Challenge Assumptions!

challenge assumptions

Psychologist Jonah Lehrer noted, “When the brain is exposed to anything random, like a slot machine or the shape of a cloud, it automatically imposes a pattern onto the noise.” Thomas Gilovich agreed, “Nature abhors a vacuum. People spot patterns where only the vagaries of chance are operating.” That’s what pattern recognition is for, although often the brain’s motto is, ‘Close enough is good enough.’ Chabris and Simons agree that our minds are built to detect meaning in patterns, to infer causal relationships from coincidences and to believe that earlier events cause later ones.

In his article ‘Becoming Famous Overnight’, Larry Jacoby wrote of his research into memory illusions caused by this cognitive convenience. Remember, cognitive processing is hard work and anything the brain can do to ease that strain, it’ll try doing. Participants were shown some names of people, including David Stenbill. Sometime later, and in a supposedly unrelated activity, they were shown a list of names and asked to tick those that were celebrities. David Stenbill, despite being fictitious and not in a celebrity way, was ticked more often than not. If they thought about Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela or Margaret Thatcher, they could probably find a few facts in their memory about them and why they were celebrities. There’s no genuine way they could do that for David Stenbill. All they’d have was a sense of familiarity. And for people, that’s all we need. Words, and anything else we’ve seen before, become easier to see again. And it’s not just seeing; it’s any kind of experience.

If years ago you had a conflict-ridden relationship with an employee named Toby and tomorrow you’re being assigned a new employee whose name also happens to be Toby, that’s not going to affect your impressions of Toby II, is it? Maybe you should give him a nickname as soon as possible?

Psychologist Robert Zajonc did a study on whether old married couples start to look like each other. This section is not about that study but it is quite interesting. It was suggested that, given the empathy couples must have shown each other over the years, much of which is conveyed through facial expressions, they develop similar wrinkle patterns. Be sure and mention this the next time you’re at Gran and Pop’s place.

The other Zajonc study I’m looking at here is on the mere exposure effect and links nicely with Jacoby’s familiarity work. He ran newspaper advertisements on the front pages of two Michigan universities using five made-up words:


Word Times Used
kadirga 1
saricik 2
biwonjni 5
nansoma 10
iktitaf 25

He then surveyed the student population with a simple question: Were each of these words bad or good? The words used more often were considered good more often. He replicated the study using symbols, shapes and faces with the same result. Familiar was perceived as good. Familiar is safe. Zajonc suggests this may be a result of evolution as the survival prospects were poor for animals not suspicious of novelty. New things could eat you. Maybe the anti-change person you’re leading isn’t being bloodyminded? Maybe they’re being safety conscious?

A downside of familiarity is the illusion of representativeness and how that bias impacts our thinking. We expect a librarian to look like one. The regression fallacy is where we sometimes choose to believe that non typical results will continue. Over time, results regress to the mean. A workplace example might be when a slightly below average performer performs especially poorly. You respond by yelling at them. Their next performance is better therefore you assume that yelling at them improved their performance. Far more likely is that their performance regressed to the mean. Golfers, you know what I’m talking about.


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The way things are done around here


In the late fifties and early sixties, psychologist Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin – Madison conducted a series of experiments with rhesus monkeys that would, today, be considered very cruel. One of those studies involved bananas, a step ladder and rules that weren’t written down. Most of the jobs I’ve had have involved usually two of those three things at any given time.

Five monkeys in an enclosure were gifted a step ladder and from the ceiling Harlow suspended a banana from a rope just high enough that it could be seen by the monkeys but not reached without the aid of the stepladder. Soon enough, the sharpest monkey ascended the ladder. The moment it did so, all the monkeys were blasted with freezing water from a high-pressure hose. (This, by the way, was not even close to being the cruellest experiment he conducted.)

If, at any stage, any monkey ascended the ladder, once again, every monkey got waterblasted. Quickly, the group’s behaviour established a pattern. If any individual monkey looked like they were going to ascend the ladder, the other monkeys beat him into submission.

They replaced one of the five monkeys with a new monkey who had not been party to the waterblasting nor had it witnessed it. The newbie saw the banana and did the logical thing – ascend the ladder – or at least it tried to before it was beaten by the other monkeys. Gradually the original monkeys were, one at a time, replaced by new monkeys oblivious to the unwritten rules of the group or the original negative reinforcement of the waterblasting. Each of these new monkeys participated in the beatings and none ever again attempted to ascend the ladder. This continued even when there were no original monkeys left.

Cruelty aside and before you dismiss the relevance of this to us humans, how many times have you experienced unwritten rules, or even written ones, where the people involved have no idea why things are done this way?

I worked my way through university the first time at a building supply warehouse. I got the job via a student job search subsidy. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but the other storeman had been highly opposed to working with “some bloody snooping student.” I started to a chilly reception and job one on day one was to clear out the top level on a storage rack that hadn’t been looked at in a long time. I can’t say for certain but I’m quietly confident asbestos was the least of my problems.

