Book Review-Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment

It was a different time, 1977. Back then, publishing was harder and the focused energy that went into creating a book was larger. When Irving Janis and Leon Mann wrote Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment, they were writing something that was designed to comprehensively cover everything known about decision making at the time. As it turns out, there hasn’t been that much added to the knowledge how we make decisions – and there’s been a great deal that we lost from their work in the sound-bite world we live in today.


I picked up the book, because people still quote Janis when they speak of “groupthink.” Of those who reference Janis when they say the word, few have read his work, and I wanted to understand the nuances and implications of groupthink. To understand it, we’ve got to travel back a few more years to the work of Solomon Asch and conformity. The short version is that Asch figured out you could make someone claim that two lines were the same length when they clearly weren’t. All it took was a few confederates willing to make the claim. (See Unthink for more on Asch’s work.)

In the context of working groups, it means that the group perception has a strong pull. Asch’s work was replicated later, and it was discovered that people who were coerced into thinking two lines were the same length had no conflict over this. Their brains had accepted the two different lines as the same, and there was no longer any conflict. For groups, this is challenging, because it means we can unconsciously and progressively bias our answers in a direction without either conflict or awareness.

That’s the groupthink that Janis was talking about. The gradual adjustments that lead to conformity of thought without the group’s knowledge. It’s why Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence encouraged the right rotation of external influences on a team to prevent the progression from getting too far. Janis’ recommendations were:

  1. Leaders should be impartial – at least at first.
  2. Every member should be assigned the role of critical evaluator.
  3. Someone should be assigned the role of devil’s advocate, intentionally poking holes in the existing plans.
  4. From time to time, divide the group and then have the groups merge, comparing their results.
  5. Survey all warning signals arising from rivals.
  6. Hold a second-chance meeting for everyone to restate their residual doubts and concerns.
  7. Invite non-core members on a staggered basis.
  8. Discuss the group’s deliberations with trusted associates.
  9. Set up multiple groups working on the same problem – when the decision is critical.

Espoused and Actual Behaviors

Janis and Mann are quite clear that their goal wasn’t to document the things that people said they did to make a decision. Instead, they were focused on how people actually behaved. They recognized, like Chris Argyris in Organizational Traps, Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline, and William Isaacs in Dialogue, that what people say they believe and what they actually believe aren’t always the same.

Many of us are unconscious of the constant balance between exhaustive evaluation and the need for expediency. Barry Swartz in the Paradox of Choice builds on Janis’ work and the work of Herbert Simon to explain how the process of decision making and specifically how we can maximize the utility of our decisions – maximizing – but only at the risk of expending too much effort and creating anxiety. Satisficing, on the other end of the spectrum, looks to quickly discharge a decision and move on. However, it does so with the awareness that we will make some mistakes. Neither extremes are good, and no one exclusively picks one strategy. We’re constantly shifting our position about the degree to which we’re willing to invest in the decision – and this is something that Janis and Mann make clear.

Our beliefs and behaviors are bounded by the limits of our rationality – our bounded rationality. It was John Gottman in The Science of Trust that introduced me to the Nash equilibrium. The impact of which wouldn’t be fully realized until I realized the impact on evolution. When we can see more broadly, we realize that there are gains that can be accomplished when we work together instead of against each other. (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more on how we might have learned to cooperate and The Righteous Mind for how shared intention and Mindreading led to this.) When we operate with only our own concerns, we often find that we’re not achieving the best we can when we work together.

However, considering others and their needs is exhausting. We may find that we’ve depleted our internal resources before we’re able to consider others – no matter how loudly we might proclaim our desires. (See Willpower for more on exhaustion and Destructive Emotions for more about whether we’re fundamentally wired towards considering others our ourselves.)

College Lab Rats

One of the concerns expressed about how research was being done on decision making was that decisions were often placed in front of college students because they were easy to get as subjects. This had the tendency to focus research on situations with trivial consequences. It didn’t really matter whether you picked poster A or poster B. Janis and Mann correctly surmised that the way that we make decisions when it matters is very different than the way we make decisions when it’s a simulation.

Gary Klein in Sources of Power shares his journey to discover how rational decision making worked. In the end, he discovered that people didn’t often make rational decisions. Instead, they made recognition primed decisions that relied upon their ability to predict the outcomes of their interventions. These sorts of decisions couldn’t be made in the sterile environment of an office on a college campus.

Building the Balance Sheet

If we sidestep, for a moment, the gap between rational decision making that we believe we make and the recognition-primed decision making that Klein found, we need a way to tabulate and measure before we can even attempt to decide which path is best. That requires both an ability to foresee the future and a method of collection for the pros and the cons of each proposed decision – including doing nothing.

Janis and Mann recommend the idea of keeping the balance sheet despite the awareness that it is likely not the final arbiter of the decision. The objective is simply to create a structure to make the process of making the decision easier for the individual.

The columns for positive and negative consequences for a given choice are easy, but there is also the issue of the kind of positive or negative consequences to address. Janis and Mann believe that there are four categories for positive and negative anticipations:

  • Utilitarian gains and losses for self
  • Utilitarian gains and losses for others
  • Self-approval or disapproval
  • Approval or disapproval from significant others

In addition to the content of the balance sheet there’s a recommended process to follow:

  1. Open-ended interview
  2. Introducing the balance sheet grid
  3. Using a list of pertinent considerations
  4. Identifying the most important considerations
  5. Exploring alternatives
  6. Ranking alternatives

Here’s where I believe the experience of the last 40 years would change things substantially. First, we’ve better honed our ethnographic interviewing techniques to better understand the situation. (See The Ethnographic Interview.) We’ve also learned how to build better relationships with those we’re trying to support and assist using Motivational Interviewing techniques. Before someone can begin to come up with a schema for the challenges they’re facing and the alternatives available to them, they must be allowed to explore the topic without too much rigid structure. Ultimately, the goal is to enable creativity and innovation in the responses, since this enhances the potential choices. (See Unleashing Innovation and The Innovator’s DNA for more on innovation.)

The process as it was laid out lies on a fundamental assumption that brainstorming works – but it doesn’t. (See Quiet.) There are lots of reasons, but in short, creating a list and then coming back to figure out which of the items on the list are useful is wasteful. We need to establish that there is some unspoken bar, under which we won’t capture an idea to later decide to discard it. Instead of processing items then providing some weight to them, we should assign rough weights to the items as we go. (Another issue is the single-threaded nature of traditional brainstorming that can be mitigated with technology and allowing the conversation to become multi-threaded again.)

Another aspect that more recent research reveals is what Philip Tetlock and his colleagues discovered on forecasting. In Superforecasting, they explain that revisions and keeping track of the predicted probability of the outcome is also important. So, in addition to an impact number, we should also record a probability of the outcome occurring.

Collectively, this creates an opportunity to layout the foreseeable consequences both positive and negative for each choice in the decision. The permutations, options, and ideas can quickly become overwhelming if one attempts to truly run down every possibility, and that is why it’s important to triage the situation to only those options that appear viable – knowing that it’s possible, but not likely, that you’ll exclude the best option.

Dialogue Mapping

An alternative to the approaches proposed by Janis and Mann is the process of dialogue mapping. In this approach positives and negatives are mapped to items but the hierarchy of possible options and ideas is maintained. This can sometimes be a more efficient process as there will generally be clusters of choices that have the same positives and negatives. (See Dialogue Mapping for more.)

Serial Decision Making

While we create the balance sheet as if every option is weighed against the other options, and we make a decision among multiple options, the truth is that we rarely decide like this. Instead, we serially evaluate each potential option and do pairs-matching to see which of two options seems to be better. We continue this process only until we believe we’ve reached a point where additional comparisons won’t add value.

In effect, we all settle for satisficing in one way or another. We do this either because of the amount of information for each choice or because we simply believe that the effort we’re putting into the decision is no longer warranted.

Toss Up

One challenging observation is that when confronted with obviously irrelevant information, decision makers were more likely to regard the probabilities as 50:50. From Superforecasting, we know that 50:50 means that the person doesn’t know. In the presence of irrelevant information, we begin to wonder if we’re assessing the situation correctly or if we’ll ever have enough information.

The lack of faith in our ability to come to a clear conclusion has the effect of decreasing our interest in doing any further research to find the right answer. Whether we consider the information unattainable or are concerned with our ability to differentiate, we stop caring.

Simple Decision Rules

The truth is that decisions of any complexity are so fraught with uncertainty and details that we can’t possibly handle all the raw data. This is perhaps in part why David Snowden developed the Cynefin decision framework. It describes the degree of complexity and volatility of a situation and how those factors lead to radically different adaptive responses.

We often use single rule methods for evaluating the right decision. Whether the criteria is “best,” “right,” or “compassionate,” the decision is simplified by constraining to a single criterion – or a few criteria. Even when we don’t simplify to this degree, we frequently find people – particularly politicians – rallying around simple messages with easy solutions when we know that the proposed solutions won’t work or are at least unlikely to work.

If the problem has been encountered before and the last strategy was successful, the strategy is tried again. If the problem has been encountered before and the last strategy wasn’t successful, the opposite strategy is often employed. There is little thought given to the changing circumstances and the impact this should have. We blindly follow formulas whether they’re for the right problem or not.

Seventy percent of findings in journal articles can’t be replicated. Much of that is likely related to the fact that the effective criteria and constraints for the results aren’t articulated in the article. The article says, “Here are the results we got,” but rarely is it possible for a study to isolate the factors which led to the results – no matter how they may claim differently.

Reducing Anxiety and Conflict

Much of the internal psychodrama that happens as a part of the decision-making process is an attempt on the decision maker’s part to reduce their anxiety, stress, and conflict about the decision. Sometimes this will find the decision maker bolstering their perceptions of the decision that they’ve selected, other times it will take the form of others trying to calm the decision maker.

Consider for a moment the degree of impact of negative consequences that were expected compared to those that weren’t anticipated. Those which were anticipated have a substantially lower psychological impact. It’s as if the decision maker has already prepared their defenses and are therefore less impacted when the negative consequences do appear.

Another factor that decision makers use to manage their anxiety is to defer the consequences to the dim future, allowing them to focus on the here and now instead of consequences that have no immediate impact.

Leading Lean

One of the benefits of having grown up with a mother that did production and inventory control is that I got exposed to new approaches to manufacturing and managing inventory early. Cellular manufacturing and lean manufacturing were topics around the dinner table. It was fascinating to me how different ways of structuring work were more efficient. That plus my experience in software development helped me to understand the fundamentals of lean manufacturing. One of those characteristics is the introduction of activities that don’t add value – or sufficient value – to the customer. The other is the awareness that some decisions can be changed and some cannot.

Fundamental to lean is the idea that you delay decisions that cannot be changed, and you expedite decisions that can be changed. The simple criterion of reversibility is powerful. It can prevent spending too much time focused on making the best decision when the decision probably doesn’t matter that much – because it’s changeable later.

Goal Striving

The degree of anxiety associated with the decision-making process is driven in part by the degree to which the decision maker feels invested in the decision. The more invested the decision maker is attached to the outcomes of the decision, the more anxiety will be felt. This anxiety will inhibit the options that the decision maker can consider, as Daniel Pink points out in Drive.

There is a healthy balance between a concern for the decision and an unhealthy level of attachment. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Buddhists recommend detachment – and not disengagement. There’s still an interest and concern for the decision without being too attached to the outcomes that are at least partially outside of the decision maker’s control. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Resilient for more on detachment.)

