A lot of our work here at The Smarty Train is backed up by behavioural science. So when we decided to write on how our brains work, we jumped at the opportunity to write about the book ‘How the Mind Works’. In this book, Stephen Pinker investigates what we do and don’t currently understand about how our brains work and how we do the processes we take for granted – like walking up a set of stairs, picking the stem off a cherry or even typing a sentence into a computer.

But historically our brains didn’t face these problems. As humans we have evolved to cope with vast savannahs and uncertain food resources. The problem is, we no longer live in this environment: We’ve altered it. Our world now consists of an incredibly social environment, with food on demand (if we’re lucky) and job roles far beyond the basic tasks for survival. But this change has taken place in an incredibly short space of time (evolutionarily speaking!) which leads to a problem. Our brains are still catching up. And this has implications for the way we work.

We’ve picked three of the problems we face in our modern workplaces that you may be familiar with:

  1. Blind Spots and Falsehoods

It’s 4.45pm and you have a deadline at 5. It’s your first assignment as a graduate at your new company and you’ve been asked to produce a high-profile report for your manager. You know this report will be shared with senior members of the business and you’re keen to produce a good quality report. You’ve just written the last word and want to have one final proofread before you hit ‘send’. You’re feeling anxious, stressed, as you’ve put in a lot of hours to reach this point and are under pressure to meet the deadline. You finally finish and hit send with two minutes to go. You’re about to close the document and you spot it. A spelling error. How could you have missed it? You proofed the document thoroughly and read every word.

The problem is that our minds act as computer editors, focusing on points of importance and editing out any extra details deemed unnecessary. Whether it’s reconciling the two images it receives from your eyes or making sense of a piece of text, your brain makes assumptions on what’s important and what isn’t. Which is great when you have seconds to identify predators in the savannah, but isn’t as useful when you want to spot a spelling or grammatical error in the important document you’ve just written. Your brain glosses over missing letters or duplicated words because they are unnecessary for you to understand the content of a sentence. You’ve become blinded.

So, what can you do? Our top tip is to try reviewing your documents in a different format – why not print out a copy of your work and look out the window to change your perspective before doing your final review.

  1. Fight or Flight?

Ever had one of those days where you’ve slept badly worrying about an important client meeting the next day? Then woken up late and rushed out of your house to get into work on time and forgotten your house keys? This kind of stress would have seemed very strange to early humans. In ancient times, when early humans roamed savannahs, if they felt stressed it was usually for a different reason; an ancient predator deciding they would make a nice snack or trying to successfully forage or hunt for a meal. Very different kinds of stress you might think, with absolutely nothing in common. So why have we mentioned them?

Although the stresses we experience in our modern lives are different from the stresses we experienced as early humans, we still respond to these new stresses using ancient responses: Fight or Flight? This instinct channels all our brain’s focus onto extricating ourselves from the situation we’ve ended up in; e.g. focusing on catching the train into work, attempting to be on time for a meeting etc. and prepares the body to respond by either fighting or fleeing, neither of which is necessarily helpful in our modern workplaces.

So when you’re feeling stressed our second top tip is to take a break. Have a cup of tea, take a deep breath or go for a walk.  Sounds simple, but when something is important and we’re under pressure, it’s easy to think we don’t have time for a break.

  1. Are we logical?

Imagine a set of cards that has letters on one side and numbers on the other. You have been given four cards and need to test the rule, “If a card has a D on one side, it has a 3 on the other”. Which of the following cards would you turn over to see if the rule is true?

How did you do? Only 5-10% of people asked get it right. Most people choose either D or D and 3 (The correct answer is D and 7, as only the D card needs to have a 3 on the reverse. The 3 card could have any letter on the reverse for the rule to be true. Therefore, if the 7 card had a D on the reverse, the rule would prove to be false). So why did we ask you to do this puzzle

D     F     3      7

Imagine you’re an early human on a savannah in Africa and you have to identify which plant is safe to eat. Knowing that the plant with blue spots is poisonous, but that the plant with blue and red spots is safe to eat, could prove the difference between life and death. Research has shown that we are more likely to be able to solve a puzzle, if there is a tangible cost or benefit involved for us, because we access a different set of internal rules. Our brains find abstract thoughts such as random numbers and letters difficult to process as there is no concrete cost or benefit for us. So when we are try to use and understand statistics or probabilities in our modern workplace, we are asking our brain to do a task it was not originally equipped for. And most people struggle.