Being young and stupid (though I’m not young anymore), I finished with a few minutes left in the day and went in search of the guys to see if there was anything else I could do to help. I found them loading sheets from out the back onto a small pickup truck. They stopped what they were doing the moment I walked into the back storeroom in the way that everyone in the saloon in a cowboy movie always stops when the new guy in town walks in. They stared. I couldn’t quite work out why. I jumped up on the truck and helped them load. They carried on.

The next day I got a much warmer welcome and a much less crappy set of tasks. Some years later I worked out why. I had walked in on them stealing and unknowingly helped them to do so accomplice-style, thus gaining acceptance to the group. As it turned out, they weren’t really stealing. What they were taking were packing sheets. These were the top and bottom sheets from packs of wallboard often damaged and used as protection for the good sheets from the tight strapping used. To the untrained eye, they looked fine but weren’t really saleable. It was just the way things were done. The storemen went through the pretence of ‘stealing’ the sheets, even though management didn’t want the sheets. Their view was that they were removing the trash.

All this was known by the original storemen but not by the current crew who did the things they did because that was the way things were done around here.

We also sold stepladders. But not bananas.


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Walk 1.6km in my shoes

star shoes

24 years ago I worked for an insurance company. I needed a new pair of basic men’s black business shoes. There was a shoe shop directly opposite my office. (It was one of a chain of shoe stores. More precisely, there were two stores in the chain which is, by definition, the shortest chain you can have.) I had a half hour lunchbreak so I zipped across the street. It was a typical shoe store – women’s shoes, women’s shoes, women’s shoes, men’s shoes! Almost instantly I spotted the style I was after but there wasn’t a pair of size elevens on the shelf. So, I went to Tanya the young woman behind the counter, “Hi, these are exactly the shoes I’m after. Do you have them in an eleven, you know, out the back?” Of course, there wasn’t an out-the-back. It was just a curtain across a brick wall. She did her tappity-tap-tap-tap on her keyboard and informed me, “We don’t have them here sir but our other branch, about 800 metres away, has them.”

I guess it took her two seconds to make that statement to me. While she was speaking, the portion of my brain responsible for consumer decision-making started assessing my options, “Well, I could scoot there now but I don’t really want to get back to work late. I could ask her to ring the other store to reserve them for me and I could get them after work or on the weekend, or maybe they could send them round and I could pick them up here tomorrow lunchtime…” Before I had a chance to verbalise any of these thoughts, it was at about this point that Tanya leapt over the counter and ran out of the store…

I did a double-take and stared blankly for a moment. Then I did a quick check of my armpits to see if it was me she was escaping from but that seemed OK. The other shop assistant led me across to the men’s crèche section in the corner with the fishing magazines and sat me down. Five or six minutes had passed when, as dramatically as she’d departed and with her forehead slightly aglow for her experience, Tanya reappeared in the doorway, replete with a shoebox on the side of which was a reassuring “11.”

If she had told me 1.6 kilometres ago that she would simply order in the shoes or ring and reserve them for me to go and pick up myself that would’ve ‘satisfied’ me as a customer. I’d tick that box in my head. There’s an often tossed around figure of sixty eight percent of customers who will shop elsewhere for other reasons such as price or location, even though they were perfectly ‘satisfied.’ Satisfaction will get you a tick a box in the brain of your customer. Mere satisfaction will not drive the loyalty or future behaviour of customers. Engaged people will.

That was 24 years ago and I have told that story hundreds of times in presentations and training programmes. I’m not on commission for the store but they’d turned me into an evangelical advocate. They’d created a story for me to retell on their behalf. I haven’t lived in that city for sixteen years but for quite a few years after that while I travelled with my work, I would make a point of buying my shoes from that store. It’s changed owners and management since then so I won’t say which store it was. Stores, companies, Government departments change and restructure all the time. Very few of them can be relied upon for consistency. People, individual people, on the other hand are strikingly consistent – for good or for bad. These days, any organisation having a history of transactions with a customer wants to call that a ‘relationship’. For all their investment in software and systems, organisations need to realise that people don’t have relationships with organisations – people have relationships with people.

Now, not everyone is designed physically or psychologically to hurdle 800-millimetre high counters but for that one sales assistant in that moment, it was right for her to do. Her management hadn’t implemented a policy that decreed to staff from on high, “THOU SHALT LEAP OVER COUNTERS AND RUN AT PACE…” What it did provide was a freedom for her to make that choice in that moment with me. She “only worked there” but she didn’t act like she only worked there. Her behaviour was a classic symptom of an all-too-rare phenomenon called Engagement.

Contrast this story with any number of experiences you‘ve had. Don’t just think about it in terms of you as a customer in a traditional retail store. Think about your interactions with people in workplaces – ringing a call centre, dealing with a colleague from another department, receiving goods from a supplier. How often do you deal with a Tanya? How often do you deal with a genuinely engaged person in a workplace? How much more often do you deal with people whose main goal at work is to consume oxygen?

