When other people whisper, we tend to lower our own voices. When we’re around an older person, we’re prone to walking more slowly. If we’re seated on an airplane next to someone with a pronounced accent, many of us unconsciously begin to imitate it. I can remember visiting in Moscow back in the cold war days, and being struck that there were no colors anywhere in the city. The sky was gray, the houses were gray, the cars were gray, and the faces of the people I passed on the streets were unrelentingly pale. But what really stood out for me the most was that virtually no one was smiling. As I walked along, I’d give the other pedestrians in Mos cow a quick smile of acknowledgment, and time and again, I’d get back nothing in return. At first, this was amusing (because it was so strange), but after about an hour, I started to realize the effect it was having on me. My mood changed. I wasn’t feeling my usual lighthearted self. I’d quit smiling. I felt borderline grim. I felt gray. Physically and psychologically, without even realizing it, I’d been mirroring everyone else around me.
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 ...