Why mindsets don't change: the mental prediction trap
Can you imagine a world where organisations and their leaders celebrated and encouraged doubt? And shunned certainty? What kind of leaders would these people be?
As it turns out, the answer is more creative. At the 2014 Learning Technologies conference, Professor Beau Lotto from UCL opened his keynote address with the words, "Anything interesting begins with doubt."
As a neuroscientist he specialises in the mental process of discovery, and he regards the most important quality of leaders and teachers as, "how you lead others into uncertainty." But not for the reason that you are thinking.
Uncertainty is the prerequisite of play. We start to play when we want to laugh, which requires not knowing the punch line. Or when we want to join a game, which requires not knowing the outcome. Without uncertainty these playful activities make no sense. Play is one of those rare behaviours: it is its own reward. We play in order to play.
Before we attempt to play with mindset change, however, we first need to explore a more fundamental question.
Where does your perception come from?
True to form, Professor Lotto answers this question with another question:
"ca y u rea t is?"
But do you know why you can read this? Well, your perception is 90% based on your personal history, and 10% based on your brain’s sensory inputs. Yes you read that right. We quite literally make our reality up as we go along. Your brain fills in the gaps based on what Lotto calls your “personal history.”
The mental prediction trap
David Bohm - the Nobel prize-winning physicist and protege of Einstein - described his life’s work as the study of consciousness. An odd sense of identity for a physicist, you might think.
Alongside his exploration of quantum physics, Bohm was fascinated by where our thoughts come from, and how creativity leads to insight. The key, he proposed, was to free our thinking of what he called “the problems of thought” which stem from the fact that most of our thoughts are habitual. In other words, they are recollections from memory. They are thoughts from the past which keep surfacing repetitively. They comprise the part of our mindset that is fixed.
With continued habitual use, some of these backward-looking thoughts, will naturally pass their sell-by dates. But they continue to feature in our stream of consciousness, simply out of habit. The brain has delegated these thought patterns to its autopilot system, and freed up your precious short term memory for other uses. Combined, these thoughts become our unconscious maps of the world. Their job is to make predictions about what will happen as a result of our words and actions. When the map seems to work, the brain thinks, “don’t fix it!”
Thoughts have feelings too
From a perception system point of view, emotions are a form of thought. They get ‘looked up’ in our personal histories, and recalled from long term memory. This happens unconsciously, managed by the so-called reptilian brain that governs all of our automatic processes, such as breathing or habits.
Lotto uses a well-researched example to illustrate. Presenting his audience with a slide showing nine images of spikey and rounded objects in a 3 by 3 matrix, he asks them to mentally group them. He then reveals how the logical (i.e. mathematical) groupings do not correspond with what makes sense to the audience.
Most members of the audience will group the spikey things together and the round things together, rather than making groupings based on the form factor of the nine shapes. The audience’s intuitive groupings fail to focus on the facts. Or in other words, they simply don’t see what’s there. Rather, their grouping is based on the meaning of what they see.
The meaning of spikey is painful. And the meaning of round is soft. So we are conditioned to 'see' the world in terms of its meaning to us, which in this case means avoidance of pain. This of course is true metaphorically rather than physically, and just goes to show the power of metaphors. It also illustrates both the difficulty of mindset change, and the opportunity. To open up minds, you need to help people to see things differently.
Playing with ideas
We have already established that the reward of play comes from not knowing the outcome. That is, the only source of break-throughs in mindset change (ie uncertainty) is the very thing that - unconsciously - we go to great lengths to avoid. So how do we escape this trap?
You know the answer, of course. We have to change our mindset. In order to see things differently, we have to change our mental map from an outcome focus (seeking certainty) to a learning process focus (comfortable with uncertainty).
That’s what play is: letting go of outcomes and being delighted by surprise. Moreover, Lotto’s research has discovered the key to unlocking mindset change is simple: asking questions. As he says, “every new perception begins with a question.”
So if that sounds too easy, what’s the catch?
Well, you can’t pose these questions to other people, they have to pose the questions to themselves. This means our job as leaders or influencers is to create the conditions for play. And when we speak of play, we are not using the dictionary definition. Play is not defined by the activity, it is defined by the mental state that people adopt towards the activity.
You can go to a comedy club (ie an activity) but if the comedian is inexperienced he might fail to create a fun atmosphere, lowering your barriers with his cheeky grin or off-beat mannerisms. So he fails to transport you into that mental state of lowered inhibitions, creating a sense of anticipation and an embrace of surprise.
Questions that change mindsets: how to seed ideas
Here’s a really simple example from Harold Jarche, a speaker and expert in managing personal knowledge. I watched a video of him talking about how to use Twitter. My reaction to the video illustrates how my mindset began to change around this simple topic, as I watched the video.
(Please note: I have italicised Jarche’s paraphrased words, to make it easier to follow. This is not a transcript, it is a summary of his key points, taken from my notes.)