Addressing Challenges

Invariably, there will be challenges to a decision once it’s been made. Janis and Mann suggest the following process for considering challenges:

  1. Appraising the Challenge – What’s the risk?
  2. Surveying Alternatives – How can I address this challenge?
  3. Weighing Alternatives – Which activity is best?
  4. Deliberating about Commitment – Should I commit to this new course of action?
  5. Adhering Despite Negative Feedback – I’m going to hold the course.

This process is a rational view of how people address challenges, but because of the degree of ego involvement in the decision, there’s a high degree of rejection of the potential challenges, and thus they may never go through this process.

Prior Commitments and Sunk Cost

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make is when to pull the plug on something. Kahneman calls it the sunk cost fallacy in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Janis calls it a bias toward prior commitments. Either way, it’s our tendency to continue to invest in decisions and projects despite the fact that there’s clear evidence that what we’re doing isn’t working… or is there? Jim Collins in Good to Great speaks of the Stockdale paradox. The unwavering belief that what we’re doing will work and the willingness to listen – and adapt. The problem with all this – no matter what term you want to use – is that there is almost never clear evidence.

In 2008, I released The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users. For a year, it did almost nothing. It’s been over a $1 million dollar business for me. Had I quit after the first year of dismal sales, I would have lost out on almost all the revenue the book and derivative products have generated.

That experience haunts me. On the one hand, I need to find a time to cut the cord on investments. On the other hand, had I not spent a few thousand dollars on a mailing campaign, I would have lost out on so much. Because of experiences like mine and just general human experience, people hesitate to make the difficult decision to shut things down.


In the case of decisions that are reversed, the process is often so painful that people begin to expunge memories of the bad decision. For instance, after a divorce, pictures of the former spouse are removed and often destroyed. Any gifts of significant meaning are similarly destroyed to free the psyche from the painful reminders of the decision that is perceived negatively.

Easy For Me, Hard for Others

There’s some classical wisdom that says that a woman should be hard to get if she wants to get a man. (The Betty Crocker cookbook has a similarly dated perspective that you must be able to cook a good pie to get a man.) The problem with the “hard to get” wisdom is that it’s not supported by research. In a study whose primary actor was a prostitute, some clients were told that she was going to restrict her clientele in the future, and others weren’t given this information. Those with whom she had communicated that she would be hard to get didn’t call back as often for a future appointment.

While this research has challenges with a selective sample (those men who paid for a prostitute’s services), it is a confusing result if it truly is better to be hard to get. Janis and Mann reconcile this by accounting for fear of rejection and, with additional research (by Walster and associates), concluding that a woman should be perceived as hard to get for others but easy to get for the man whom she is interested in.

Unpredictable Boomerangs

Some messages are multifaceted to the point that they can have a strong positive impact on one group and a strong negative impact on other groups. Consider an inducement towards a different brand than is normally purchased. Women, who presumably felt responsibility and knowledge for their purchases, actively resisted the inducement; whereas men, who were presumably not as responsible for or knowledgeable about the purchases, responded very favorably.

This means that we must be careful with our work to engage a new group of people or try strategies which can be divisive. It may be that we will sacrifice our core audience in the service of finding additional audiences.

Boomerangs occur in other situations as well. Someone signs a petition without much involvement in a cause, and when attacked about being a part of the movement the petition was about, they may become emboldened to take a more active stance. The act of being attacked for a relatively mildly-held belief causes the person to become more involved and committed to the cause.

Hidden Requirements

Perhaps one of the greatest tricks in causing people to make decisions is to hide the real requirements when they make the commitment. (See The Hidden Persuaders for more on this kind of deceptive practice.) Take Billy Graham’s call for people to pledge to be a member of the crusade. The motivated person steps forth, makes a public commitment to the cause, and shortly thereafter signs a pledge card. Before they know it, they’ve committed to being a part of something without really understanding what that means.

Resistance to Change

Janis and Mann explain in the context of smoking the kinds of rationalizations that people have when confronted with the fact that smoking kills. The same core rationalizations can be used for anything:

  1. It hasn’t really been proven.
  2. You don’t see a lot of that (consequences).
  3. It’s too late for me to change.
  4. I’ll just compensate with an equally bad problem.
  5. I need this.
  6. I’m only hurting myself.
  7. It’s a risk, but life is full of risks.

What’s striking about this list is that these statements can be made about any bad habit and poorly considered decision. I’ve heard all these objections in conjunction with COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. (See When You Should Not Get The COVID-19 Vaccine.)

Optimal Fear

Some look at stress from the point of view that stressors are necessary to drive us towards some sort of action. The argument is that, without any stressors, we’d sit around and do nothing. (Netflix and chill?) It’s the introduction of stressors – and therefore some degree of fear – that drive us toward action and keeps us motivated enough to do something. However, on the other side of the equation, there is something to not having too much fear, because we’ll get frozen in our fear and be equally ineffective.

Amy Edmondson speaks about the need for psychological safety in The Fearless Organization, and Find Your Courage and A Fearless Heart speak to the need to overcome fear to be courageous enough to do things. Drive cites research on how even moderate amounts of stress (in the way of compensation) can inhibit performance. Fredrick LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations
explains how the lowest level of functioning for organizations are those that motivate through fear. In short, there’s no one, easy answer to the right amount of stressors to place in front of people. Generally speaking, you want as little fear as possible while maintaining enough to keep people motivated not to quit. Morten Hansen in Collaboration explains the problem of social loafing and some of what can be done to prevent individuals from deciding that they don’t need to work while others do.

Decision Making in Information Overload

Decision making is necessarily a process whereby we cannot have enough information and we have too much information. As was discussed earlier, we must choose to satisfice or maximize for each decision, but there’s a broader context that we live in today. Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind explains how we’re not just making individual decisions in an information overload condition; our lives have become continuous information overload. (The Information Diet is another good source of information about how we’re inundated with information.)

As a result of our continuous bombardment with information, our reticular activating systems (RAS) have become more aggressive at filtering out information (see Change or Die for more on the RAS). That’s one of the reasons why marketing has moved to attention marketing. (See Got Your Attention? for more.) The more we continue to operate in an environment of constant noise and pressure, the more important it becomes that we are focused on how we consciously apply our best skills at decision making to minimize our efforts and maximize our efficacy.

Optimal Decision Making

To optimize decision making, Janis and Mann offer up this selection of criteria for vigilant decision making.

The decision maker, to the best of his ability and within his information-processing capabilities

1. thoroughly canvasses a wide range of alternative courses of action;

2. surveys the full range of objectives to be fulfilled and the values implicated by the choice;

3. carefully weighs whatever he knows about the costs and risks of negative consequences, as well as the positive consequences, that could flow from each alternative;

4. intensively searches for new information relevant to further evaluation of the alternatives;

5. correctly assimilates and takes account of any new information or expert judgment to which he is exposed, even when the information or judgment does not support the course of action he initially prefers;

6. reexamines the positive and negative consequences of all known alternatives, including those originally regarded as unacceptable, before making a final choice;

7. makes detailed provisions for implementing or executing the chosen course of action, with special attention to contingency plans that might be required if various known risks were to materialize.

Maybe it’s time that you make the decision to read more about Decision Making.

Book Review-Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

One of the most frustrating and hurtful things that can tell someone who is suffering is that it’s their fault. Bad things happen to good people, and it has nothing to do with their faith, their character, or anything other than the randomness of life. Barbara Ehrenreich starts Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America with her story about how people expected her to disconnect from reality for the service of just being happy.

Breast Cancer

Ehrenreich recounts her confrontation with a breast cancer diagnosis. She shares how her negative thoughts and comments weren’t accepted or appreciated by others. In complete denial of what we’ve learned from Kubler-Ross’s work in On Death and Dying, the expectation is that patients must jump to acceptance without flowing through the natural grieving process. (The Grief Recovery Handbook is another good book on how to support those experiencing loss and therefore grief.)

The truth revealed in Worm at the Core is that most of us aren’t comfortable with our mortality, and when others are negative about their diagnoses, which may include death, we’re reminded of our mortality – and we’ll do whatever we can to avoid the pain we experience as we consider it. (See also Change or Die for more.) People start to move away from those who are experiencing the natural cycle of loss, because they don’t want to get too wrapped up in it.

The great lie that is told to cancer patients is that their happiness is how they will survive. It comes from a logical fallacy. (Learn more in Mastering Logical Fallacies.) The fallacy is that your immune system will attack cancer if it were only functioning properly. This is fed by the true statement that your immune system is less effective in the presence of constant stress, as Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains. The leap is that our immune system would attack the cancer if it were only healthier. The problem is that our immune system doesn’t function this way. Our immune system is designed to attack things that are “not us,” but cancer appears to the immune system as “us,” and therefore it’s left alone. (I won’t go into the details of how this happens or what the variables are, but I encourage you to study the immune system if you disagree.)

The push towards positivity comes out of misguided belief but at least in some circumstances comes from a genuine concern for the other person. The problem is that, in the service of this ideal, they’re encouraging people to deny themselves and how they really feel, which we know creates other problems. (See How Emotions Are Made and Emotion and Adaptation for more.)

The one place here that I must take issue with Ehrenreich’s work is in the conclusion that the cancer death rates haven’t decreased from the 1930s to 2000. The problem with this statement is that it’s not true according to the Centers for Disease Control, which shows a death rate that’s dropped from over 30% to less than 20% since 1975. No argument that there is more to be done and we need to continue to work to eliminate this painful killer – however, statistically speaking, medical treatments have made an observable shift in the survival of patients.

Hope Is Not an Emotion

Ehrenreich further describes hope as an emotion and optimism as a cognitive stance. C.R. Snyder’s work The Psychology of Hope argues effectively against hope being emotion. Instead, hope is a cognitive process built on willpower (see Willpower and Grit for more) and waypower – or knowing how to move forward. Hope is, therefore, possible to be cultivated both through the careful cultivation of willpower and the discovery of paths that lead forward.

Optimism is, as she explains, a cognitive stance. It’s a way of viewing the world. It’s the proverbial glass half-full instead of glass half-empty. She says that “presumably” anyone can develop it through practice. The research says that people can develop healthier ways of managing self-talk. (See two different approaches to this topic in The Hidden Brain and Advice Not Given.) She complains that optimism may require deliberate self-deception and blocking out unpleasant possibilities.

It’s true that optimism does require deliberate self-deception. The problem is the implication that this is bad. The research says that the outcomes are better with optimism. Self-deception can be problematic (see Leadership and Self-Deception), but self-deception isn’t always bad. Self-deception can be useful when it leads us to more humility (see Humilitas) and greater compassion, including self-compassion. The other implication is that we don’t self-deceive otherwise. However, we know that we are always deceiving ourselves – the trick is to create consciousness of it and gain some degree of control. (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)

Finding Fault

Ehrenreich seeks to transfer responsibility from the individual to society. She, like Happier?, points to income inequality as being unfair, and therefore it’s not fair to hold people accountable for their happiness. As with many of her arguments, there is truth. Income (and opportunity) inequality isn’t fair. However, as discussed in Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting, it doesn’t matter who hurt you, you’re responsible for the healing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re to blame for the situation or it’s something that was externally generated, you’re responsible for the recovery.

When Ehrenreich cites initial research that couldn’t be replicated, I nod my head yes. I know that most published journal articles results can’t be replicated. (See The Heretic’s Guide to Management.) Whether it’s a missing component in conditions specified in the original article or a fluke, replication of findings is important and widely missing. However, Ehrenreich angrily laments about how support groups don’t seem to help. Having been in the position of facilitating some support groups, I can say that there are functional groups and dysfunctional groups, and it takes a keen eye to see what works and what doesn’t.