My whole career I’ve been waiting to meet that old and wise ‘Obi Wan Kenobi’ boss who would take me aside, open up a desk drawer, pull out a manila folder and hand it to me. In that manila folder would be all the answers that every aspiring leader needed to know. But I know now, there is no one set of ‘answers’ for everyone and every situation. (And I’ve never met that ‘Obi Wan Kenobi’ boss although I’ve met way too many ‘Darth Vaders.’) The most likely answer to any question to any leader asking someone else they assume to be wiser should start with, “It depends.”


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If A Tree Is Planted In A Forest And No One Is There To See It, Is it Still Corporate Social Responsibility?

tree zen

Corporate social responsibility has a lot of syllables and takes many forms. And there are varying degrees of intent and plausibility. Google for years was famous for its in-house slogan ‘Don’t be evil’. In a few syllables, they caught a vibe and encapsulated why they were doing what they were doing. Or why they thought they were doing it. Or why they hoped people would believe they were doing it.

They were disruptors trying to create something new and do better and bigger some things that already existed. Existing companies were bureaucratic dinosaurs hellbent on short-term thinking, driven by abstract financial targets at the expense of people and the planet. They did evil. Does that sound plausible, because I totally made that up? And that’s what Google was going at the time – making it up as they went along. Nah, it was true. The Google founders did have that catchphrase and they probably meant it. They don’t have it anymore but what they do have is some substantial military contracts and a lot of senior resignations instead. I bet they recycle though.

Recycling is a good thought exercise in the ‘perception versus reality’ of social responsibility, be it corporate or personal. Most of us are pretty cool and may even feel good about ourselves putting the right plastics in the right bins. But does that stuff actually get recycled? There’s news of China rejecting imported garbage and recyclables. This country certainly does not have the infrastructure to do much recycling economically. You don’t know.

You can book a flight and select an option for trees to be planted to offset the carbon your share of your flight’s fuel consumption creates. It adds to the cost of your flight though. The airline is being socially responsible offering it but how many passengers take it up and willingly pay extra for the promise of a conscience-salve they will never see? Is it just a PR exercise? Can we blame those corporates like airlines and data conglomerates on their behaviour when we have our ‘see no evil’ attitude to recycling? Do we, or they, really care about social responsibility, or do we care about being seen to be doing something that looks like social responsibility?

I met someone recently from a big company talking about trialling a 4-day work week. From what I was told, it seems genuinely motivated at the highest level and for altruistic and socially responsible reasons. They’re still conducting a phase to run the numbers and make sure it’s fiscally responsible too, which is obviously fair enough. It isn’t the leadership team’s money, it’s the owners’ money. A lot of businesses are like a lot of people, they’ll be honest and responsible if there’s something in it for them. In 2011, the US state of Utah ran a brief experiment with state employees and a four-day work week. They stopped doing it as the success criteria they set in advance related to energy and fuel savings, not employee wellbeing. And, those energy and fuel savings did not materialise. Arguments, however valid, about costs being passed to future generations is like pushing stuff uphill with a pointed stick on the Friday which is now supposed to be an extra day off.

Solar panels got adopted early by hippies but once they’re viable, scaleable and economic, everyone will be doing them. Social responsibility has a price and, as every economist will tell you, if you can stay awake long enough, price affects supply and demand. Tree-hugging, bleeding-heart liberal hand-wringing over what corporates should do will get us about as far as we have gotten so far. And that is where we are.

We could observe that corporates aren’t sentient entities; they’re abstract concepts populated and controlled by people. People can be socially responsible, surely. Some can, sometimes but mostly history shows us it’s tipping points brought on by momentum that spur corporate leaders to stop being evil. Be it no longer offering free plastic bags at checkout, offering better than minimum wage, or stopping paid advertising with hate-spreading media outlets, well-meaning corporate leaders will move if pushed but they will check with the accounting department first.

If you want more corporate social responsibility, keep tweeting, organising marches, targeting the kids of the middle and so forth. They’ll swing a zeitgeist or two around the courts of public opinion. But, the handbrake needing release is how consumers decide to spend their money. Corporates are mostly competitive and if their primary competitive difference is what makes us little people vote with our wallets, then they’ll change.

Spend your money to control the profit makers. They’ve been spending theirs to control us for centuries.


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Who Leads The Leaders?


Studies into the characteristics of highly effective leaders find that ‘vision’ is usually at the top of the list of characteristics. Any individual moving others to sustained and purposeful action would need to be future-facing, goal-setting and inspirational. All that requires an ‘eye on the prize’. There are many leadership phrases using eye-imagery. I’d like to add another: point of view.

A couple of my own recent experiences have hit home to me the power of point of view to stunt or stimulate leadership, to send it in a direction that may turn out in ‘hindsight’ to be right or wrong, better or worse.

I attended a seminar lead by a scientist concerned about ethical leadership in science, specifically designing in ethical considerations  within artificial intelligence systems (AI). The people doing the designing are very public in declaring that ethical filters and values will be designed into the systems. Less overt and public are exactly what ethics are being designed in. It’s stated almost as if ethics are ethics and yours are the same as mine so, as long as the AI has ethics, then we’ll be fine. Ethics are a lot like cheese. The stuff you find acceptable might be offensive to me and a significant minority of people are dairy intolerant.

