Neuroscience Secrets and Leadership


One of the focuses that we like to talk about is what’s on the cutting edge of neuroscience. Today our show features Dr. Jonathan Schooler. He is going to talk about his research on consciousness, memory, the relationship between language and thought, problem solving, and decision making; things that we all do as executives and leaders every day, moment to moment.

He is particularly interested in exploring the phenomenon that intersect between the empirical and the philosophical such has how does the fluctuations in people’s awareness of their experience or as we may see it, the mind wandering; how does mind wandering influence us and what are some of the ways that we can alter it.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: As many of our listeners know on every show we really love to teach as well as share. I think we are going to have a great show with Dr. Jonathan Schooler. What we are going to learn in the program is not only about how to make ourselves better leaders, but to help those around us. We are going to talk about the brain and neuroscience contributions to top performance.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Let me tell you just a little bit more about Dr. Jonathan Schooler. We have had a fair amount of neuroscientists on our show and you know we have had David Borrok, we have had Mathew Leiberman; in that whole circle of folks, we’ve gotten a hold of Dr. Jonathan Schooler who spoke at the Neuro Leadership Conference in Boston. We dug up his contact information and he is right here in Santa Barbara, where I am. I’m really excited about having him. He is on the cutting edge of a lot of research. He is currently on the editorial board of Consciousness and Cognition in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. All these big words that he will help define for us. He’s the co-author of more than 100 papers published in Scientific Journals or edited volumes. He is the editor of Scientific Approach to Consciousness which was published in 1997.

To start off, who have been some of the most influential people and thinkers in your life and your career that have shaped where you are today?

Dr. Jonathan Schooler: Well let’s see, I’d have to start by acknowledging both of my parents. I’m actually from a long line of psychologists. Both my parents are psychologists and so is my uncle, so I’ve got a lot of psychologists in my family and I was really steeped in psychology all of my life. I have a great gratitude of thanks to my folks for really getting me interested in thinking about things from a psychological perspective.

I’d also say that my graduate advisor, my mentor in graduate school, Elizabeth Loftus, was tremendously influential. She is one of the most renowned women psychologists of all time. What was so powerful and compelling for me was the way in which she took situations and really reduced them in a way that made them understandable and relevant to the public. She has done absolutely cutting edge research on eye witness testimony and investigating how it is that the basic findings of memory apply in eye witness situations; presenting her findings in court cases and really influencing the way that courts evaluate the evidence of eye witnesses. This ability to distill complicated scientific stories and try to come up with a meaningful real world relevance, I thought was tremendously important and something I try to carry on in my own research.

Then the third most influential person is someone who has been long gone, his name is William James. He was a psychologist and philosopher who lived around 100 years ago. He was absolutely amazing. His writing on understanding human nature and sort of distilling the evidence back then; which the science was much more immature at the time, is absolutely astounding. The way that he did that was by observing his own experience; peering in and just having this incredible, amazingly insightful, perspective on his own experience. Basically the lesson there is that we can really learn a lot; we can generate very, very powerful and compelling hypothesis about the nature of the mind simply by watching our own mind. That has also informed my research in a major way.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Well Jonathan it’s so exciting to have you because as a behavioral scientist and physical anthropologist I’m already in love with the idea that you love James. You have been doing some fascinating research, and I know we are going to get into it. Can you tell us first how did you select these topics for your top research?

Dr. Jonathan Schooler: Well, it’s kind of hard to know exactly how it is that certain topics just grab our attention. I think each one of us; you can sort of imagine we have a little imaginary dial inside of our heads which just goes, interesting – kind of interesting – extremely interesting-bing-bing-bing-bing-bing-this is super interesting. I just pay attention to that. I go to the topics that go bing-bing-bing-bing-bing.

One of the things that I have found is that many of the most interesting topics are topics that my colleagues have shied away from. So things like consciousness, creativity, mind wandering, which I’ll be talking about, free will; these are areas where people are oh boy, that’s just to complicated, that’s too intimidating; we just can’t go there, there’s nothing meaningful that we can say about it.

My experience is that that is typically not the case. That those really, really interesting topics, those are the ones where there is going to be some really great low hanging fruit. So I tend to find myself wandering into areas that have been ignored because the people have been scared that they are going to be too murky or too loose.

Dr. Relly Nadler: We want to talk about one topic that Jonathan said is in the book, Blink, one of my favorite books. Around decision making and problem solving; every executive is doing that day-in and day-out, moment to moment. So now, we’ll be able to hear some of your research. What can you tell us about decision making and problem solving that you have found?

Dr. Jonathan Schooler: Well, one of the things that we always struggle with is to what degree can we trust our intuition. Is intuition really a meaningful concept? Do we always necessarily have to have every single explanation for why it is that we hold the particular views that we do.

