saying empathy. The entrainment has worked remarkably well in high-risk intense work environments, and I can’t think of a more representative environment than a legislative session—especially one approaching a deadline.

Rock: The brain organizes around the pursuit of goals, what we’re trying to achieve. The research is pretty solid that when you speak with someone whose goals you perceive as competing with yours, you process anything they say or do in quite a shallow way, compared to someone you think has similar goals. In the brain, there’s minimal processing of the other’s ideas. One way to overcome this is through shared experiences—sitting down for a beer, having a moment with someone. Another is shared goals. The goals don’t have to be very big, but they have to be real. Not a lofty thing like, “We want a great country.” It has to be tangible and actionable in the short-term, and something you want to achieve.

Medina: I love the example that Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan provided for future policymakers about how to create a sustained bipartisan relationship on the back of a common love for beer. And people.

SL: What could legislators do better, in terms of how they approach decision making?

Rock: Respecting the power of the unconscious for problem-solving is something we could all do better. There’s very good research that shows that when a decision is complex, you should let your unconscious do more work. Any time you hit a roadblock, let it go and go do something else, and let the unconscious work on it, and come back and see what happens. Often it’s solved the problem. But when the unconscious is solving the problem, the solution that the unconscious comes to involves a weak electrical signal that is easily drowned out by everyday electrical signals. You need lower ambient noise in the brain, lower electrical activity overall, which means not thinking much, not stressed, not too busy. Just a quiet reflection. That’s when the problem your unconscious has already solved can actually rise to the surface.

SL: What research trends should decision makers keep their eyes on?

Klein: Research on how to bring individuals and teams up to speed more quickly. I think this field may just be starting to open up.

Medina: They should follow the work of Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT who specializes in empathy and tribalism. An article in the New York Times entitled The Brain’s Empathy Gap, which does a great job of describing his work to nontechnical audiences, should be required reading for every policymaker in the United States.

Rock: These last few years, there’s been a lot of discussion about the fact that we’re all biased. I think we’re getting better at working out how to actually mitigate bias, and people who study the brain are making this a goal. Second, I think we’re getting more and more understanding of how to have breakthrough insights, literally to let the unconscious solve the problem. This is pretty important because that’s how we solve really complex problems.

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