This scientist was calling for more diverse points of view. A video montage of the scientists making a lot of noise and getting a lot of attention around AI did seem to be entirely of a certain age range, nationality and gender. Ethics are hard enough to get some agreement around within a family of four humans. Once you start bringing robots into the equation, it’s complicated and diverse points of view would help.

I’ve been running a series of diversity workshops for a large and established manufacturing firm, mostly around unconscious bias. The firm for the most part has a great track record with diversity. The workshops are a regular United Nations. However, they are behind the eight-ball on gender diversity. They know this and they’re trying. They know what the AI scientists might be a bit late in realising – the dangers in having a highly homogenous worldview – opportunities lost and threats unrecognised. Their customers are diverse. Their community is diverse. Yet, things historical and structural are hamstringing their efforts to counter the imbalance. In short, women aren’t applying for the jobs or those women don’t exist yet.

Most of the AI online customer service ‘robots’ I’ve seen have been given female personas. I don’t know why this is. Statistically a disproportionate number of human frontline customer service roles are female. Maybe the designers took that into account? What proportion of the designers were male? Does it matter? The newer AIs are now quite adept at recognising emotion in the voices and expressions of their customers and adjusting their responses accordingly.

You’re not designing terminators with emotional intelligence. You’re an employer. Maybe you’ve already got balance and diversity in your workplace overall. But, how is it like at the leadership level? What systems, checks and balances do you have in place, now and for the future that will ensure leaders have, develop or access diverse points of view? If through randomness or statistics, you’ve just ended up with a bunch of leaders in your organisation who are all big fans of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, there’s a real chance that they’re lacking diversity. But, if you’ve got the right systems and tools, they need not act like it. While you and the world are catching up and eventually defeating glass ceilings and velcro floors, your leaders can still make good leadership decisions. Train and coach them. Provide them with tools. What’s important for each organization is to identify the relevant dimensions, measure them, and make that part of how managers are evaluated. If you want diversity of thought, you have to bring in people around leaders who have diverse experiences. In the meantime, you can ask questions to capture and codify those experiences so the leaders you have at the moment can filter their decisions through those different points of view.

One of my catchphrases for the year has been, “The person who asks the questions controls the conversation”. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around the relative effectiveness of telling people stuff versus asking questions. I like to call the latter ‘structured curiousity’ ABC – Always Be Curious.

The irony here is back with the topic I started on – AI. Experiments have already been done with people reporting to on-screen AI personas. They’re not perfect but they have two skills many current human leaders lack. They do ask questions and they are capable of recognising emotions and adjusting their actions accordingly. These two skills alone would put them in the top 25% of bosses I’ve ever had.


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  • Sitting is as bad as smoking,
  • Poor movement can be a sign of potential health issues,
  • Exercise is not as important as having activity as part of your everyday life.

“I believe that the good lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats and I’m damned if I’m going to use mine running up and down a street.” – Neil Armstrong (on jogging.)

A clinical review from doctors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggests that mobility limitations are a litmus test for healthy aging and urges primary care physicians to take a more aggressive role in ascertaining the mobility of their patients. They suggest that doctors should ask all patients two questions: for health or physical reasons, do you have difficulty climbing up 10 steps or walking 400m at a brisk pace; and because of underlying health or physical reasons, have you modified the way you climb 10 steps or walk 400m?

Can you sit on the floor, then get up again without using your hands, knees or elbows? Go on, try it right now. The physical inability to do that, or struggle to barely do that, has been cited as an indicator of potential heart problems. Such is the inter-connectedness of our physical systems. Muscular strength, balance, bone density – none of these things are our hearts, but they can help or hurt our heart, depending on how we maintain them and they give us constant information on how things are going inside.

Dr Steven Blair in studies with both the Cooper Clinic in Dallas and the University of South Carolina tracked thousands of people over dozens of years. They determined that fitness levels (not fatness levels) are significant predictors of mortality. Poor fitness accounts for sixteen percent of all deaths. Move it or lose it. It’s never too late to start to reap benefits but it’s always too soon to stop. Some people say that they’re too old to exercise but the truth is that they’re too old not to exercise.

A University of Hong Kong study made similar findings. Twenty percent of deaths in people over 35 could be attributed to physical inactivity, greater than the risk caused by smoking. (Of course, that doesn’t bode well for smokers who are also physically inactive.) Physical inactivity increases risks for the following causes of death:

Cause Men   Women

Cancer                     Up 45%        Up 28%

Respiratory Illness  Up 92%        Up 75%

Heart disease          Up 52%        Up 28%

Modern medicine is amazing but can it be improved on, or even replaced, in some instances? A study published in the British Medical Journal by scientists from the London School of Economics, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and Stanford University reviewed the results of 305 previous trials with over three hundred thousand people to see if physical activity was as effective as drugs at preventing death among people with coronary heart disease, rehabilitation from stroke, treatment for heart failure and prevention of diabetes. “There was no difference between exercise and drug interventions for the people with coronary heart disease and for the prevention of diabetes.” You don’t hear about this because pharmaceutical companies can’t sell you a bottle of walking. Although, one of the authors Huseyin Naci was at pains to stress, “The results of our study by no means imply that people should stop taking their medications, especially without consulting their doctors.”

