Lighting up the pleasure centers of your brain
Every McDonald’s, for instance, looks the same—the company deliberately tries to standardize stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines. The foods at some chains are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards —the fries, for instance, are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue, in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible, causing your pleasure centers to light up and your brain to lock in the pattern. All the better for tightening the habit loop.
Why is prioritizing so difficult? In the abstract, it doesn’t sound so tough. You prioritize important goals over less important goals. You prioritize goals that are “critical” ahead of goals that are “beneficial.”
But what if we can’t tell what’s “critical” and what’s“beneficial”? Sometimes it’s not obvious. We often have to make decisions between one “unknown” and another. This kind of complexity can be paralyzing. In fact, psychologists have found that people can be driven to irrational decisions by too much complexity and uncertainty.
In 1954, the economist L. J. Savage6 described what he perceived as a basic rule of human decision-making. He called it the “sure-thing principle.” He illustrated it with this example: A businessman is thinking about buying a piece of property. There’s an election coming up soon, and he initially thinks that its outcome could be relevant to the attractiveness of the purchase. So, to clarify his decision, he thinks through both scenarios. If the Republican wins, he decides, he’ll buy. If the Democrat wins, he’ll do the same. Seeing that he’d buy in either scenario, he goes forward with the purchase, despite not knowing the ...
Mirror neurons at work
IN 2004, STEVE JOBS, CEO, chairman, and co-founder of Apple, was strolling along Madison Avenue in New York City when he noticed something strange, and gratifying. Hip white earphones (remember, back then most earphones came in basic boring black). Looping and snaking out of people’s ears, dangling down across their chests, peeking out of pockets and purses and backpacks. They were everywhere. “It was, like, on every block, there was someone with white headphones, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s starting to happen,’ ” Jobs, who’d recently launched his company’s immensely successful iPod, was quoted as saying.
You could term the popularity of the iPod (and its ubiquitous, iconic white headphones) a fad. Some might even call it a revolution. But from a neuroscientific point of view, what Jobs was seeing was nothing less than the triumph of a region of our brains associated with something called the mirror neuron. In 1992, an Italian scientist named Giacomo Rizzolatti and his research team in Parma, Italy, were studying the brains of a species of monkey—the macaque—in the hopes of finding out how the brain organizes motor behaviors. Specifically, they were looking at a region of ...
Apparently sprinters reach their highest speed right out of the blocks, and spend the rest of the race slowing down. The winners slow down the least. It's that way with most startups too. The earliest phase is usually the most productive. That's when they have the really big ideas. Imagine what Apple was like when 100% of its employees were either Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak.
The striking thing about this phase is that it's completely different from most people's idea of what business is like. If you looked in people's heads (or stock photo collections) for images representing "business," you'd get images of people dressed up in suits, groups sitting around conference tables looking serious, Powerpoint presentations, people producing thick reports for one another to read. Early stage startups are the exact opposite of this. And yet they're probably the most productive part of the whole economy.
Why the disconnect? I think there's a general principle at work here: the less energy people expend on performance, the more they expend on appearances to compensate. More often than not the energy they expend on seeming impressive makes their actual performance ...