(Video starts) Jarche discloses that people often ask him (as a social media expert): “why do you use Twitter?”
He responds that the benefit of Twitter accrues only from following the right people.
My thought: who are the ‘right’ people?
He goes on to explain that he is continually on the lookout for people that Tweet about knowledge management, new ways of organising work, and new web technologies…
His tactic is to follow new people for a while, before quickly deciding whether to unfollow them.
“Fine-tuning your network” is key he says. He goes on to refer to a radio waves metaphor, explaining that what we are seeking is to “have more signal than noise.”
My thought: I have way too much noise in my Twitter feed!
He adds, “if two or three people are talking about the same thing, just follow one”
My thought: I’ve been following everyone that might - no matter how remote the likelihood - be interesting or useful.
He then hammers the point home, saying “if you find Twitter boring, you’re following the wrong people.”
My thought: okay, agreed. I need to change how I use Twitter.
Note that Jarche has not asked any questions. By simply sharing his personal strategy, I questioned myself. So in a short video clip, Jarche gave me a new mental map that I can use to navigate Twitter with.
Although this is just a simple example, I believe that all complex change starts with small changes. As Lotto says, even huge creative leaps only look that way to outsiders looking in:
“We think creativity is this messy, messy process. It’s not. To the person making what seems a big jump, it’s not. It’s a small jump. For them it makes sense. It’s very logical if you are on the inside. For them, those two things are actually next to each other.”
Three tactics for complex mindset change
So our Twitter example gives us a simple example of how we can plant questions, or at least suggest them. But what about more complex changes? I’ve worked on some highly complex changes. For example, in my Vodafone days in Spain, we launched a 3 year programme to shift mindsets, culture and skills in the face of strategic uncertainty and rapid technological change. What I’ve learned is that it’s usually the simple tactics that work best. Why? Because you can’t force complex ideas into people’s brains all in one go. That just creates mental overwhelm. It’s the simple ideas that start to turn the tide of complexity in your favour, as the simple - but profound - ideas are the ones that stick in people’s minds.
Complex change feels like a tough challenge. The strong emotions it generates create stress, which causes our perceptions to lock down in search of familiarity. As Lotto reinforces, “under stress, the brain goes for the familiar” and it “stops searching and focuses on one solution.”
So let’s build on this idea of simplicity that cuts through complexity. Let me offer you my mental map, for consideration. Take whatever you find useful, and adapt it to work for you.
(Image of Bridging Alternative Realities)
Here are three simple ways to seed questions into people’s minds. They work unconsciously, like the effect of package design on the purchase of a physical product. The product is analogous to your idea, but it is the packaging that influences your initial decision to buy or consume.
1. Focus attention: from the general to the specific
Focus is the basis of sight: the centre of the eye’s vision is the only part of our vision that is in focus. The rest is a blur: you cannot ‘focus’ on your peripheral vision. So seeing a picture in our mind is a very natural way for us to focus and pay attention to something.
The aim of this tactic is to nudge people towards engaging or exploring an idea, rather than being neutral. The self-directed questions are generated by directing the focus of a person’s attention.
Professor Deborah Small at Wharton, a professor of marketing and psychology, conducted an experiment on charitable donations. She showed that when potential donors are showed a written description, that their tendency to make a donation depends on how the scenario is presented. A scenario description written in a detached way, using generalities or referring to collectives like the 3 million people leads to low levels of donation. But by talking instead about the 7 year old girl and her family’s plight, the personal example story puts us centre stage in a mental scene, as the hero figure. And then people give more generously.
This is an illustration of an implicit way of planting a question. The potential giver is caused to question themselves as they feel emotionally engaged by the girl’s story. The story is priming the brain to ask itself questions.
2. Remove overwhelm: shift from conscious to unconscious thought
Ten years ago I moved to Madrid for my work, and had to learn Spanish from scratch. About 12 months in, I reached a plateau in my language learning. I was struggling to follow conversations in meetings, and think fast enough to express what I wanted to say. I learned two things about this from my Spanish teacher Rocio.
Firstly, there is a two-step process behind acquiring new vocabulary. New vocab has to move from passive to active memory. Passive vocab are words that you can recognise when you hear them, but when you want to express yourself you ‘can’t find the words.’ Active vocab are words that are so familiar, through frequent use, that you don’t need to search for them: they are just there when you need them. The process happens naturally, through simple repetition and use.
Secondly, I was trying too hard. She advised that I just accept what I could understand, and let go of trying to understand everything. She told me to trust that the comprehension would just come. At first, I found this a difficult concept to get my head around. But as soon as I tried it, I found it easier to follow conversations. I stopped getting stuck on words I didn’t know, and then missing the next few seconds of the conversation whilst I was lost in thought. Suddenly the flow of a conversation became my focus, not the individual words. Things made more sense, and as my new vocabulary became ‘active’ the comprehension took care of itself.