The National Speakers Association

Ehrenreich also rails against the National Speakers Association (NSA). I’ve previously recounted my experience with their national conference but never said directly that many of the people at the conference seemed to be wannabe speakers. Ehrenreich is more direct about that point. She also appropriately questions some of the speakers who are making it.

She explains the focus on positive messages, including some messages which aren’t founded on science (or reality). She specifically calls out the Heart Math Institute, which I address in my review of The HeartMath Solution. So, I can easily acknowledge the truth in the frustration with the focus on positivity. However, I’m reminded of a lesson I learned 30 years ago.

I was writing reviews. I’d get a piece of hardware, and I’d be expected to talk about how it would be helpful to readers of the magazine. The problem is that I couldn’t always do that. Sometimes, what I was sent was garbage in a pretty package, and I wanted to say that. My editor was a seasoned professional and explained that negative reviews weren’t useful to the readers, and therefore they didn’t get printed. I’m sure there was some degree of pressure for advertising revenue, but the point stuck with me. People want to know what works, so they can use it or replicate it. They don’t want to know 1,000 ways to not make a lightbulb – they care about the one way to do it. (See Find Your Courage for more on Edison.)

Quantum Physics

One of my favorite quotes about quantum physics is that “anyone who claims to understand quantum physics doesn’t.” Whether it’s the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or Schrödinger’s cat, the concepts are difficult for anyone to grasp. Ehrenreich appropriately challenges speakers who believe to have a master’s grasp on quantum mechanics and why these are a force for positive energy in the lives of their audience.

I interpreted this to justify magical thinking. It made me wonder how their childhood development might have been disrupted or interrupted. (See Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society for the stages.) I know that we used magic and superstition to explain things that we couldn’t explain – and to supply the raw ingredients for unbridled hope. Ehrenreich appropriately pushes back.

The Religion of My Church

Similarly, she challenges evangelistic preachers who promise that God wants you to have everything you want if you only have sufficient faith – and, presumably, tithe appropriately. The problem with this is these preachers have presumably never really understood the Bible they’re claiming to quote. As I explain in my post Faith, Hope, and Love, faith is literally always a gift from God. It comes from prayer, which is exchanging worries for faith. I suppose that this would cause them to simply change their admonishment to claim that you’re not praying enough. (You’re called to pray unceasingly, which is a bit impractical with that whole problem of sleep.)

She cites the rise of megachurches and those churches that came from charismatic preachers who studied what people wanted in a church before starting their megachurches. The problem is that churches are – overall – struggling. Churchless, The Great Evangelical Recession, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone contradict the view that overall church attendance is growing. Admittedly, it’s possible that it’s becoming more focused into megachurches, but her point seems to be that churches are now delivering positive messages so they’re not driving away parishioners.

Improving Our Situation Before Improving Our Circumstances

Near the end of the work, Ehrenreich asks the question, “How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in?” The answer is to change your view on the situation. Certainly, if you’re struggling to have enough food, simply being happy about it won’t solve your problem. However, believing that you have the capacity to change your situation today creates the opportunity that you’ll do it tomorrow.

It’s my experience that people must first change their perspective, their mindset (see Mindset), before they’ll be able to change their circumstances. They need to see things differently, so they see the problem in a way that makes their circumstances easier to deal with. We know that stress – which is entirely driven by our perceptions – reduces our creativity with solutions. (See Emotion and Adaptation and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for perceptions of stress. See Drive, Diffusion of Innovations, and Why We Do What We Do for the impact of stress on innovation.)

If you want to find a healthy relationship with positive thinking, perhaps you need to read Bright-sided so you’re not ambushed by positive thinking unrelated to reality like Ehrenreich was.

Book Review-Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America

One of the things that I deeply respect is people who are willing to do the reading and research necessary to have a complete and balanced view of a topic. That’s what I found in Daniel Horowitz’ Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America. It’s no secret that Horowitz isn’t impressed with the movement towards creating a happier America just from the title; however, if you’re trying to map how our focus on happiness evolved, he’s done a great job.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

When the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the idea that people could aspire to happiness was a lofty idea. Most people lived lives that are more in line with the poem of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on a plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It describes “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s easy to grow up in America today and just expect that you should be happy. It’s too easy to believe that happiness is some inevitable birthright of those who have been born in America. However, it’s neither a birthright nor something that everyone believed was possible.

America is in an epidemic of depression. It is as large a health problem as any other. We continue to prescribe more and more antidepressants, yet we’re not stopping the tide of people struggling. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more.) We firmly believe that one of the drivers of both burnout and depression is the gap between our expectations and our reality. If you expect that you should be happy in every moment, your life is bound to be disappointing. (See the resources on for more.)

Critical Thinking

The impetus for reading Happier? came from a note from Marty Seligman in the Friends of Positive Psychology list server. He was providing a draft response to a negative article that was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and was asking for feedback. I read his response and the original article. The original article referred to Happier? and another book that is critical of positive psychology, Bright-sided. I wanted to see if I could trace the line between my experience with positive psychology through these resources to the scathing article that I saw.

Instead of being defensive of positive psychology, I was curious. How did we get to such a disconnect between what I knew were the possibilities of positive psychology and the grim specter that was painted by the article? It turns out that it was distortion like the kind that makes a massive shadow on a wall.

The Need to Accentuate the Positive

While helping to support a program that took people who were in some way broken by life and returned them to normal functioning, I encountered a frustrated, exhausted leader who longed to be able to help people thrive instead of just survive. He had spent his career picking up people who had hit rock bottom. He was grateful for the impact he was having in the lives of others but at the same time longed to make people more what they had the potential to be.

This is another rendition of the same siren song that called Martin Seligman, then President of the American Psychological Association (APA), to encourage professionals to make whole health a priority. Instead of just responding to illness, he wanted to follow the same pattern set by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1946, when it called for physicians and other providers to consider the health of people as more than just the absence of illness, defect, or deficiency.

Positive is different kind of territory than negative. In mathematics, it’s flipping the sign. However, in life, it’s something totally different. Positive psychology helps people be healthier as defined by joy and enduring happiness in their lives instead of the absence of pain and hurting. It’s easy to agree that this is something that we should all be striving for.

Collectively and Individually

Happiness studies tended towards the broad categories of social happiness, and positive psychology was more focused on individuals. More specifically, the positive psychology studies focused on hedonistic (pleasure-seeking) happiness and happiness driven by meaning and purpose. However, the distinction between the two is sort of like looking at both sides of a coin. Societies are made up of people, so happier people make a happier society.

In happiness studies, there’s a focus on what are perceived as the evils of the 21st century. Things like income inequality and whether it’s increasing or decreasing became important as it related to happiness. (See Capital in the Twenty-First Century for more on income inequality.) The short version is that our perception of finances is based on our peers, and the data about the long-term impact of income inequality isn’t fixed, it keeps changing. If we feel like we’re doing well relative to our peers – particularly our neighbors – we’ll feel good.

The degree to which people are connected in committed relationships crosses over between happiness and positive psychology. Committed intimate relationships are positively correlated with happiness, and, of course, the better relationships that we have, the better societies we have.

Positive Psychology

In all transparency, I believe in the power of positive psychology, particularly in the tendency to reduce victimization. (See Hostage at the Table for more about victimization.) I’ve read and reviewed Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual, The Hope Circuit, Flourish, Positivity, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Flow, Finding Flow, and other books that would be defined by Horowitz as a part of the genre. I’ve even studied happiness directly by reading Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, Hardwiring Happiness, The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness, Happiness, and others.

While there are aspects of all of these that sometimes minimize the overall challenges with developing a positive mindset, the overall picture is a relatively complete one that drives the arc of humanity forward. (For understanding the impact of mindset, see Mindset. Brené Brown calls minimizing challenges “gold plating grit” in Rising Strong.)

Critics in Every Corner

In service of balance, Horowitz sometimes quotes extreme positions. For instance, he quoted a comment on Grit that said: “anyone who would tell a child that the only thing standing between him or her and world-class achievement is sufficient work ought to be jailed for child abuse.” The problem with this response is that it represents the kind of escalation that was addressed in The Coddling of the American Mind. Suddenly, the idea that you can take control of your circumstances and develop skills is wrong. The problem is that it’s not.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s book, Peak, reports on their study of top performers – and how they get there. It’s research that Malcolm Gladwell first spoke about in Outliers. If you’re willing to put in the work, there are very few things that are truly beyond what anyone – particularly a child –can accomplish. The challenge is that it’s rare that someone is willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary. (The Rise of Superman is a good survey of some of the amazing things that people can do because they worked at it.)

That being said, the equation for life isn’t defined solely by the characteristics of the person. Kurt Lewin described behavior of a function of both person and environment – the same could be said of the accomplishments of a person. Their accomplishment, in an area or more globally, is the relationship between the person and their environment – including circumstances and luck. This is at the heart of the challenge that Horowitz raises with the movement towards positive psychology. (Interestingly, Paul Ekman, whom Horwitz mentions in the evolution of positive psychology, acknowledges the role of luck in his career in his book, Nonverbal Messages.)

Foundations of Morality

Jonathan Haidt’s work isn’t limited to The Happiness Hypothesis or The Coddling of the American Mind. In his book The Righteous Mind, he explains his research and work on the foundations of morality. He explains that it’s not that others are immoral but rather that the weight they place on the various foundations of morality are different. Horowitz’ message is that positive psychology places too much focus on a person’s ability to overcome their circumstances. The claim is that income inequality is morally wrong and is an unfair burden placed on many people.

I agree. It’s unfair. I also agree it’s a burden. It’s not that I disagree, because I don’t. However, I believe there are other factors – factors that are often called “internal locus of control” – that are a compensating factor. Let me slow down and first say that society is a complex system and obeys the rules of an interrelated system. (See Thinking in Systems for the basics of systems.) The system itself may be sufficiently complicated, complex, or even perceptively chaotic that it’s impossible to predict the outcomes. (See Cynefin for more about these labels and the different strategies for dealing with ideas in these spaces.) However, there are some factors that we do know are powerful forces that can help to shape the systems – and therefore the societies that we live in.

Feelings of “internal locus of control” is a powerful factor that is cited in Smarter Faster Better and is woven through Edward Deci’s work Why We Do What We Do and therefore indirectly in Daniel Pink’s Drive. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There acknowledges that some degree of control that people believe in may be false. However, whether the control is real or imagined is largely immaterial. Rick Hanson explains that the impact of an internal locus of control leads people to be more Resilient.


I need to pause and talk about one of the risks that occurs on both sides of the issue that Horowitz is covering. There’s a potential that one will believe the answers that work for them are the answers for everyone. There’s the risk that an agenda will be pushed forward with the idea that people are too stupid to make their own best choices. and therefore we should structure society in a way that moves them in the right direction. Nudge calls this “choice architecture.” In The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy Clark challenges this notion and wonders whether paternalism is good or bad. I conclude it’s both – and neither. Steven Reiss, who wrote Who Am I? and The Normal Personality, would call the idea that people believe their ideas are the right ideas for everyone “self hugging.”

On one side is the belief that we should address the structural issues to happiness, and on the other side is the idea that we should ignore the structural issues and just do what we can at an individual level. After all, the collective society is built on individuals. From my perspective, it’s not an “or” choice. It’s an “and” choice. We’ve got to learn how to be better at accepting other people regardless of what they believe. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for the importance of acceptance.) I believe that continued communication, conversation, and dialogue is necessary to move forward. (See Fault Lines for the importance of communication, and Dialogue for more on how to engage in productive dialogue.)