But there is a solution. Our third top tip is to take your time. Try to make the scenario less abstract or ask a colleague to review your work. Again, sounds simple, but how often do we do the right thing when a situation needs us to?

Our brains may still be struggling to adapt to our modern environment, but that doesn’t mean we should restrict the variety of roles or jobs we do. From struggling to spot mistakes in a document, coping with ancient instincts when faced with modern stresses or trying to find concrete costs and benefits in a list of numbers and letters, understanding how our brains respond to different situations means we can create strategies to overcome the challenges our brains face in our modern world.

And using our top tips can help too! Remember:

  1. Review your work in a different format.
  2. Take a break.
  3. Take your time.
  4. Book Review: Think like a Freak by Saj

Self-described ‘rouge economist’, Steven Levitt, and master storyteller Stephen J. Dubner, have been delivering fascinating explanations for the riddles of modern life since their debut Freakonomics first brought data analytics to the masses in 2005.

Nearly ten years on, this economic approach is as relevant as ever. The ability to apply an analytic mindset to big data is a vital skill in business. In the Early Talent Space, Think Like a Freak provides a schematic approach for assessing trends and understanding incentives in graduate recruitment.

So, how do we start thinking like a Freak?

  1. Understand the importance of ‘I don’t know’, even when up against the status quo.

The book describes a neat natural experiment they observed at one multinational retailer. An intern had forgotten to run a newspaper ad in Pittsburgh for one whole summer. The results of this mistake? No discernible difference on sales figures in the city. Surely, our Freakonomists thought, this would be reason to at least run a test of the effectiveness their print advertising?  ‘Crazy’, cried the company’s ad executives, as they continued to run newspaper ads country-wide.

This anecdote illustrates the factors that often get in the way of sense in the corporate world – tradition, a lack of expertise in identifying relevant data, and a reluctance to admit not being sure, especially when this risks upsetting the status quo.

Is there an area of your recruitment process that, like this retailer’s advertising strategy, could benefit from more investigation? When was the last time you questioned the instruments you’re using to evaluate candidates?

  1. ‘Let your garden weed itself’

‘Dear respected one, permit me to inform you of my desire to do business with you…’ Sound familiar? Nigerian email scams are baffling – why do these scammers persist with blatantly obvious fraud emails? Why are they even admitting to being from Nigeria, given the ubiquity of such scams?

As it turns out, this is quite a clever design. A lot of time would be wasted on email communications with people who are clued in to fraud, but by making the initial premise so obvious, the scammers ensure they filter out all but the most gullible of suspects.

So why is this relevant to your recruitment process? It’s this concept of eliminating false positives that we find most interesting.  Do you have a high volume of low quality applications, or drop-outs after initial offers? Perhaps then you need to make your garden weed itself, by creating a system that weeds out less motivated candidates.

  1. Think Like a Child

A lot can be learnt from children. As magician Alex Stone says “Kids are harder to fool as they’re not paying attention to the cues and charades that make a trick work, and bring no preconceptions to the performance.”

Kids – just like new graduates – aren’t yet sure of all the reasons why things aren’t possible. They’re not afraid to share their craziest ideas without fear of ridicule, or inquire about every small thing that comes to mind – they’re seeing things from a different angle, looking up when us others are looking straight on.

This ‘fresh angle’ advice – it’s not a revelation, right? But it bears remembering, in all areas of problem solving, that a childish approach can be useful. Because ultimately, as Levitt and Dubner note, every big problem is really just a mass of intertwined smaller problems, that we can miss when we’re busy searching for greater trends or insights. Like a child’s cascade of “why”s, sometimes the obvious questions can hit home.

If economics is built on understanding the way people respond to incentives, a fresh and different approach will give you the competitive edge in attracting the best candidates. What can you borrow from the Freakonomics toolbox to help you with your current Early Talent challenges?

By Christian Getterman

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