Research shows that we have about 3 or 4 memory slots available to our short term memory. Any more than 3/4 ideas are hard for us to hold in memory, and so going beyond that makes it hard to follow a train of thought. This is what was blocking my ability to follow and contribute at the same time. Letting go of trying to follow every word simply freed up some RAM memory.
You can use this idea of shifting your conscious attention, and not overwhelming the short term memory, in many ways. Here are just two to get you started.
i. Focus on one idea at a time.
I learned this from Barbara Minto, the McKinsey & Co trainer and author of The Pyramid Principle. She likens the process of imparting complex information to a conversational dialogue. You present an idea, and the other person’s mind has a question. You then answer that question, which raises a follow-up question. And so on.
This process requires some advanced preparation: anticipating (or researching) the questions in the mind of the audience. With the questions, you can then create a mental pyramid structure so that you can put your ideas in a logical order that is easy to follow.
The opposite approach is to throw a ‘mental grenade’ at your audience - a particularly common affliction amongst subject matter experts - which just scatters attention and overwhelms the mind with input.
ii. Remove the scaffolding.
Guardian journalist and author Will Storr advises writers to “take the scaffolding out” of their writing. The same applies to ideas. The basic idea is to leave only the minimum structure required for an idea to stand up mentally on its own.
However, the tendency is obscure the idea with scaffolding. Experts and insiders suffer this tendency to scaffold their ideas, as they struggle to leave anything out (I know this well: I’m struggling with it as I write this!).
The process of removing scaffolding is called editing: all that remains is the least amount of information that still makes sense. The brain loves this type of simple presentation, because it is wired to look for causes and effects. And to build theories about them. So why not let it?
3. Add desire: potential + desire = possibility
In my corporate life I’ve had lots of discussions about people’s “potential.” Often these discussions would not lead to satisfactory conclusions, or concrete outcomes. I would often ponder why potential was such a seemingly simple concept, and yet so hard to grapple with.
About three years ago, I attended a workshop that illuminated a missing dimension to many of these ‘potential’ discussions. The workshop was run by Robert Dilts, an NLP innovator and author, based on his latest work on the power of transformational beliefs. The essence of the work was an exploration of how we ‘hold’ our beliefs. Beliefs are most commonly thought of as intellectual adoption of a position, that defines how you see the world in terms of ‘true’ or ‘false.’ But we explored with Robert how our beliefs are held not just intellectually but in an embodied way. He used the term “somatic mind” to capture the idea of the mind that is embodied.
Researchers have shown that we have a neural network surrounding the heart and in the lining of our gut. Whilst these neurons can’t have ‘thoughts’ in the conscious sense, they do have a type of memory which functions just like the neurons in our brains. As reported in Scientific American, quoting from the book by Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, this “second brain” is what gives us “that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach after looking at your post holiday credit card bill.” In other words, “You’re stressed and your gut knows it - immediately.”
If we want to shift mindsets from A to B, then B is a sort of ‘potential’ reality. And just like the sort of throw-away comment we might make that, “I could potentially do this” it doesn’t contain any commitment to action. The definition of potential in physics is stored energy. It needs a catalyst to release it. In the case of human potential, this catalyst is desire.
A shift takes place we add desire to potential. Potential is a theoretical construct. It’s not real, and it doesn’t feel real or meaningful. Not, that is, until you decide you want that potential reality to come true. Then your mind crosses the threshold from ‘under consideration’ to ‘committed.’ These are just concepts, whereas in reality this is about how you feel. Hopefully you will recognise the feeling of desire and recognise its impact on your own personal history.
So what tactic should we employ then to invoke desire?
In a word, encourage a reflection on ‘why’ or ‘why not.’ Whilst we can’t create desire, what we can do is encourage choice. If minds are neutral towards a new mindset, then we can prompt people to consider why that is. If minds are resistant, we can provoke reflection or discussion about why they are resistant. Contemplating ‘why’ connects the new mindset with its meaning to people.
The way in which reflection is encouraged is important: the intent should be to “seek to understand, before being understood” as Stephen Covey put it. This generates a climate of enquiry - and openness - as opposed to a climate of challenge, which usually just invokes defensiveness.
So to summarise the key points raised in this article are as follows:
• Our brains avoid uncertainty, and under stress they will seek out familiarity and tend to latch onto a single solution
• Our mental maps and thoughts can become a prediction trap: we get attached to our mental maps and ways of thinking, and sometimes we hold onto them beyond the point at which they no longer serve our interests
• Mindset change requires people to enter into a mental state of play
• Mindset change starts with self-discovery; all discovery starts with a question
• People have to question themselves in order to change their way of seeing the world; you can’t force a mindset change on someone, nor provoke it with your own questions (ie your mindset)
• There are three tactics that can frame a mindset change by causing reflection and self-questioning: 1) focus attention from the general to the specific; 2) remove mental overwhelm in order to focus the mind, by focusing on one idea at a time and removing unnecessary scaffolding; 3) turn potential into possibility by encouraging reflection on the meaning of a change, so that people make a choice that creates (or rules out) desire