The Rise of Self-Esteem

Horowitz cites Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone as evidence that Americans have lost their connection to community and have become more focused on their own world. That’s certainly true. However, the more interesting question is what are the factors that are leading people to be more self-centered. In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock first published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. In Finding Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shared the regret that Dr. Spock had as he considered the outcomes of his advice. His encouragement towards unfettered individualists had led to a rise of children believing they needed to have self-esteem and that it was more important than character.

It’s not to say that people don’t need self-esteem – we all need some sense of ego. (See Change or Die for more.) However, we need to keep our self-esteem in check with our character, which many people believe has been on the decline for decades. In Leadership and Self-Deception, The Arbinger Institute walks through the challenges of self-esteem and its need to be fed in the absence of the character needed to stay out of dysfunctional states. (See Roy Baumeister’s work for more on the need for character – including Willpower.)

This Not That

At some level, Horowitz rediscovers the universal truths that we’ve learned over the past two centuries. We know that experiences and relationships are more important than stuff.

We need to seek satiation and help people accept what they have. The secret to happiness isn’t having what you want – it’s wanting what you have. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on satiation.)

We’ve learned that we need more generosity and less scarcity. (See Give and Take for generosity and Daring Greatly for limiting scarcity.)

Express gratitude – appreciate what you have – both to others and, if necessary, in the form of a written journal. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for appreciation and Flourish for generating gratitude.)

Participate in rituals to provide consistency and connection. (See Spiritual Evolution for a general appreciation for connection, The Relationship Cure for the personal power of rituals, and Stealing Fire for how rituals have been used to unite and motivate.)

Rejection of Negativity

Horowitz appropriately criticizes some of the vaulted leaders of happiness for their explicit rejection of sadness or negative news. Their solution was to eliminate the challenges and negatives, thereby biasing the overall mood in a positive direction. However, rejection of negativity at a personal level is destructive, as it leads to disassociating parts of the psyche. (See Emotion and Adaptation for more.) By and large, my experience has been that people who are focused on positive psychology and helping people be happier are more focused on encouraging responsibility for happiness, adjusting expectations, and developing skills. If people are recommending that one should not speak about their negative thoughts, they may do well to review the kinds of problems that it causes. (See Solve Employee Problems Before They Start and Dialogue.)

Hedonistic Treadmill

We live in a consumer economy, where marketers are focused on getting you to long for, want, and crave the next new thing. This has been the case for decades. Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders is a classic book about how marketers are trying to get you to buy their wares using the latest psychological research, a bag of tricks, and the desire to part you from your money. As a result, we’ve collectively climbed on the hedonistic. We seek pleasures every day to save us from the need to do the inner work it takes to develop our gratitude and our character.

We believe that we deserve to be happy, and we believe that if we just get the next new thing, we’ll be happy. If I just get that next raise, I’ll be happy. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for this fallacy.) We think the next new phone or the new car or the new house will solve our problems. However, research consistently shows that we’re absolutely lousy at predicting what will – or will not – make us happy. We think that the new hobby will continue to help us find fulfillment. It may do that for a few weeks, but in the long term, it becomes the next set of equipment parked in our closet unused. It leaves us longing for a solution to the constant yearning in our souls for this elusive happiness that we believe we deserve.

The Happy Pill is Easy

Americans are a drugged society. We consume two-thirds of the supply of anti-depressants on the planet. As we became more affluent, we plunged deeper into despair against the invisible villain, depression. Acedia & Me makes it clear that some form of depression has been with us for centuries. However, now that we have selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), we can – we believe – address depression. However, as Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Harmful to Your Mental Health explains, the effects aren’t persistent – and aren’t nearly as large as many would like to have you believe.

The problem is that people see their physician and expect that we’ll get something to make them better – even if the solution can’t be found in a pill. Prescribing a solution is easy for the provider and for the patient. No work involved. It’s the same reason why we’ve got antibiotic-resistant bacteria now. We’ve overprescribed antibiotics, and patients haven’t taken them as prescribed. But physicians feel the push to appear to be doing something. (See Better and Mistreated for more.)

Set to Happy

There’s agreement that there are three key factors to your happiness:

  • Genetics – Your genetics influence the degree to which you’ll be happy.
  • Environment / Circumstances – Your objective environment can increase or inhibit your happiness.
  • Perspective / Attitude – The way you perceive your situation can shape your happiness.

Horowitz basically argues that those who push happiness want to minimize the impact of genetics and environment and claim that people can be happy regardless of their genetics or circumstances. Here, he’s got a solid argument. People have pushed too far with their claims of the power of positive psychology; however, simultaneously, the argument overreaches.

There is substantial power in managing our perceptions. Two people can be in the same objective circumstances with one being quite happy and the other miserable. (See 12 Rules for Life and Loneliness for more.)

You’re Not Responsible for their Happiness

One of the loose ends to the conversation is whether you’re responsible for your own happiness or whether others are. If you accept responsibility for your own happiness, then others should, too. Problems arise when you are concerned about someone who is not able or willing to take responsibility for their own happiness.

Responsibility carries a weight. What if it’s more than the other person can bear? In our work on Extinguish Burnout, we’re quite clear that you don’t control others. (Also see Compelled to Control.) While we believe in personal accountability, we also recognize that you can’t be responsible for things that you cannot control. You can only be responsive to them.

Money Can Buy Happiness

The saying goes that money can’t buy happiness. I used to say, “but it will give you a hell of a deal on a long-term lease.” It’s funny, but it’s true. Having resources – including money – does make you happier. The Easterlin Paradox says that, at some point, money stops adding happiness, but there are many that refute that finding.

More than the individual level of money being a part of happiness, it’s big business. People have made fortunes on helping others find happiness – whether their customers were successful or not. We can’t forget about the fact that there’s a lot of money that hangs in the balance with positive psychology and happiness efforts.

Martin Seligman

Perhaps the most well-known leader for positive psychology – known as its father – is Martin Seligman. Marty, as he prefers to be called, continues to move the ideas of positive psychology and happiness in general through many projects and approaches, including his work at the University of Pennsylvania. However, Horowitz clearly has an issue with Seligman’s recognition. He points to works from which Marty derived his ideas and others who have made valuable – and less recognized – contributions.

Here, I’m not quite sure what the axe is that Horowitz wants to grind. My interactions and experience of Marty has always been positive, professional, and generous. The constant frustration with Marty’s prominence in the space is perhaps the biggest weakness of the book.

All that being said, I expect that you will find some useful pieces in the book. Maybe you can be Happier?

Book Review-Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The man born as Samuel Clemens but better known as Mark Twain has a famous quote: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Our certainty that we know how things work and what the right answers are gets us into far more trouble than the things that we don’t believe we know. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know seeks to encourage us to remain curious about the things that we do know and to learn how to relearn when things change. We all know the rate of change is increasing, and the ability to reconsider our truths is critical to our continued ability to survive and thrive.

Surviving a Fire

It was 1949 when a lightning-ignited fire was spotted in a remote part of Montana known as Mann Gulch. It was the policy at the time to extinguish any fire no matter whether it was a threat to human life and commercial property or not. Fifteen smokejumpers loaded into a single plane and were delivered to the fire. Smokejumpers are an elite group of purportedly fearless individuals considered firefighters at their core.

When the fire blew up and began chasing the smokejumpers, it may have been their identification with their profession that got thirteen of them killed. They ran up the slope to escape the fire with their heavy packs of tools. They might have looked at their retreat from the fire as a temporary setback instead of as a loss. They had never lost to fire, and it seems unlikely that they were willing to let that day be the day. They clung onto their tools in the belief that once they got to the top of the ridge, they could again take the offensive against the fire.

The leader of this group, Wagner Dodge, couldn’t give up his identity either but was willing to look at the problem differently. He knew he was being pursued by a big, out-of-control fire that he couldn’t compete with. However, he reasoned that he could create a small fire, burn out the fuel the larger fire needed in an area, and then survive by staying in that area as the larger fire passed him. He was right – and he was lucky. All save two other fearless heroes lost their lives in the fire.

The Meaning of Heat

In the mid-eighteenth century, every scientist seemed to subscribe to a theory of heat called the caloric theory. It suggested that it was an invisible fluid called caloric that was present in all matter. The amount of heat in an object was the result of this caloric fluid. The problems of the theory were many, from a lack of mass change when an object heated or cooled and the inconsistent heating of different kinds of matter to the lack of explanation for the heat generated by friction.

By the mid-nineteenth century, James Joule was able to validate the kinetic theory of heat proposed by Benjamin Thompson in the late eighteenth century. We now believe that heat is the result of atomic vibration – kinetic energy. The idea that heat was an invisible substance would seem laughable.

Around the World

Understanding the objects of the night sky was a source of fascination for centuries. We found patterns in the arrangement of the stars that surround us. We created constellations and elaborate stories of how the formation of stars came to be. As we sought to understand the motion of the heavenly bodies, there were two competing views from about 300 BC. One was geocentrism – that the Earth was the center of everything. With much less recognition was the idea that the Earth – and all the planets – circled the Sun. In Europe, it was a fact that the Sun and planets orbited Earth.

That was until 1514 when Copernicus published mathematical formulas of the movement of the planets. Only then did people seriously consider that the Earth might revolve around the Sun. Most dismissed Copernicus as a self-promotor or a crackpot until, in 1610, Galileo Galilei discovered moons around Jupiter, and he realized that Copernicus was right.

By 1616, there was an inquisition, and the Pope banned all materials related to the heliocentric model. By 1633, Galileo would be sentenced to prison for his refusal to adhere to the papal decrees regarding heliocentrism. His sentence was commuted to house arrest where he spent the rest of his days. It wouldn’t be until 1758 that the papal decree would be lifted, and we could officially recognize the order of the solar system as we understand it today.


In the world of computer databases, the language is still that transactions are atomic. That means they’re either completed together or not. It’s an important aspect of how to keep data integrity, but it exposes another place where our thinking has changed. Atomic used to mean indivisible. It wasn’t possible to break the atom down. It was as small as we could go. We know now that this is not true, as we’ve learned about quarks and even smaller particles called bosons that make up the Higgs field. Haven’t heard of them? You’re not alone. Nerds have heard about these experimental edges of science where it’s believed all objects get their mass, and thus their attraction to other matter, from.

What we seem to find is that the world is much more complex than we’d like to believe. Every time we believe we’ve got something nailed, we learn about a whole new world that had not yet been uncovered. Every time we uncover something new, we have to reevaluate all we know – and that can be very scary.

Fundamental Shifts

These examples represent fundamental shifts in thinking – and may explain why they take so long to eventually become accepted. There are a variety of cognitive biases (see Thinking, Fast and Slow, Superforecasting, and Sources of Power) and ego defense mechanisms (see Change or Die) that attempt to keep our current perspectives intact even in the face of irrefutable evidence that they’re wrong. The slow, defensive posture for protecting what we’ve worked so hard to learn is a reasonable thing in a world that changes very little. However, our world is far from unchanging.

In 1950, it took about 50 years for knowledge in medicine to double. By 1980, medical knowledge was doubling every 7 years. By 2010, it was doubling in half that time. What 70 years ago would take 50 years to double takes less than 10% of that today. Consider that it was 68 years for aircraft to get to 50 million users. It took Pokémon Go 19 days. In other words, we’re living in a world of change that is unlike anything in history. (See Focused, Fast, and Flexible for more.)