This is a complicated topic and one for which I can’t offer absolutely fail safe rules of thumb. But what I can say, is that my research and the research of many others indicates that there may be situations in which individuals can hold genuine, authentic, useful and important intuitions where they may not have the full capacity to explain the basis of those situations.

So let me tell you a little bit of the research that we have done that’s supported this. In one study we had people taste various different strawberry jams. These are people who weren’t really jam experts and they were just trying to evaluate them and give their best sense of what the quality is. This is what many people in leadership situations have to do is that they have to assess quality and they have to have a sense of what is going to be the product that is really going to fly.

It may be the case that they have a sense that this is the one; I just really have a good feeling about this particular one, but they may not be able to articulate exactly what the basis of that intuition is. We have found that under some situations if you have people, again in the strawberry jam tasting experiment, tasting the jams and then one condition we often asked them just to rate the jams. In another condition we have them analyze why they felt the way they did about it. So here they are really going through and analytically trying to decompose their experience. Then we correlated their ratings with the ratings of consumer report experts. These are people who have really been trained in evaluating jams. What we found is that when people rated them, just went with their gut so to speak, that their ratings were highly correlated with the ratings of the experts. But when they tried to analyze; when they tried to decompose and put into words experiences that they didn’t really have the words to access, it actually messed them up. Their ability to come up with the ratings consistent with the experts was reduced.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: So Jonathan, in essence, you are saying when people followed their own inner thoughts and feelings, they were more successful because they were authentic?

Dr. Jonathan Schooler: Well they were better able to get in touch with their authentic feelings. Under some situations when you analyze and reflect, you can actually lose touch with that gut intuition. If  the gut intuition is not represented to you in an explicit, verbal, manner, then there are going to be situations when you over-analyze, you are going to actually set yourself back.

In another study we showed people various different posters. These were both sort of impressionists posters and then cute animal posters with a kitten dangling with an expression like, “hang in there baby,” or something like that. We asked them to look at the posters and rate them and then in one condition again we had them analyze why they felt the way they did about it, and another condition just rate them without analyzing why they felt the way they did.

Then we contacted them a week later and asked them how are you liking that poster we gave you? Did you put it up on your wall? What we found is that the people who analyzed why they felt the way they did, chose posters that they were ultimately less happy with and they are actually less likely to put the poster up on their wall. So they somehow lost touch with that intuitive sense of what they really liked.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Interesting.  I know some of your research you look at inspiration and all that; let me ask you this, Goleman talks about that intuition is about 80% accurate. I don’t know if that’s a number you would agree with, or what you have found, but that is something that I have read and repeated.

Dr. Jonathan Schooler: I mean it’s very hard to put a number on it. But what I like about the 80% number whether or not that’s exactly right, is that it communicates two things that I think are right. One thing that it communicates is that intuitions very often are accurate and that it’s important to give them due appreciation. You don’t want to dismiss an intuition just because you can’t fully explain it’s basis.

At the same time you want to also recognize that they aren’t necessarily right and that just because you have an intuition is not a fail safe thing. Of course people vary in their intuitive abilities with expertise, particularly experts who have a lot of experience in a situation. That type of experience can lead to more and more accurate intuition.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So, what you are saying is that using your intuition, the 80% accuracy of intuition seems about right?

Dr. Jonathan Schooler: I mean what I would say is that it captures the true sense that intuition is often right but not always.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I’m sure you are using your intuition to come up with that response.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: So besides I guess gaining a lot of weight from tasting strawberry jam, I guess there were other components of this research that you also looked at?

Dr. Jonathan Schooler: Yes, well we have done a lot of follow up studies to examine the other situations with this phenomenon; we refer to it by the way as verbal over-shadowing. Basically, the idea here is that there are some situations where language can interfere with the ability to accurately communicate your intuitive knowledge.

We have explored this now in a  host of different domains. For example, we find that when people describe the appearance of a face, under some situations, it can actually interfere with their later ability to recognize it. But it also really depends on the verbal expertise that people bring to the situation. So faces are good examples because we have a great capacity to recognize faces, but none of us, with the possible exception of police artists, are particularly good at describing a face.

We’ve also done this in domains where people vary in their verbal expertise, such as wine tasting. Wine tasting is people that are not only using their palate but also their ability to describe that palate. There, what we found is if you take someone who has experience but doesn’t have an ability to really talk about it, then they are vulnerable to verbalization. When they describe the taste of the wine, they have a harder time recognizing it than someone who didn’t describe it.

Where as a wine expert who has been trained to talk about, then all the sudden language as a very different relationship. Then the language becomes very useful or at least it doesn’t interfere with their ability to recognize it.

Listen to the complete, fascinating, interview with Dr. Jonathan Schooler, above.



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