The BBC reported a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that followed 3,500 healthy people at or around retirement age. Those who took up exercise were three times more likely to remain healthy over the next eight years than their sedentary peers. Exercise cut the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

The University of Bath studied a group of 26 healthy young men. All exercised regularly. None were obese. Baseline health assessments, including biopsies of fat tissue, confirmed that each had normal metabolisms and blood sugar control, with no symptoms of incipient diabetes. The scientists then asked all their volunteers to impair their great health by doing a lot of sitting and eating way too much. But half the volunteers had to do a hard-out 45 minute treadmill session a day. Other than that session, they lay around all the rest of the day.

The New York Times reported the results: After only a week, the young men who had not exercised displayed a significant and unhealthy decline in their blood sugar control, and, equally worrying, their biopsied fat cells seemed to have developed a malicious streak. Those cells, examined using sophisticated genetic testing techniques, were now overexpressing various genes that may contribute to unhealthy metabolic changes and underexpressing other genes potentially important for a well-functioning metabolism.

But the volunteers who had exercised once a day, despite comparable energy surpluses, were not similarly afflicted. Their blood sugar control remained robust, and their fat cells exhibited far fewer of the potentially undesirable alterations in gene expression than among the sedentary men.

“Exercise seemed to completely cancel out many of the changes induced by overfeeding and reduced activity,” said Dylan Thompson, a professor of health sciences at the University of Bath and senior author of the study.

Fitness for health isn’t about gyms and jogging as much as it is about a physically active lifestyle that exerts strong system-wide effects on our body. Rather than exercising for the sake of it, make changes to your lifestyle and environment that encourages you to move. Ride a bicycle. Walk. Park your car further away. Use the stairs. Chances are, you’ll sustain that physical activity longer than most people sustain their gym membership.

The ‘runner’s high’ that we experience when we do break through the initial tough bit of exercise is due to brain chemicals called endocannabinoids. (Yes, it’s one of those cannabinoids…) Some suppose this was an evolutionary outcome to support us back in the day when if we wanted dinner, we had to chase it and catch it. And it might be why stoners get the munchies.

People in western economies sit 9.3 hours a day and that doesn’t include sleeping.

Physical inactivity leads to muscle and bone weakness, immune system compromises, narrowing of arteries, metabolic decline, central nervous system compromise and general frailty. Sitting can be as bad as smoking. They should print warnings on couches and office chairs. Even if the chair is perfectly primed by a professional Ergonomist and made safe from any posture or health and safety issue, the very act of being sedentary and sitting for long periods is not what humans are suited for. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Between 1945 and 1995, the average adult daily calorie expenditure fell 800 calories. So the amount of moving we do each day has reduced by 800 calories, thanks to cars and machines and washing machines and so forth. 800 calories is the equivalent of a ten mile walk! In 1960, 50% of jobs required at least moderate physical activity. Today it is only 20%. Two thirds of desk workers eat lunch at their desk.

The Mayo Clinic takes credit for labelling a phenomenon it calls ‘Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis’ (NEAT.) I call it moving. Doing stuff burns calories. You don’t have to join a gym, swim an ocean or run marathons religiously. Make a bed, walk the stairs and stand while talking on the phone. They’re also licensing devices to be NEAT-certified to measure and motivate people, including special underwear. I presume the underwear is more about the measuring than the motivation?

We need to develop lifelong patterns of enjoyable activity.

Avoid, prevent or lessen fall risks with balance exercises. These don’t have to be yoga or tai-chi, though you’d probably benefit from doing that with a group socially. You can do them at home while watching TV to lessen the negative effects of being a couch potato. Here’s a few:

1.            Walk an imaginary line on the floor heel-to-toe while not looking at your feet, just like a cop suspecting you of drink-driving in a movie in the 1970s,

2.            Stand in that karate kid stance when he had the broken leg (but you don’t have to leap and kick a blond guy in the head),

3.            Get off and on the couch using only one leg. Change legs. Repeat. (Don’t go and get Dorritos between times – not even the new buffalo wings flavour when you got that 3-for-$5 deal at the supermarket.)

According to Oscar Franco of Erasmus MC University, walking thirty minutes a day for five days a week can add eighteen months to your life.

Sex is like cellphone credit – use it or lose it. Some research reckons sex three times a week can add two years to your life, bolstering natural levels of DHEA, HGH, immunoglobin-A and Oxytocin. Oxytocin is not only a painkiller but has some psychological benefits I’ll expand on later in the ‘Love’ section. “Men who ejaculate at least seven times a week in their 20s were found to be over a third less likely to develop aggressive prostate cancer in later life than men who only muster three,” says study author Professor Graham Giles from the Cancer Council Victoria. It is best if it is real sex with a real person though. Orgasms are healthy however you come by them but one-on-one consensual sex maximising skin-on-skin contact yields four hundred times the positive hormones etc. To try and achieve that by yourself, well, who has the time?