Cognitive Flexibility

Superforecasting explains that if we want to be good at forecasting, we must be willing to consider multiple perspectives. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied eminent scientists, he concluded that it was their cognitive flexibility that separated them from their peers. (Csikszentmihalyi is more well known for his work on Flow.) They had bucked the trend of becoming locked into a single perspective and instead embraced multiple views as the situation required. Walt Whitman, in “Song of Myself” section 51, explains, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” He, like the eminent scientists that Csikszentmihalyi studied, wasn’t afraid of contradicting himself.

This willingness to be cognitively flexible may combat one of the most challenging aspects of knowledge. The more we know, the more resolute we become about what we know. Instead of discovering what we don’t know, we turn inward to protect what we do know. In so doing, our convictions lock us in prisons of our own making.

Confidence and Humility

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the name given to why those that know the least about a topic are the most willing to believe in the importance of their knowledge and their command of the topic. Grant draws a graph with “Mount Stupid” – the place where we’re most likely to be subjected to the Dunning-Kruger effect and therefore comment upon our intelligence while exposing our ignorance. At some point, we discover we don’t know as much as we think we did on a topic, and we suddenly fall silent, aghast at what we don’t know.

What we’ve come to learn is that our confidence isn’t solely a measure of the validity of our words. While great leaders can be both humble and confident, it’s a difficult place to reach. It’s too easy to believe that humility is about thinking less of yourself, but my friend Ben says it’s not about thinking less of yourself but rather thinking about yourself less. Humilitas says that humility is “power held in service of others.” I like that, because it makes it difficult to believe that we could possibly confuse self-deprecation and humility. Jim Collins in Good to Great describes this as the Stockdale Paradox. It’s unwavering faith and relentless reexamination.

The Joy of Being Wrong

It’s always a tense moment. It’s the moment when, sitting in the audience, you know the presenter missed something. It can be that they missed something small or something important. It’s tense, because every fiber of your being is at war with itself. You wonder whether you should tell them – privately, quietly, respectfully – or whether you should ignore it. If you ignore it, you deprive them of the opportunity to learn and to be better. You also protect yourself from learning that perhaps you’re not right.

The problem is some people take great offense at even the slightest hint that they may have made an error, a mistake, or an omission. Their response can be direct and abrupt. At least this response allows you to learn what they really believe. Their response can be silent or sullen. It’s rare to encounter someone who says that they appreciate the feedback or that they need to further consider the point – and it’s a mark of excellence.

Grant shares a story about Daniel Kahneman being in the audience while he presented data that contradicted Kahneman’s beliefs and the resulting exchange afterwards. Danny was thrilled. He, wisely, recognized that being wrong is necessary, and it’s when people point out that he is wrong that he has the greatest opportunity to learn. Danny says, “My attachment to my ideas is provisional.” He embodies the perspective we all need to take to survive in our changing world to look for ways to change our opinion and work with the best and most recent facts we have.

The Need for Conflict

We want to believe that it’s possible to consistently get it right on the first attempt. We hear success stories where people seem to have stumbled across the right idea immediately. Brene Brown would say that we’ve gold-plated grit. (See Rising Strong.) We somehow missed the missteps, struggles, and challenges that made the path more winding, dangerous, and uncertain as the retrospective might seem to imply.

In our quest to remove the pain from others’ lives, we often forget that conflict and struggle are essential for everyone’s growth. Baby sea turtles must struggle to find their way to the ocean to calibrate their internal sense of direction. Chicks must break from their shell on their own to understand how to struggle and succeed. That’s why The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable is so tragic. While thinking they’re doing what is best for their children, parents are harming them.

An African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (The Titleless Leader is the source of this reference.) When we’re working with others, there is bound to be conflict. They’ll see things differently or have different values. However, these differences in perspective allow us to become better – to rethink our perspectives – and to develop clarity.

The key challenge with conflict is not the conflict itself. It’s when the conflict is not managed well. Poorly managed conflict leads to hurt feelings and broken relationships. Having had these experiences, many of us fear the poor outcomes from conflict. When we learn to manage conflicts well – and we interact with others who manage conflict well – we can find conflict rewarding rather than debilitating.

A Weak Argument Dilutes a Strong One

When trying to win over another to a new way of thinking, we often load both barrels of our gun and give them everything. The problem with this approach is that it generates resistance. (See Motivational Interviewing for a better approach.) However, it also means that we’re loading up every argument regardless of its strength. The problem with this is that the overall strength of the argument is weakened by weaker points.

Instead of arguments adding to one another, they average each other. Because of this, focusing only on the strongest of the arguments for change gives you a better chance of success.

Persuading the Unpersuadable

Humans have a natural aversion to being persuaded. The moment I detect that you’re trying to persuade me, I’ll start the process of digging in my heals. That’s another reason why multiple arguments may be challenging. It triggers awareness of an attempt at persuasion and thus a reluctance to proceed.

Once this switch, has been tripped it may be that the person becomes unpersuadable. It can be that people are so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that they won’t change their mind no matter what evidence is provided. An important question to ask is “What evidence would change your mind?” If the answer to this is nothing, then there is no point in continuing.

The Greatest Hostility

One of the paradoxical things that happens in any sort of persuasion resistance is that we most violently defend those things which we know deep down aren’t true. We’ve got a natural tendency to defend our positions, but the ones that make us angry are those that we know are the most true. This creates a challenge.

Those people who are defending their beliefs the most vigorously are the same ones who deep-down know the truth. Somewhere along the line, they may have had someone try to convince them that they were wrong, but those people failed – and now the belief became stronger.

So, the internal conflict exists between a deep-seated knowledge that they are wrong and the need to protect themselves from further attempts at persuasion. This is one of the reasons why getting change initiative success is so hard once the organization has failed a few times.

Craving Certainty

As humans, we’re prediction machines, and we want certainty. We want to know that our predictions will come to pass. We don’t like the possibility of error or the chance of catastrophe. There’s always an internal pull that drags us from the understanding that the world is probabilistic rather than certain. (See The Halo Effect.) We know instinctively that nothing in life is certain – except “death and taxes,” as the saying goes. Despite this, we delude ourselves into believing that there are certainties. The certainties make us feel better about our world and reduce our fears. (See Change or Die for more on this phenomenon.)

It’s one of the reasons why when people appear to exude confidence, we’ll follow them more readily. We’d rather listen to “the sage on the stage” than someone who is aware of the limitations of their knowledge. We don’t often reward curiosity. We look at it as a reason to not be certain – and we don’t want that.

When to Commit and When to Think Again

The greatest challenges in life is the Stockdale Paradox. It’s learning when to commit to a course of action and learning when it’s time to Think Again.

Trigger Happy

Roy Rogers had a horse named Trigger. A gun has a trigger. However, neither of these are what we’re talking about when we’re talking about a trigger – an emotional trigger. We’re talking about something that awakens an emotional response in someone else, but it’s fundamentally different than either a pet horse or a gun that has a trigger. The implications of this are that, if you’re telling other people they’re triggering you, then you may be blaming them for your problems.


One of the biggest challenges in statistics – and problem solving – is proving causality. Correlation is a simple statistical formula. Causality is much, much harder to tease out and it’s at the heart of what’s wrong with calling foul because someone else triggered you. It implies that someone else has control of your feelings and therefore you’re a victim.

Feeling Control

Most days, I don’t feel like I’m in control of my feelings – let alone anyone else. They seem to wash over me like waves lapping the shores of the ocean. Sometimes a big wave comes up and catches me by surprise – what my friends in Iceland would call a “Deadly Sneaker Wave.” Other times, the waves are so calm they seem to be rocking me to sleep and perhaps even singing a lullaby from my childhood.

Without a doubt, the environment and, particularly, other people influence us. Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. His statement holds true even for our emotions. We have, in ourselves, our history and experiences that lead us towards emotions and behaviors. Our environment can shape how we respond. Neither can be taken in a vacuum, but, ultimately, we must be owners of our own emotions.

Lisa Feldman Barrett took on the challenge of How Emotions Are Made and concluded that how we feel is the interpretation of the events. This is consistent with Richard Lazarus’ view in Emotion & Adaptation that we form our emotions – they don’t come out of nothingness. Together, this means that our emotions aren’t directly the result of external triggers but are instead the result of the complex interaction of our beliefs, our values, our perspectives, and our experiences.

Direct Line

When you think about the path between the trigger of a gun and the rush of lead out of the barrel, there are mechanics involved, but none of those mechanics have the capacity to stop the bullet – presuming that the gun and bullet are functioning properly. It’s the simplicity of logic that A + Time = B. That’s what a trigger is. It’s causal. However, in the case of emotions, it’s not causal at all.

A verbal or visual trigger may create conditions that encourage someone to feel something – but at the end of the day, it’s the mental processing of the conditions that do or do not create the conditions.


It may be an okay place to visit, but it’s a lousy place to build a home. It’s the best explanation I can give for the mental space that Kurt Lewin called topological psychology. (See Principles of Topological Psychology.) Topological psychology is concerned with how people get from one state of mind to another. It’s concerned with how people can move from being a victim to finding strength – and what happens when they don’t.

In victimhood, we necessarily feel powerless. Someone did this to us, and we can’t do anything about it. Therefore, we are powerless. If you look at Marty Seligman and his colleagues’ work over the past five decades, you’ll find The Hope Circuit. When the situation was initially discovered, they called it “learned helplessness.” It was the ticket to victimhood.

When you developed learned helplessness, the story goes, you wouldn’t help yourself out of any situation. Even when you could take actions to reduce or eliminate pain, you wouldn’t, because to do so would be unthinkable. The subsequent research and the ability of enhanced diagnostics led to the awareness that those with learned helplessness didn’t learn something at all. They failed to learn about their degree of control in their situation – and therefore they didn’t learn that they could get out of the situation.

Perhaps one of the reasons why people have become sensitized to potential emotional triggers is the fact that they’ve never learned their ability to manage their emotional responses, or the ability to manage their responses has been taken away.

Addiction, Mental Conditions, and Triggers

Where did the idea of an emotional trigger come from if it’s so different than the direct, causal line that the word was originally intended to mean? The answer is that it came from psychologists struggling to address the challenges of mental illness, including addiction.

The word “trigger” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the bible for diagnosing mental disease, is always used in reference to initiating an episode. Whether it’s the triggering event for a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patient or the latest relapse of an addict, it’s something that almost always causes a negative episode.

Almost always isn’t always, but it’s close enough to borrow a word. It’s close enough to bring triggering to the world of psychology and emotions, and in so doing, it’s close enough to create the feeling that other people shouldn’t be allowed to trigger us – rather than working on healing and growing.


Animals are, by their nature, antifragile. That is, they get stronger with the right kind of stresses and challenges. Our muscles grow as we destroy them. Adversity, challenge, and stressors are necessary for survival. Sea turtles need the struggle to find the ocean. Chicks need the effort of breaking from their shell and we need to find ways to push our emotional boundaries to grow more resilient. Nassim Nicholas Taleb dedicated a whole book, Antifragile, to helping us learn this important concept. However, it was the work of Albert Bandura that connected the idea of antifragility to emotions and mental disorders.

Phobias can be debilitating. It’s one thing to be afraid in a dark alley but something entirely different to be afraid to leave your home in a safe neighborhood during the day, with friends, to a well-known spot frequented by policemen and policewomen. However, there are those for whom the fear of going out is overwhelming. Bandura’s work was with people who had a phobia of snakes. Not the kind that startle you as you are walking in the woods but rather the kind that people keep as pets.

The technique he developed essentially relies on creating zones of safety that move closer and closer to the source of the phobia. First perhaps you talk about snakes, then look at a picture, watch someone across the room with a snake, and so on until you’re holding a snake. (Bandura has other work as well, including Moral Disengagement, that’s interesting.)

