Have you ever gotten into a Facebook argument about politics or religion or science? Have you ever been unfriended after those disagreements? This book can help you to understand why that happens, and how to change it.
Author Tali Sharot is a professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology and the director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London. In The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others, Sharot examines why people believe what they do and how we can use an understanding of neuroscience to encourage positive outcomes.
What do you think is the average compliance rate for restaurant workers washing their hands after going to the bathroom? It must be high, right? After all, there are those ubiquitous “Employees must wash hands before returning to work” signs in every bathroom.
I’ll give you a hint. It is about the same as the compliance rate for hospital workers.
I had my first trip to an emergency room the week before reading this part of the book, and I remembered the “Ask your nurse if s/he washed his/her hands” sign by the entry door, plainly visible from where I lay. At the time I didn’t ask the nurse, the doctor, or anyone else. Then a week later, I read that the compliance rate is 38% and I thought, maybe I should have asked. And then I thought, maybe I won’t go out to eat again, or maybe I should get a hepatitis A vaccination first.
As Sharot discussed in her previous work on optimism, we tend to underestimate the bad things that can happen to us. We won’t get ptomaine from the restaurant, and even if we do, surely we won’t get a hospital-acquired infection when we go for treatment. So what is the best way to get hospital workers to wash their hands?
I asked folks in a class of mine, and the one who actually worked in a hospital was for using the stick rather than the carrot — “observe the sinks and see who washed up.” Turns out, direct observation doesn’t work. Sharot writes about a project at a New York hospital ICU which had live video feeds with observers checking and recording the hand sanitation rate. Staff compliance was one out of ten.
What did work was an electronic board with immediate feedback on the compliance rate — current staff numbers, what percent of workers were currently washing their hands, and what the weekly rate was. Compliance immediately went up to 90%. As another student said, “They used clicker training on doctors.” It is a method also used to improve team performance in sports psychology. Rather than punishment and threat, the approach was a positive one.
Why does that positive approach work? Sharot says that we have a built-in bias to move toward rewards and away from pain. A fear of loss may bring no action. These are evolutionary short cuts wired into us because, overall, they have worked.
Sharot looks at not just how to change others, but ourselves. For example, our beliefs are very hard to change. She opens with a story about the September 16, 2015 Republican primary debate between Ben Carson and Donald Trump. The moderator asked Carson if Trump should stop stating there is a link between vaccines and autism.
Carson responded by saying there is no research supporting a link, and since Trump is intelligent, he would make the correct decision based on the facts. Trump chose to respond with a story about the out-of-control epidemic of autism, using an example of a beautiful child who was given a vaccine with a hypodermic that looked like it was made for a horse. A week later, the child got sick with a fever and became autistic.
Sharot, who is a scientist, said she felt panic and her emotions convinced her (for the moment) to believe the story of the giant hypodermic and the link that Carson clearly said was not supported by peer reviewed studies. Emotions overruled fact, and the story played into her need “for control and fear of losing it.” She felt Carson missed a chance to make a difference. But how do you respond to emotions that hijack your brain?
We are driven to give information. She writes that every day “four million new blogs are written; eighty million new Instagram photos are uploaded, and 616 million new Tweets are released into cyberspace.” She describes Twitter as the amygdala of the Internet because of its effect on emotional arousal, and that contagious arousal spreads. Messages are “fast, short, and transferred broadly.”
She discusses approach and avoidance, confirmation bias, the effects of threats and intimidation, how we are influenced by others, and more. I liked her alternative explanation to the classic marshmallow test. A child was given a marshmallow and told they could eat it now or wait a set length of time before eating it, and they would be given a second. The standard interpretation says that those who wait have self-control, and those are able to delay gratification inevitably do better over the course of a lifetime than those who are instant gratifiers.
But what if, maybe based on life experience, the kid just doesn’t trust that the researcher will come back with the second marshmallow? What if the child believes they may not even get to eat the marshmallow in hand if he or she waits? This may actually be a measure of trust and optimism rather than delayed gratification. In the same way, our cultural biases may affect what we see and how we interpret research if we aren’t careful.
One study she mentioned really struck me. There is a long waitlist for organs, and many people die every year waiting for a suitable organ. I did not know that every year “ten percent of donated kidneys in the United States go unused.” If someone chooses not to take a donated kidney because of religious or other reasons, the next person on the list is told that the organ was declined by the one ahead of them on the list, but not the person’s reason for choosing to take a pass. “That patient assumes that the organ is faulty and passes up a potentially lifesaving operation — as will the next patient and the next.”
Sharot’s underlying assumption is that our brains make us who we are. Obviously, the shortcuts our brains take are not always for the best. Her aim in this book is to give us a map of factors that affect our behavior and our influence on others’ behavior or decision making, and to give us more effective and positive ways to be. She does an excellent job.
The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others
Picador reprint edition, September 2018
Paperback, 256 pages