Neuropsychology and what it tells us about the now

Simon Andrew

14/07/2016
Categories: HR

Those who have chatted to me around the Benefex office might...might, possibly, maybe have heard me talk (casually, in passing) about my degree in Psychology. Maybe. What has this got to do with employee benefits and the workplace? Well, quite a lot, if I’m honest. At our client Summer Forum in July, we got to see some great talks which focused on the future of employee benefits, but what I’d like to take a look at is the present, and what neuropsychology can tell us about our colleagues and ourselves.

So, let’s start off with some context. You’re an intelligent person, right? (You must be if you’ve decided to read this – good choice, I might add.) Yet, you probably find it challenging to think of a different password for every medium of technology you have access to. A different password for each, a word that no one else should guess, with numbers, letters, special characters etc.  We know that the brain isn’t programmed to cope with so many different complex sequences, and yet we all just conform to it anyway. Madness!

So this led us to question our approach to employees and what we should really be considering. As with any good analysis, let’s start with a hypothesis:

Employees are simple, logical creatures that work at a consistently high level of productivity, innovate on the job and adapt easily to change.

Maybe we don’t believe that wholeheartedly, but as HR professionals, we are sometimes guilty of treating people like this. We explored how true this statement is by looking at rationality, behaviour and the power of head space.

Introduction to Neuropsychology

Let’s do a quick test.  Take a look at the below statement and count how many “f”s there are…

Finished files are the full result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of many fruitful years…

How many “f”s did you count? Maybe five… six…? Well, there are actually nine:

Finished files are the full result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of many fruitful years…

The reason is, we process the words phonetically, meaning we look for the fff sound and miss the v sounds.

Remember the blue and black / white and gold dress? When you looked at that, you may have seen something differently to your peers due to your brain's interpretation and the sensitivity of your light receptors. So we know there’s more that goes in in our heads than meets the eye.

We’re getting good at studying the brain

Our knowledge of the brain has come so far. Through looking at brain activity alone, scientists can accurately predict what someone may be looking at. In fact, a computer programme was created to do just that. Without any knowledge of what people were actually seeing, the programme was able to pull an image from a stock bank which was extremely accurate.

Rationality/Emotion

What do we know about how emotion affects us? What traits do you and your colleagues bring to work?

Looking at studies involving people with brain damage we are able to get some rare insights. One such study involved a test called the Iowa Gambling Test. It involved two decks of cards, with participants choosing cards from each as they wished. Deck A had short term benefits, paying out a large financial sum for each card taken, but after a period of time it would end in long term loss as there was a penalty which outweighed all of the gains. Deck B had a smaller short-term benefit, but after a period had a much larger long-term benefit, by way of another financial pay out. Over time, choices from Deck A were seen as bad choices and choices from Deck B were seen as good choices. The study proved that those who had brain lesions – leading to impaired emotional links – were a) more likely to make negative decisions and b) more likely to struggle to make decisions at all.

Why? Because emotion is intrinsic in decision making. How can we choose an option if we have no feeling about it?

Take a look at these two familiar products:

When asked, 9 out of 10 people will tell you that they prefer Coke to Pepsi. However, when independent researchers conducted a blind taste test, they found that the majority of participants actually preferred the taste of Pepsi. Why? Brain scans show that when evaluating brands or products, consumers primarily use emotions rather than information. People often associate Coca-Cola with Christmas, joy and happiness, due to their advertising, and these emotions influence their purchasing choice. So, in the workplace, emotions will colour your decision-making, attention and much more than you may think.

Changing Behaviours

We’re going to take a look at two parts of the brain associated with decision making. Firstly, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain at work when we’re in deep, complex thought. So, if you’re studying for a test or trying to solve a problem, it’s the front of your brain which is pulsing away. This is taxing, and can’t be withstood for extended periods of time.