Safe Zones

Amy Edmondson has focused her research on creating psychological safety. That is, she tries to make people feel safe in their environments – emotionally. However, the irony of the creation of safety is that it must be coupled with accountability and concern. (See The Fearless Organization
for Edmondson’s work.) Kim Scott in Radical Candor is a bit more direct. She says that holding people accountable isn’t cruel, it’s clear.

In that clarity, there’s the ability to silence the inner voice of doubt. We sometimes confuse safe zones by thinking that they’re not places where you can directly challenge someone. However, the truth is that the way people are challenged is critical in the same way that stresses are critical to any developing animal. It has to be the right time, in the right way, with the right intent. With those pieces, it’s possible to not only create a safe zone for today but to create the kind of healing that Bandura, Taleb, and Seligman are encouraging.


But what about boundaries? Shouldn’t I be able to say what other people can and cannot do to me? This is perhaps the fundamental misunderstanding of Cloud and Townsend’s work in Boundaries. People have confused the idea of boundaries, which was intended to discuss what someone themself will and won’t do, with what we believe that others should and should not do to us. When someone says, “Well, he can’t talk to me like that, I’m drawing a boundary,” they’ve missed the point. They’re trying to control someone else’s behavior. (For controlling other’s behavior, see J. Keith Miller’s work Compelled to Control.) A similar statement would be “If you continue to talk to me, I’m going to hang up.” In the second case, the person is describing their behavior, not someone else’s.

This reversal is at the core of the problem with people who believe that others are triggering them and that they must stop.

Unknowable Results

It was a twelve step-based program designed to help teach people life skills. It collected people who had officially recognized addictions and those addictions that aren’t officially recognized. It also included those who were struggling with a major life event, including things like divorce, estrangement or death of a child, and any form of human suffering you might imagine.

I was supporting the audio and video production when the manager of the program came to me to talk about triggers. Stacy is an amazing individual who could balance the needs of people and recognize when things had gone too far. Someone had complained about a music choice and some of the words that were upsetting to them. (The irony was that we were in a church, and the music was from a Christian artist.)

We discussed it as she made me aware of how someone had interpreted the music, and then we both moved on. Unlike what’s happening in too many places, we acknowledged the concern and recognized it as a function of this person’s dysfunction, and as a result made no changes. Stacy could go back and tell the person that we had discussed it – because we had – and she could move into the place of talking to the person about how to heal from their hurt.

When I started the song – even if I had paid attention to the particular lyrics – I couldn’t have predicted how one woman in the crowd could have responded. There was no way of knowing how her unique pain and experiences would be translated into her emotions.

I don’t know whether the woman continued to participate in the program – but either way, she did the right thing for her. She had to figure out how to better manage the emotions that were being stirred inside of her or not be there.

It wasn’t our responsibility to prevent people from feeling emotions or to suppress every possible trigger. It was our responsibility to be respectful and continue on – inviting her to set her boundary to not come or to decide to become more antifragile and desensitized by experiencing a safe space that had the occasional troubling, but not harmful, thought.

Book Review-The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us

Gorillas aren’t exactly easy to miss. If you saw one, you’d expect to realize it. However, our expectations and reality aren’t always the same. In a famous experiment, Christopher Chabris, Daniel Simons, and their colleagues showed people a video asking them to count the passes between people wearing white shirts on a basketball court. Some people got the counts right and some did not, but that’s not the point. The point was to see how many people would notice the gorilla. Half of the people didn’t. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us is a journey into the place of questioning our assumptions about what we should and should not know.

The Invisible Gorilla

It’s impossible. I couldn’t have missed the gorilla in the video. You must have switched the videos. If there were a gorilla in a video I was watching of people on a basketball court, I’d notice it. These and similar comments were common. Our common sense says that we’ll recognize something that is that different, abnormal, and important. Except half of people didn’t. Not because they were inattentive but precisely because they were being attentive – to something else.

While we believe we can pay attention to everything happening around us, we know that we cannot. There’s simply too much information coming at us for us to fully process and make sense out of it. That’s why we ignore so much of what’s happening around us. Change or Die explains that our reticular activating system (RAS) is responsible for what we pay attention to and what we do not. Incognito provides the other half of the equation by explaining how our brains make up information that’s missing. Basically, we have some small subset of the world around us that we perceive, and we make up the rest.

These combined give us the perception that we’d see the gorilla while simultaneously only taking in a small amount of the information around us.

The Intuitions

The book covers the following intuitions that may deceive us:

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Confidence
  • Knowledge
  • Cause
  • Potential

Because we believe that we intuitively know how things work, we can be misled into poor decisions. Consider for a moment the legislative push in the United States to eliminate the use of phones in hands while driving a car. Many states are now requiring hands-free technology when using phones. This is despite the fact that research doesn’t show any difference between the results of phones in hands and hands-free conversations.

Intuitively, we believe that hands-free should be no different than speaking with someone in the car with us. However, the research seems to prove that we do treat it differently, because when we enter a period of high attention to driving, we pause the conversation in the car. The passenger knows why we’re pausing the conversation, so we feel justified in doing so. When the other person isn’t in the car, we feel awkward pausing the conversation to focus on the traffic around us.

In this case, and in many others, the intuition doesn’t match the reality we find when we research it.

Evidence to the Contrary

One of the key challenges with our intuition is that it’s based on our experiences. Our intuition pattern matches against the things that we’ve seen and done. Since few of us encounter situations where we’re confronted with evidence of our failure to properly manage multiple tasks – like driving and talking – we assume that we can. After all, if we’ve done it this many times, why can’t we do it once more?

This is the kind of rationale that was prevalent in the 1980s, when, in the United States, we began to crack down on drunk driving. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) started to push for tougher laws, greater awareness, and fewer losses due to drunken driving. People would argue that they’ve driven after a few drinks for years and nothing ever bad happened. That may be true in their case – thus far. Because any kind of accident is such a rare occurrence – thankfully – we get no feedback about how our behaviors are increasing our risk.

The Illusion of Memory

Our memories cannot, as much as we may like to believe it, record and replay events accurately. As was pointed out in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), every time we go to recall a memory, we subtly change it based on our current understanding. We believe that our memories are precisely accurate recollections of the past because they appear that way to us. However, we are frequently surprised to see how things were different when viewed from an actual recording.

We should realize that we have no way of encoding every experience into our memories with full fidelity. Despite the amazing capacity of the brain, we’d quickly run out of storage. Instead, our brains store key concepts and relationships. We connect nuggets of data so that we can regenerate the situation – rather than recall it.

Our fallacy of memory has convicted too many innocent people. We’ve discovered through DNA analysis that many convicted people were the wrong people, and decades after their arrest they’ve finally been freed through the work to combat the undue weight given to eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

Change Blindness

Movie gaffs are famous. In one part of a scene, something is present and in the next version of the scene, it’s not. Waffles convert to pancakes. Windows that are shot up are suddenly fixed and things flop from left to right and vice versa. There are specific people whose job it is to ensure that there is continuity in a series of shots for a scene, and even though it’s their only job, things are often missed. The good news is that most of us – due to our illusion of attention – miss these gaffs all together until someone points them out to us.

The truth is that we’re all generally very unlikely to notice small changes. These changes don’t meet our threshold and therefore don’t register. We believe we should remember what happened seconds before… but we don’t.

False Memories

Abuse of any kind is a tragedy. It’s a failure of humanity to protect the weak. Nothing is more tragic than allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated against children. In the zeal to capture all of the perpetrators and to bring them to justice, we accidentally tripped over another problem with our memories – the fact that we can recall false memories.

Perhaps the easiest and most innocuous version of this is when we hear a story from a friend, and we make it our own. We can recall the event with sufficient detail, and therefore we believe it’s ours. While it’s embarrassing, it’s not particularly harmful.

What happens when you intentionally test the limits of false memories, as researchers did when they doctored photos of people as children, placing them in a hot air balloon. The adults knew they’d never ridden in a hot air balloon ride. However, they were asked to imagine themselves in this ride. Come back later and ask them if they’ve ever been in a hot air balloon, and many will say yes and recreate their initial imagination but as fact rather than as a flight of fancy. This strikingly easy research experiment shows how we can land with false memories of things that never happened.

Gary Ramona was accused of repeated sexual abuse of his daughter Holly. The accusation came from memories induced by a therapist under the influence of drugs known only to Holly as “truth serum.” Gary lost his marriage and his high-paying job. Ultimately, he was able to sue the therapist and win in a suit that claims the therapist planted the memories in Holly. It got him a monetary award and the summary dismissal of a civil suit filed by Holly after the fact, but it didn’t repair the damage that had been done.

False memories are dangerous things. It’s tragic – and predictable – that, in most of these cases, there’s no way to verify things one way or the other. When it comes to memories, when there’s no direct evidence, we tend to side with more people’s memories than fewer. When there are only two people involved, we’re stuck.

Fixed Memories

Sometimes we develop memories of events that are “flashbulb memories” – that is, the memory is sealed because of a significant event. These memories, though perceived as more vivid, are not any more accurate than regular memories. They are, however, more firmly anchored. As a result, they can sometimes be more difficult to dislodge.

Even in cases where irrefutable evidence can be produced, people may be unwilling or unable to change their memories about events. Instead of reprocessing their world view given the new information, they reject it because it doesn’t fit their beliefs. (See confirmation bias in Thinking, Fast and Slow.) This is a common challenge with humans leading to divides that can last decades.

The Illusions of Confidence and Knowledge

You’ll accept the testimony of a more confident witness more readily than one who is less confident – even if the objective measure of certainty are the same. We tend to elect officials that seem like they know what they’re doing – even if they do not. When coupled with the Dunning-Kruger effect, this is a very dangerous place to be.

The Dunning-Kruger effect says that those who know the least are over-confident in what they know. Those who are experts err, too – but generally by slightly underestimating what they know. (See How We Know What Isn’t So.) These sorts of errors show up when you ask people whether they’re better leaders than the average. The answers generally come up in the 60-80% range of people believing they’re better leaders than average – which is, of course, statistically impossible.

More Information

Sometimes our perception of knowledge is distorted by the volume of information that we get. We believe, for instance, that we’ll do better with investing if we have more data about how our portfolio is performing. The truth is that it causes us to make changes more quickly and make less money in the long run. Instead of information helping us to make better decisions, we overreact, and we perform poorly. (See The Information Diet for more.)

Audio cable companies used to advertise all sorts of unique features of their cables when audiophiles in a blind test couldn’t tell the difference between the cables and a metal coat hanger. The truth is the illusion of information is all that’s needed to cause us to make decisions.

Infographics have become quite popular. They convey a very small amount of actual information in a graphic and therefore compelling way. (See the book Infographics for more.) When speaking of neurological scans included in neurological articles, the authors refer to it as “brain porn.” Even when the scans don’t convey any additional information, people rate the article as more understandable with the meaningless scans.

The Illusion of Cause

One of the arguably most painful illusions we’ll talk about is the illusion of cause. That’s because of the work of the discredited Andrew Wakefield and his publication (since retracted) in The Lancet that claimed the cause of autism was the MMR vaccine. I’ll spare you the details, but we’re so wired to find simple, singular causes, that it seemed probable. After all, the rise in autism cases tracked the rise in immunization. (However, it also tracked the rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia, but no one thought that was a cause.)

This is one of the greatest negative impacts because, despite Andrew Wakefield having lost his license to practice medicine as a result of the problems with the article, people still vehemently believe that vaccination causes autism and as a result fail to vaccinate their children, leaving them unnecessarily susceptible to disease.