One book described orgasms using computer lingo, as a means of “rebooting your brain.” Well, every time you ring a help desk, the first question is always, “Is it turned on?”

Couples who have sex at least four times a week look more than 10 years younger than the average adult, concluded a Royal Edinburgh Hospital study. “Pleasure derived from sex is a crucial factor in preserving youth due to the release of adrenaline, dopamine, and norepinephrine,” says Neuropsychologist Dr David Weeks, who conducted the study. “Plus, sex triggers human growth hormone which combats free radicals from pollution, and exposure to other damaging environmental factors. This helps preserve skin cell walls and relax muscles which could otherwise cause wrinkles.”

A study in the journal Biological Psychology found men who had had sex the previous night responded better to stressful situations. All down to the soothing effect of another person’s touch, says Professor Stuart Brody, sexual psychologist from the University of Paisley. “A great deal of research has shown touch has a naturally calming effect,” says Brody. “And being touched by someone you care about significantly increases that effect.” Apart from the pleasurable sensation, researchers found touch actually reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

UK Men’s Health Magazine will spell out the sexual positions and activities that will optimise norepinephrine production. At least, I think so. My friend told me.

The body’s physical and mental systems interact. For example, aerobic exercise stimulates the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which supports the brain’s existing and new synapses and neurons. Columbia University’s Medical Centre in New York ran a study that found that the risk of Alzheimers is reduced by a third in the physically active. Add to that physical activity a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, and that risk reduces by a total of 60%.

A study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Epidemiology conducted by the American Cancer Society’s observed thousands of people between 1993 and 2006. They concluded, “Sitting for extended periods is a health risk as insidious as smoking or over-exposure to the sun.” Melbourne’s International Diabetes Institute found that even two hours daily exercise does not make up for the other twenty two hours if they’re motionless. “Blood levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) were twice as high in people who spent four or more hours a day in front of a screen than people spending two or less.”

I interviewed Dr Grant Schofield of AUT University’s Human Potential centre. I’ve included more excerpts of his passionate smarts in the ‘Eat’ section. In walking into his office in the Millennium Institute of Sport and Health on Auckland’s North Shore, the first thing that struck me was the view of the athletics tracks outside his office window – a great metaphor for moving if ever there was one. The second thing I noticed was the furniture, as I made the traditional foray to find a seat to continue our chat. I didn’t recognise any of it.

My experience with workplace ergonomic furniture came from managing a call centre where the mission was to get people seated as comfortably as possible, whilst minimising the potential for any physical harms that might occur from poor angles and heights and such of the furniture. I never knew then that the very act of prolonged sitting was, itself, harmful.

Grant proudly described his team’s self-made furniture as ‘UN-ergonomic. The stools, if they could be called that, were boxy and the seat component was angled. It was not only not designed to be sat in for long periods, it was purposefully designed to encourage people to get off it frequently. The height and layout of the ‘desks’ makes standing very practical and the overall layout provokes efficient movement.

Later on in the ‘Work’ section, I’ll suggest a concept called ‘Walking Meetings.’ Having a running track outside would be ideal for those. But not everyone has a running track at their work, nor purpose-built UN-ergonomic furniture. If that’s you, your need to move is going to have to be self-managed. But if you can re-jig your physical environment, it’s proven to be the most effective way to instigate changes and maintain the new wiser behaviours.

If you truly feel that you’re absolutely chained to your desk then there’s always the option of ‘Deskercise.’ Here are a few variations, using your chair or desk as tools for movement and that won’t get your ‘LA Law’ fashion work clothes all sweaty:

1.   Incline push-ups against desk,

2.   Tricep dips with chair behind you,

3.   Standing up off your chair using only one leg,

4.   Alternate knee-rises while seated,

5.   Plyometrics – push sideways against the interior walls of your desk like you’re The Hulk trying to break your legs out of prison.

If you need safety warning about your chair being on wheels and so forth, then I should probably tell you:

·              Coffee is hot,

·              Don’t use that new hairdryer while in the bath

An Australian study of 12,000 people found that, after the age of 25, each hour of TV watching decreased life expectancy by 22 minutes. A cigarette only reduced it by 11 minutes! Best not smoke while watching TV then, that’s for sure. Again, it’s not TV per se that’s the problem, it’s the associated social disconnection, mindless eating and sitting motionless. Average six hours of that kind of TV watching a day and it’ll take five years off your life. How can you add activity to your TV watching? Suggestions include wobbleboards, exercycles, light dumbbells and resistance bands. Certainly the latter can be stored wherever the remote control lives and be easily accessed for a few plyometrics with the coffee table. Even fidgeting is better than sitting still.

‘Breaking Bad’ was a classic and well-produced TV show. At fifty or so episodes, was it worth losing 18 hours of my life on top of the time I spent watching it? ‘Geordie Shore’ is definitely not.