For less conscious thought, your basal ganglia – which is centred at the base of the forebrain – will guide you through automatic activities. So, when you’re driving your familiar route to work, or cooking a beans-on-toast dinner, your basal ganglia is controlling your movements and processing your environment. The beauty of this – it’s effortless and efficient.

How do we use all this information to increase productivity at work? Well one study conducted in Israel collected over a thousand judicial rulings over two different parole boards to understand how our decision making changes. The decision-making behind whether or not to grant parole requires complex processing of evidence, which is taxing on the brain. As you have less energy, your ability to make those complex decisions dwindles, and the chances are you’ll opt for the lower-risk, easier option. What the study found was mind-blowing. On the below chart, the vertical axis shows the proportion of favourable answers given, while the horizontal axis represents the time of day. The dotted lines show the judges’ break times.

(Study: 'Extraneous factors in judicial decisions'. Danzigera, Levavb and Avaim-Pessoa)

We’re all familiar with the concept of being ‘hangry’ (hungry + angry), and we all know that after a break we’re much more refreshed and productive, but to see it laid out in black and white like this is astounding! Is it a good idea to conduct a 1:1 just before lunch on a Monday when you’re tired and irritable? Probably not.

Fun fact: It’s suggested that up to 80% of what we do each day is habitual. So, when we implement change we need to be mindful of the strain we’ll put on individuals, as they burn more energy and get tired quickly to deal with learning the new procedures. 

Glorious Headspace

So we know it’s important to stay refreshed and energised – but what about the power of thought and thinking time?

In another classic study, two groups of absolute beginners practised playing the piano for five days. One group practised physically for two hours a day, and the other group practised mentally for the same amount of time; the difference being only the physical presence of the piano. Their brain patterns were measured to see how their neural pathways developed:

(Study: 'The Plastic Human Brain Cortex'. Pascual-Leone, Amedi, Fregni, and Merabet)

The amazing finding, those who physically practised only got marginally better than those who mentally practised. Thinking is almost as powerful as doing. Wow.

What’s more, when studying that ‘eureka’ moment we can see that very rarely happens when we’re deep in intensive, complex thought. In order for your subconscious to solve those problems for us (it’s amazing like that) we need to keep our conscious quiet. So when you’re trying to solve the problem to unlock the world’s riches, you might find relaxing in a bath and with Netflix the best way.

So, what do we think of our opening statement now?

 

Employees are simple, logical creatures that work at a consistently high level of productivity, innovate on the job and adapt easily to change.

How about…

Employees are complex, emotional creatures that fluctuate dramatically, require time and space to innovate, and find change difficult.

That’s more like it.

How do we apply all of this to HR and employee benefits?

  • In our recent client forum we invited our clients to consider this. Here is some of the top feedback we received:
  • Sending targeted communication at the right moments is as key to its effectiveness as the content of the comms itself.
  • The method of communication should be varied and target people when they’re relaxed i.e. at home.
  • Your technology needs to be accessible and widely available to employees in their homes.
  • It’s important to consider wider issues and environment when sending communications. For example, the day after the referendum was probably the country’s least productive day; internal communication that day would have been broadly ignored!
  • Communication should be visual, not too taxing to read, and largely positive.
  • Breaks! Breaks are so important to your employees’ productivity. Remove the stigma around taking breaks; as long as they’re not excessive, several breaks a day will do wonders for energy levels. Encouraging exercise at lunch time as well also helps. Maybe using Fitbits/team challenges or similar.
  • When making big decisions, perhaps have your initial discussion, take a break, then make your final decision on reflection.
  • Do the tough or important stuff in the mornings or straight after a break. Get them out of the way while you’re feeling good.
  • Your working environment needs to be varied. Employees need access to quiet zones.
  • Your brand can be as important as the benefits you provide. Decisions from your customers and your employees will be influenced by emotions.

Now, if you made it through all of that I imagine all of your pre-frontal cortexes have been working hard, so go reward yourself with a coffee and relax. These complex problems will solve themselves.

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