The Illusion of Potential

We’ve probably all heard the claim that we only use 10% of our brains. We’ve heard that we have limitless potential if we just reach out and grab it. The problem is that it’s not true. Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman studies amazing athletes and shows how they perform at levels well in excess of anything you or I could through training and entering flow. However, their feats of accomplishment are narrow. Being a good basketball player doesn’t make you a good baseball player or vice versa.

More importantly, while we may only be using 10% of our brain at any one time (which is itself a dubious claim), that may be because there’s no way to get enough energy (glucose) to the brain to support everything being turned on at once. Just like the appliances in our house, we can’t turn everything on all at once without blowing a circuit.

This has not stopped people from trying to find easy ways to enhance our potential. Without any study on children, it was proposed that playing Mozart made them smarter. Out of that came a number of products, including Baby Einstein, which sold to Disney for a nice profit. The actual results of testing were a reduction in the verbal fluency of babies – a fact that these companies would love for you to forget.

The truth is that we do all have great potential – but it’s not found in simple quick fixes or radical jumps. Working diligently, as Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explain in Peak, is a path toward that potential, but it’s neither quick nor easy. It’s intentional, disciplined work over a long period of time. That being said, you may find that reading The Invisible Gorilla can help you avoid a few pitfalls and to reach your potential.

Book Review-The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

What if everything that we did in life was designed to help us avoid the terror of our own death? What if we could explain everything from a framework that presumes everything we do is driven by an unconscious motive to transcend death? That’s what The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life sets out to prove. Extending the work of Ernest Becker, the authors seek to show us how we work towards ways of transcending the death that we all know comes for us one day.


Self-awareness is a gift of the human race. It’s our ability to recognize ourselves and, to at least some degree, self-monitor what is going on with us. However, when it’s coupled with our ability to mentally travel through time to the past, present, and future, we’re left with the stark reality that one day we’ll all die. Whether we experience mortality through the death of a pet or a loved one, there are always reminders that death waits for us all. Our ability to project ourselves into the future confronts us with the reality that the day comes for all of us.

In the 1983 movie Krull, the race of cyclops traded a second eye for the ability to see the future. However, the deal was made with a witch, who tricked them. They can see the future but only one event in the future: their death. Rell, the character we meet in the story, explains that a cyclops can seek to avoid their death but only with the consequence of great pain. This is a vision of the human condition where we’re able to see – or simulate – the future and how we might die, and it’s a terrifying thought for many of us.


Nearly every culture that we’ve ever discovered has a fascination with immortality. Some focus on reincarnation – that is, coming back again as another human or another animal. Others are focused on a soul or a spirit that transcends death and enters an ethereal plane. Whatever the specific approach, in most cultures, there’s some sense of life continuing after death. While this seems to be a bandage on a broken arm, it’s something that we all cling to when we’re personally near death or experience the loss of someone near us.

Immortality may also be sought in other ways. Directly through our progeny (children) and the continuation of our genetic material, or indirectly though our memories living on. If our children are unable to carry us in their memories, we can turn to claiming our 15 minutes of fame and ensuring that the world won’t completely forget about us.

However, both direct and indirect approaches for us to maintain immortality eventually fail. The great pharaohs of Egypt are long since gone and many monuments have been found for which we can find no record of who is buried there. In short, the sands of time eventually erase all marks that we make as humans – no matter how terrifying a thought we find that to be.

Cultural Reactions

Our reality that we cannot escape death leads us to seek comfort and safety in some predictable – but not always productive – ways. When reminded of our mortality – when we’re briefly shaken from our death slumber – we react in ways that confirms our values. Even judges, who are supposed to be impartial, when reminded of their death levied a 9x fine in the case of a person who was soliciting for prostitution. Instead of the normal $50 and time served, they levied an average $455 fine. None of them realized that they had done it because of a simple two question survey that asked them about death. The person wasn’t really a case for them but was a test to see if a brief reminder of mortality would have any impact on their sentencing at all.

As a result, if you want to get people to be more protective of their group – their nation, their religion, their ethnic class – remind them briefly of their mortality and watch as the sentiment for the group increases. We saw this in the United States after the 9/11 attacks, when everyone flew American flags and were committed to protecting their fellow Americans.

There is, however, a downside. As we are increasingly sympathetic to our “in” group, we become less tolerant of the “out” group. Those who aren’t like us, who are different, or who don’t fit our beliefs are more critically judged, shunned, and ostracized.

Not Loss, Just Death

It’s important to note that the clinical research has shown these strong effects for reminders of our mortality only. No other loss seems to trigger the same kinds of reactions. This places our mortality and the threat of death into a totally separate category than any other loss. Because death is final, it seems to get some special weight in our mind and in our reactions. This is true well below our conscious thoughts.


The true danger is in accidentally triggering a death response when we stumble across someone’s core beliefs. When we threaten their core beliefs, we bring the awareness of mortality to the surface. Thus, that’s why we can often see extreme reactions to relatively innocuous seeming ideas.

If those ideas are a part of a person’s core beliefs and they’re disturbed, then the reaction can be quite large. We’ve all encountered “sacred cow” topics with friends and in organizations. These topics are ones we dare not touch because they invariably provoke disproportional responses.

The longer a core belief – a world view – is in place, the more things get built around it ,and as more things get built around the core belief, the more resistant people become to changing it. Instead of it being about one way of thinking, it seems to become an all-encompassing change to their meaning of life.

Self-Esteem Shielding

One of the defense mechanisms we have for warding off the fear of death is our self-esteem. The higher our self-esteem, the less likely we are to feel threatened by death or react to the anticipation of pain. Our belief that we have personal agency seems to give us the perspective that we’ll be able to forestall death indefinitely. Martin Seligman and his colleagues described the power of learned helplessness. The more we believe we have control of our circumstances and situation, the greater our hope and the less likely we are to fall into depression. (See The Hope Circuit for more.)

If we want to temporarily avoid the problems associated with a death reminder, we can take steps to build self-esteem. Simple, positive self-talk may be enough to prevent the effects of being reminded of death. Of course, the more durable our self-esteem, the more resilient we are to the effects of thinking about death.

Eggs and Baskets

If you want to have the kind of durable self-esteem that will act as a persistent buffer against the threat of death, then one tool to use is to diversify your interests. If you’re the master in one domain when you’re confronted with a setback, your self-esteem will take a serious hit. (See Peak if you want to know how to become a master in one domain.) However, with diverse interests, you’ll find that any single setback won’t seem as large and won’t impact your overall self-esteem as much, and you ultimately won’t be as influenced by thoughts of death.

In Range, David Epstein makes the compelling case for the other benefits of having a broad base rather than a deep expertise. In addition to the self-esteem benefits, it may be more valuable to you personally and professionally as well.

Monuments and Death

An interesting set of theories have arisen about death and its relatively large importance to early cultures. Many early cultures had elaborate preparations for and ceremonies associated with death. One can point to the pyramids as an example of the huge effort that was expended to prepare pharaohs for the next life. However, these investments aren’t confined to Egypt; other prominent examples include the terracotta army that was buried with Qin Shi Huang. Clearly death was a big production – certainly for leaders but for everyday folks as well.

When you consider the effort expended towards the preparation for the next life and the reality of very little surplus, it becomes clear that death must have commanded a large portion of early human awareness. You can’t spend the effort on preparing for the next life if the thought of death isn’t critically important.

Some of the theories even propose that our transition from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural existence may have been driven by seeds buried with the dead. This gave rise to plants in those locations and ultimately the idea that one could sustain themselves from farming. Of course, alternative explanations are that our transition to agriculture provided for more free time and surplus resources that made elaborate burials possible. Either way, our growth as a human race has been inextricably woven into our concerns of death.

Proximal and Distal

Our proximal – or conscious – thoughts of death are confronted with efforts to push those thoughts from our mind. Its one of the reasons why, shortly after a death, the spouse encounters profound loneliness, as not only did their spouse leave them but, in many cases, the couple’s friends avoid the survivor to protect themselves from their own feelings of loss.

Once pushed below the surface of understanding, the distal defenses are activated. No longer living in a world of rational thought, they prescribe harsher sentences for criminals, more severely alienate those who challenge our core beliefs, and generally manipulate us in unseen ways towards defending ourselves either literally or figuratively.

Rich and Famous

The more death enters our mind, the more we’re persuaded by the idea of the rich and the famous. Perhaps it’s the belief that they will accomplish immortality in some way that we will not be capable of. Perhaps it’s just the fact that we believe that they’re more confident and therefore more capable of keeping death at bay. Whatever the drivers, we know that we’re more driven by forceful and successful personalities when we’re confronting death. Maybe it’s worth the time to look for your own Worm at the Core to see how it may be shaping your behaviors as well.

Book Review-Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds

How do you persuade someone else to change their mind? How do you get someone else to come around to your point of view? These are questions at the core of Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. Howard Gardner is no stranger to the mind, having proposed the idea of multiple intelligences – escaping the bounds of the famed intelligence quotient and moving towards a more wholistic view of the kinds of skills that people can possess that aren’t reflected in such a narrow measure.


Humans aren’t good at self-monitoring their own thoughts. Over and over again, we find that self-reports are subject to extreme biases based on what we believe the person asking the question wants to hear. If you think that you’re being asked your income for a social club, you’ll overstate it. If you’re answering a tax collector, the number will be dramatically lower. If we’re so bad at simple things like how much money we make, we can’t be expected to report the experience of our inner lives in a completely faithful way. Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow that our automatic, System 1 brain can lie to our rational brain, and we won’t even know it.

While many disciplines call for self-reflection, most are cautious to prevent you from getting too wrapped up in our inner thoughts, which can – and often do – lie to us.

Storm the Castle

An effective approach to changing someone’s mind is to come at them from multiple fronts. Instead of trying one story or approach, you bombard them with multiple stories to be processed and angles from which to view the desired change. The more approaches that you can try, the more likely it is that one of them will be useful.

While it’s possible to set up defenses around a single approach to a change, it’s hard to cover every angle. While it’s not always the best approach to consider a change of mind as a conflict, thinking about how they may set up defenses can be useful to consider how you may want to disarm them.

Thunderbolt Changes

Gardner explains that no matter how quickly the change may seem to occur, it almost always occurs over a much longer time. The willingness to change happens below our conscious awareness as we take in additional information. We become aware of our own change – and the change in others – in a thunderbolt. However, a better analogy may be the straw that broke the camel’s back rather than thinking any single intervention or conversation changed someone’s mind.

It’s nice to believe there’s a single watershed event that is solely the cause of a change, but the truth is often much more nuanced.


Fundamentally, humans are prediction machines. As a result, we need to make sense of our environment so that we can simulate situations mentally and ultimately come up with our predicted outcomes. Sense-making is neither optional nor accidental. Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that it’s our ability to communicate and predict the other person’s behavior that made it possible for man to thrive. The problem is that the way we make sense of our situation isn’t always right.

Consider the old wives’ tale about going out with your hair wet and catching a cold. It’s simple, observational, and wrong. We know now that colds are the result of a virus, but no amount of explaining or evidence can shake the hold that this simple observation has on us. Our ability to see correlations is a powerful gift but one that sometimes gets things wrong.

Being wrong is okay. The challenge is that, once we’ve made sense of something and formed a theory about its operation, it’s notoriously hard to change. Andrew Wakefield published a study indicating a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. He was later found to have a conflict of interest, the article was retracted, and he lost his medical license. However, these facts don’t interfere with the beliefs that some people have about the ill effects of vaccines. (They have an exceptionally low side effect rate.)

Our ability to prevent conflicting ideas of information once we’ve made up our mind is very impressive. We can ignore the facts that are right in front of our face.