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging found some good news for couch potatoes who never bother to start any physical efforts because they know they’ll never run a marathon. The biggest gains in health from physical activity are not accrued at the top end of the fitness scale. The biggest gains are from the first steps – from being a zero-effort couch potato to being a 10-minute-a-day walker. Oh and get some good shoes – they lessen any risk of inflammation to your joints and back.

You don’t need to start triathlons or join a gym, although the social aspects of that and the routine might be helpfully encouraging for some. They are for me. My weekly basketball game is highly social and physically akin to my caveman ancestors’ sporadic hunting outbursts.

You do need to crank out thirty to sixty minutes of activity five times a week that combines aerobic work, balance and muscle conditioning. Try deliberately inconveniencing yourself so you have to go downstairs to fetch the laundry basket. If you have to go get a latté, go to the 2nd closest café. Park further away so there is at least a bit of a stroll at the start and end of your work day. Get off your butt every twenty minutes and try to automate that. We’re all tethered to smartphones these days so have a regular alarm set to vibrate to remind you to move.

This does make a difference when it all adds up:

           Average daily Steps Obesity Rate

USA              5117  34%

Australia       9695  16%

Studies show that a mere twenty minutes of moderate activity significantly improves your mood in the subsequent twelve hours. Find others to be supportive and move with you.

I’m a latecomer to, but a fan of, the benefits of being a gardener:

·              45 minutes of gardening will burn the same number of calories as a 30 minute aerobics class,

·              Better sleepers,

·              Lower risk of osteoporosis,

·              Lower risk of diabetes,

·              Improved coordination, balance and strength means fewer accidents and better recovery from falls in later life,

·              The fresh food you grow is the best source of nutrients you’ll ever get,

·              It’s a project with purpose that multiple generations within a family can share and bond over,

·              Save money and spare money is always good for health,

·              Reduced anxiety,

·              Sense of purpose,

·              A routine / ritual and your body and mind like those,

·              No jogging required.

Gardening and yoga are great. Do yoga in a garden. With others.


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First Impressions

first impressions

The halo effect is a cognitive bias where one trait influences our general perception of other traits of that person or object. Remember, right at the start of the book I mentioned that interesting-but-useless study showing that people with asymmetrical faces make better leaders? Symmetrical faces are seen as better looking. Here’s where the halo effect often kicks in as the first thing we experience of a person is usually how they look. If we’re not conscious and careful then that can unduly influence how we see everything else about them.

Solomon Asch studied this Halo Effect or, as psychologists tag it, ‘exaggerated emotional coherence.’

There are two names below with a few describing words for each. Which person do you view more favourably?


intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious


envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent

Most people prefer Alan but, soon enough, you realise Ben has the same describing words but in the reverse order. Because Alan’s positive words came first, they coloured most people’s perception of him positively overall.

It may be when you read Alan’s and Ben’s descriptors that you summarised the situation clearly and logically in an instant and declared they were effectively the same calibre. Well, this is a book full of psychological tricks and you went into that little exercise expecting a psychological trick and that is exactly what you got. At work and in life, you aren’t waiting for psychological tricks around every corner. When you enter a job interview, meet a salesperson or conduct a performance review, you need to be aware of the potential for the halo effect and its flipside that I’m choosing to call the pitchfork effect. Falling for it isn’t a weakness, it’s natural, if you let your brain take that easy effortless road it desires so much.

The Halo / Pitchfork effects combine dangerously with cognitive dissonance. Daniel Kahneman not only studies and practises psychology, he also teaches it. He is compelled to mark exams and term papers. Often they come in bunches and often there are multiple pieces of work from the same students. He found that the first piece of work he marked for each individual influenced his subsequent marking for that individual. For example, if I scored highly on the first paper, that must mean I’m good at psychology. That subconscious assumption gets me the benefit of the doubt every time Kahneman subsequently marks my work. And it works to my detriment if the first piece of work scored poorly. Ambiguity gets forced to fit an existing pattern. Kahneman attempted to allow for these effects by making the papers as anonymously and randomised as possible.

If you’re leading someone and they make a mistake, to what extent is your reaction to that mistake coloured by your initial experiences with that person? This is called the ‘Diagnosis Bias.’ Once we label someone, we put on blinders to any evidence that contradicts the label.

Homophily is the tendency to like people who are like us. How often when conducting a job interview and you get ‘a good feeling’ about a candidate is that due to homophily?

I have to add one last comment about Kahneman as I’ve referenced him a lot. He’s a psychologist. For his co-development of the theory of behavioural economics, he won a Nobel Prize – in economics. That’s not even his main discipline. How does that go down at academic parties? “Oh, you got a Nobel Prize? I got one too, for economics, AND I’M NOT EVEN AN ECONOMIST!” (I did look up the Nobel website. They don’t call it ‘Economics.’ They call it ‘The Economic Sciences.’ Who says the Swedish don’t have a sense of humour?)