Change Scaffolding

Learning and teaching isn’t easy. Efficiency in Learning is just one title that summarizes what we know about good and bad teaching styles. One good strategy to use is to match the degree of support surrounding the training to the degree of need of those being trained. There’s a place between too easy and too hard where we find a desirable level of difficulty that prompts people to learn and remember, rather than listen and forget.

Creating the right kind of scaffolding for a new change is a difficult challenge indeed. It’s necessary to create a degree of ease to engage students – and enough challenge that the person feels it’s appropriate to learn. When you hit this, magical learning that sticks with the student happens – but only if you ‘re able to get this right.

Lives and Stories

The media is filled with stories of people who live one life publicly and a different life privately, senators and congressmen who send pictures of their private parts to those other than their spouse and religious leaders who have fallen from grace. These people have fundamentally separated the stories they tell about themselves and the kinds of change they want to create from the lives they’re leading.

Someday, the disconnect catches up with them, and they lose credibility. When this happens, they may not lose their position, but people certainly lose respect for them and the stories they tell because they can no longer believe that their exalted leader can do no wrong.

If we want people to make a change, we need a compelling story about why we need them to make the change, and we need to live a life congruent with that change.

Easy and Complex

All things being equal, an easier approach will win over a complicated approach. Everett Rogers explained that complexity creates barriers to adoption in his book, Diffusion of Innovations. The more complex the innovation, the less likely people were to adopt it. As a result, we often find ourselves looking for simple solutions so that we don’t have to think about a problem any longer. The first thing we all want is to ditch those negative thoughts. It’s hard to fight this urge, and it’s even harder to fight that a simple model may not be the right answer. We want the simple answer to be right and will reject more complicated models unless there’s a clear and compelling reason to accept them.

Continuous Learning

The more that we can create a mindset of continuous growth (see Mindset) and learning (see Peak), the more likely it is that someone will change their mind. This makes sense. Those folks who have a growth mindset expect that they’ll have to change their mind to grow, and that involves learning. However, too many people find themselves in places in their organization without an opportunity to grow in their responsibilities – or at least so they believe.

Instilling a lifelong love for learning may not be possible for everyone in the organization, but where possible, the ingredients that support growth and learning should be made available to those who are willing.

Failure and Love

Ultimately, we must accept that we won’t change everyone’s mind and, despite our best intentions and efforts, there may be some people who are categorically unwilling to change. While we can’t expect to change everyone, we do know that love is capable of building bridges between the ways that people think – and the change of mind we want them to make. Ultimately, I think that you’ll love to read Changing Minds.

Book Review-Childhood and Society

When I started reading Childhood and Society, it was to learn more about Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. I wanted to learn more about how children develop and the stages that they must go through to become an adult – at least according to Erikson. In addition to more about the stages, I gained a glimpse into his world. Born in 1902 in Germany, he had important thoughts on both Hitler and Russia.

Stages of Psychosocial Development

Fundamentally, Erikson believed that humans went through a series of stages in their development and that each of these stages culminated with the resolution of a fundamental conflict. In resolving this conflict, the person was able to move to the next stage. If they moved to the next stage but were unable to resolve the conflict in the prior stage, they’d be continuously pulled back to that stage to face the conflict again and again until they found a resolution to it. The stages are:

Stage Name Conflict
I Oral-Sensory Trust vs. Mistrust
II Muscular-Anal Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
III Locomotor-Genital Initiative vs. Guilt
IV Latency Industry vs. Inferiority
V Puberty and Adolescence Identity vs. Role Confusion
VI Young Adulthood Intimacy vs. Isolation
VII Adulthood Generativity vs. Stagnation
VIII Maturity Ego Integrity vs. Despair

The primary value, to me, is that this frames development as a series of fundamental conflicts that we must all find our own resolution to. It structures our evaluation of how to grow and become an adult around resolving these conflicts.

Studying Children

One of the realizations that I reached from Childhood and Society is that Erikson’s studies weren’t just of the western European and American children, as most studies are. His work included two different tribes of Native American Indian tribes. This – and his research into the customs of other cultures – informed his thinking about how children develop. He observed how different customs and approaches influenced the way children went through the stages, but the stages themselves remained relatively unaffected. In this, his work reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s work in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the recognition that all heroes’ stories follow a similar arc no matter what the culture.

He could also observe how different cultures had different values, how those values become virtues, which are by their nature rigid, and how those virtues can interfere with the ability for a society to adapt – and therefore survive. He called it a paradox, and it mirrors the kind of paradox that organizations face. Organizations by their very nature are resistant to change. This provides the necessary cohesion of the organization, but at the same time, it necessarily rejects the kinds of change that are needed to adapt to the environment.

The cohesion is built around the idea that everyone does things the same way. It’s what Michael Gerber explains in The E-Myth as why organizations can become successful and scale. Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence frames this in terms of the degree to which teams have internal cohesion compared to their willingness to accept the expertise and input of others. He explains that there’s a middle ground that teams must find to be the most effective. They reject some things but remain open enough to accept new input.

Child’s Play

One of the ways that Erikson learned about children was through their play. He’d watch them build towers, fences, gates, and cities. From this, he would draw conclusions about their worlds and things they wanted to express but couldn’t quite say. As Stuart Brown explains in his book called Play, play is an important part of becoming an adult. The rehearsal and the practice allows them to try out ways of interacting with others without committing social faux pas.

Erikson noted that boys built towers and girls built gates; and often, the specific ways that they would arrange their space would communicate the dynamics they were dealing with. In play, they had a much higher degree of control than they have in real life.

The Making of Hitler

Erikson turned his focus on Adolph Hitler and, in particular, how his childhood development had left him so scarred that he could order such atrocities. Hitler was a man that many like to analyze. Albert Bandura and Philip Zimbardo have both taken a shot at it in Moral Disengagement and The Lucifer Effect, respectively. However, Erikson makes a point of the abusive father, the submissive mother, and the ways that he suffered in life.

Analogies were drawn with vulnerability and the number of times that Germany had been conquered by foreigners, as being in the middle often led them to be. Germany, Erikson concluded, would therefore develop a collective psyche as a submissive country. The way she was held submissive left her with a transformation that led to Hitler’s rise.

After World War I, Germany’s army size was limited. The response to that was to train an army of specialists. In effect, the army size was smaller, but the knowledge and skills were greater. This led to a more efficient army – with the ability to quickly expand as necessary. This change in the makeup of the army made it susceptible to the desires of Hitler as he rose to power.

Perspective by Profession

Perhaps one of the more striking realizations was that our perspectives are shaped by our profession. By nature of the work, we choose we shape our perspectives. If you’re in law enforcement, you’re likely to support causes that increase and protect law enforcement. If you choose a career in a non-government organization that’s committed to the peace in the world, you’re likely to have a perspective that doesn’t favor increased police strength.

That’s not that surprising. What’s surprising is that your views on other things that are seemingly unrelated shift as well. The constant and continuous reinforcement from your profession can sway your thinking on seemingly unrelated topics. It might shift your feelings about welfare as well. In fact, law enforcement may find that they’re more sympathetic to the soup kitchens and homeless shelters, because they encounter the people who need this kind of help every day.

This means that as you’re talking to folks, you should be curious how they came to believe what they believe. Did they arrive at their opinions and then join their profession, or is it the other way around?

The answer may be found to some degree in the person’s childhood and some degree in the society. It may be worth reading Childhood and Society to learn how to separate the factors for yourself.

Book Review-Influence Without Authority

“Nobody has ever had enough authority – they never have and they never will.” It’s the first highlight in Influence Without Authority, and it is the defining statement for why we need to learn how to influence others without authority. Coercive influence is corrosive to relationships. It must be used sparingly when it is available, and it’s often not available. The fundamental message on how to influence through authority is through the law of reciprocity.

The Law of Reciprocity

In some circles, it’s known as tit-for-tat. (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more on tit-for-tat.) Fundamentally, it’s an awareness that when you do something good for someone else, they often feel a psychic debt to repay your kindness, generosity, trust, or material gifts. (For more on how trust is reciprocal, see Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited.) The power of reciprocity is so great that it’s worked its way into campaign and public service laws as well as the guidelines for many organizations. In its Latin form, quid pro quo is an ethical challenge and something that politicians and business leaders want to steer clear of.

In its smallest forms, the law of reciprocity may hardly be noticeable. You’re more inclined to hold a door for someone if you’ve had a door held open for you. Whether you hold the door for the person who held it for you or not, a single random act of kindness can set off a natural chain reaction of kindness that sends ripples in all directions for a long time.

The Model in Six Steps

The model for influencing with authority is six simple steps:

  1. Assume all are potential allies – Fundamental attribution error will drive us towards thinking the worst of other people, but we must fight the tendency. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow and How We Know What Isn’t So for more on fundamental attribution error.)
  2. Clarify Your Goals and Priorities – Get absolutely clear on what you want. We often confuse the means that we’re striving for with the ends that we really want. (See Who Am I? for more.)
  3. Diagnose the World of the Other Person – This is one part getting into the other person’s head – mind-reading – and one part finding their perspective. See Mindreading for more on getting inside the other person’s head. See Incognito and The Ethnographic Interview to understand perspectives and for tools for learning about the other person’s world, respectively.
  4. Identify Relevant Currencies: Theirs and Yours – “Currencies” here means motivators, things you can give them that they desire and vice-versa. Here, the work of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind and Steven Reiss in Who Am I? have illustrative of models for evaluating the other person.
  5. Dealing with Relationships – Here, the key is to relate to the other person. That takes a degree of emotional intelligence. (See Emotional Intelligence for more.) It also requires skills to carefully navigate difficult conversations. (See Crucial Conversations for more.)
  6. Influence through Give and Take – Here, the key is to give the other party what they want – and ask for the things that you want.

Being Heard

One of the most frequent causes of conflict and the reason that people resist influence is that they don’t believe they’ve been heard. They confront you with some concern that you quickly dismiss, and they feel as if you’ve not given it proper attention. It can be that it’s not applicable, but the summary dismissal makes the other person feel unheard, and that can create problems.

Helping other people be heard and understood – without necessarily agreeing – is a difficult art. It’s one that Miller and Rollnick discuss at length in Motivational Interviewing. They work with addicted individuals and convince them that their addiction is bad. Despite this, they must first develop a therapeutic alliance – a relationship through which they can say difficult things. (See The Heart and Soul of Change for more on therapeutic alliance.)

Our ability to communicate and read others’ minds may be the difference between us and other animals, but it also comes with an expectation. We’ve developed an expectation and need to be heard and understood. It’s something that we call need. (See The Righteous Mind and Mindreading for our ability to read others’ minds – and the evolutionary impacts.)

Hearing Objections

It’s too easy to dismiss objections and, when that doesn’t work, allow fundamental attribution error to kick in and think the worst of them instead of focusing on how their perspective or values are different. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on fundamental attribution error.) It’s a starting point to acknowledge and learn more about the other person’s objectives. It’s advanced work to recognize that others aren’t bad people even if you struggle to understand their perspective.

With curiosity, you can begin to see objections and irritants as clues to the perspectives and values of the other person and thereby create a pathway to asking more questions and learning more.


Too often in our attempts to influence others, they bring their own version of reality that is difficult for us to hear. They see aspects of reality that we’d prefer to ignore. However, denying reality doesn’t make it less so. In fact, to deny reality makes it more dangerous for us, since we’re unable to respond wholly to the world around us.

Perhaps the best way to take a step towards the reality that we need to learn more about and get accomplished what you want through others is to read Influence Without Authority.