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We overvalue what we already have


Duke University’s basketball team does consistently well and its small gym is always sold out. They have a bizarre but traditional system for fairly rationing out the precious and scarce resource that is Tar Heel tickets. People have to camp out and remain present in their camps as demonstrated in role calls just to get into a lottery for the right to buy a ticket. Dan Ariely got a list of those who’d made it into the draw which showed those who’d won and those who hadn’t. He rang them up and posed as scalper offering to set up a deal for the losers to buy a ticket and the winners to sell. Bear in mind that both groups were very similar and both had gone through the highly committed, emotional and harrowing experience of the camp-out and the lottery. The average buyer was willing to pay $170. The average seller wouldn’t accept less than $2400. These people were students and $170 was a lot of money. The potential buyers spoke of it being the equivalent of an evening out with friends plus drinks. The potential sellers spoke of priceless, irreplaceable memories and stories for the grandkids. This seriously distorted their perception of the true value of the tickets. Be it our family home, car, job, boss or favourite TV show, we over-value what we currently have.

It is much easier to not give somebody something in the first place than to take it away from them later.

People toss around the terms “ownership” and “buy-in” in workplaces a lot but what do they actually mean when it comes to performance and behaviour? The more work you put into something or the greater the time, emotion and commitment invested, the greater the depth and sense of ownership. Think of the online auction bidding process, the amount of DIY projects you’ve done on your home or trial periods for services you’ve subsequently purchased. The greater effort you’ve put in, the less likely you are to want to let go and walk away.


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How many coffee loyalty cards do you have (& do you know the meaning of the word ‘loyalty’?)


How many coffee shop loyalty cards do you have? (If you have more than one, you may wish to consult a dictionary for the meaning of the word ‘loyalty.’) Do they all operate the same way? Think about all the old-fashioned loyalty cards you’ve seen. Not the new electronic point-collecting plastic cards with magnetic strips or microchips. Think of the timeless dog-earred cardboard ones with ten squares or cups or whatever and purchases earned a stamp or a holepunch. At some delicious and delirious future time, you get that tenth stamp and the next cup is FREE!!! It’s like Christmas but without the immense tension, family drama and homicidal / suicidal thoughts.

Did those cards affect your behaviour? Did they drive your decision-making? In what ways? Which type of cards were most successful – for the cafe? The whole point of those things, one would presume, was to increase profit in the long run for the cafe. They’re not giving you free coffee because you’re awesome. (This is no way belittles your actual level of awesomeness.)

In 2006, a study was done at a carwash contrasting two different approaches to loyalty cards. Half the cards were normal ‘get eight stamps, get one free’ cards. The other half were the same except that the card needed TEN stamps but the first two stamps had already been given. For that second group of cards, the first purchase was, in effect, the THIRD stamp.For the business, the cost was the same for both types of card – the customer still needed to buy eight carwashes.

And this had what impact?

19% of the first group of cards got redeemed up to the tenth and final stamp thus rewarding the customer their freebie. And how did the second group of cards go? 34%! Almost double. AND they filled their cards quicker AND as they got closer to completing their card, the gaps between carwashes diminished. The closer they got to their ‘goal’, the more active they appeared to be pursuing it.

That’s interesting in and of itself if you’re running a business and considering implementing a loyalty card. That’s not what I’m writing about though. This is just a demonstration of a good old predictable human trait called ‘Endowed Progress.’ People are more likely to progress towards a goal if they perceive that they have already made progress towards it.

How can we help others move towards their work and life goals leveraging the endowed progress effect? Weight loss or a promotion are common goals. Although both would be better expressed using something like the SMART model. (Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timebound. “Lose 10kg in 3 months etc”) Somehow we / they need to give themselves credit for the progress they’ve already made before they officially start. The weight loss or getting promoted equivalent of two free stamps.

Conversely, people can experience negative effects with endowed progress. Ever waited for a bus? The bus is late. The bus is later still. Maybe the bus isn’t coming at all? Again, research indicates that the more time we invest in waiting for something, the more irrationally attached we become to continue waiting. (That said, you just know that the moment you walk just far enough away, the bus will come around the corner… psych!!)


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‘The Difficults’

soup nazi

A big hit movie of 2018 was ‘The Incredibles 2’. Another Pixar hit with the amazing Holly Hunter, who I learned this week when starting out used to share an apartment with fellow Oscar winner Frances McDormand and was a study buddy with Jason Alexander who gained fame as ‘George’ in Seinfeld. We are indeed highly influenced by those with whom we associate

This becomes problematic when we are forced to associate with people who do not add value – people whom this article describes not as ‘The Incredibles’ but as ‘The Difficults’.

Have a read. It has some classic categories, albeit a bit cartoonesque: the tank, the sniper, the whiner (all of which follow the same naming structure as Seinfeld: the contest, the puffy shirt, the soup nazi).

A key takeaway from the article is to focus on that which you can control and to have clear, incremental goals on which to focus, plus to differentiate between difficult people and difficult situations. It also says its methods can be applied to difficult people outside work, such as family. That’s a job for a different and much longer article…


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