Odd one out?

We recently spoke at a psychology careers day for Sixth Form students where students had presentations from speakers using psychology in a range of different environments such as new driver coaching based on ‘black box’ data, clinical trials management and educational psychology.  Our contribution was based on using psychology within the workplace and as part of it we asked participants if they could identify which of these four models was the ‘Odd one out’.

  • Change curve (Kubler Ross)
  • Dimensions of national culture (Hofstede)
  • Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow)
  • Team development (Tuckman)

The answer – or one answer – is Tuckman’s Team development model as it is based on robust research whereas the other three all have significant weaknesses or flaws in terms of their empirical validity.  However, what all four have in common is high ‘face validity’ and a track record of being very useful models to help introduce people to the topic and start to explore how they may be at work in their own context and domain.

fMRI validity – today’s thinking on this topic

Many people have questioned the validity of inferences drawn from fMRI studies and this very timely article, published here today helps shed some light on the topic.   The article states that:

A new study has raised new questions about how MRI scanners work in the quest to understand the brain. The research, led by Professor Brian Trecox and a team of international researchers, used a brand new technique to assess fluctuations in the performance of brain scanners as they were being used during a series of basic experiments. The results are due to appear in the Journal of Knowledge in Neuroscience: Generallater today.

“Most people think that we know a lot about how MRI scanners actually work. The truth is, we don’t,” says Trecox. “We’ve even been misleading the public about the name – we made up functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging in 1983 because it sounded scientific and technical. fMRI really stands for flashy, Magically Rendered Images. So we thought: why not put an MRI scanner in an MRI scanner, and figure out what’s going on inside?” To do this, Trecox and his team built a giant imaging machine – thought to be the world’s largest – using funds from a Kickstarter campaign and a local bake sale. They then took a series of scans of standard-sized MRI scanners while they were repeatedly switched on and off, in one of the largest and most robust neuroscience studies of its type.

“We tested six different MRI scanners,” says Eric Salmon, a PhD student involved in the project. “We found activation in an area called insular cortex in four of the six machines when they were switched on,” he added. In humans, the insular cortex has previously been implicated in a wide range of functions, including consciousness and self-awareness. According to Trecox and his team, activation in this area has never been found in imaging machines before. While Salmon acknowledged that the results should be treated with caution – research assistants were found asleep in at least two of the machines – the results nevertheless provide a potentially huge step in our understanding of the tools we use to research the brain.

However, some researchers are skeptical of the findings. Professor Stephen Magenter, Professor of Image Processing at Yate University, UK, is a vocal critic of the statistical analyses that Trecox used. “They just used felt tip pens to highlight and extend the areas they were interested in,” he alleges, adding that he would never colour outside the lines. In response to these claims, Salmon says that this study was one of the most advanced of its kind. “All of our analyses were digital,” he notes. “We used MS paint wherever possible.”

The findings raise interesting questions about how fMRI techniques should be used from now on. “If there’s a possibility that MRI machines are showing some sort of rudimentary self-awareness, then we really need to explore this further,” says Trecox. He adds: “One way to do this is to look at what’s happening in our giant scanner, and for that, we’re going to need a bigger machine.”

And for those of you still uncertain about this article you may want to check it’s publication date 🙂

Expectation shapes reality?

As often seems to be the case we had a really great meeting this week – on Monday morning no less – that was characterised by lots of enthusiasm, positivity and creativity.  In my mind these three elements are interconnected with positivity possibly being first amongst equals.  The power of positivity is well documented; be it from John Gottman and his remarkable work on marital stability and relationship analysis; or from Barbara Fredrickson and her Positivity Ratio.  At this meeting there was a very positive atmosphere that led to some great ideas emerging which in turn almost seemed to create a virtuous circle or more enthusiasm and positivity.  

Thinking about this virtuous circle also made me reflect on a recent change management exercise we ran with a client where participants are separated (in different rooms) into a large and a small group who are given a brief that explicitly states that they are required to cooperate with the other group to achieve a task.  However there are some other, very subtle, cues in the brief that inevitably – i.e. every time we have used the exercise – cause the groups to be suspicious of each other and find themselves in a destructive, (but very funny to observe!) doom loop pretty much from the start.

When we debrief the exercise both groups tend to be more than a little bashful about how quickly they fell into playing to stereotypes in their perceptions, thinking and behaviour.   Some of this can be explained by the brain’s change averse nature and it’s default expectation that change will be painful and unpleasant – a model that served our ancestors well in times long since passed.  However, in the world of work, with incessant change this subconscious, default ‘change is bad’ mental model tends to be very unhelpful as our expectation of how things will be has a very significant impact on how we perceive them to be – the actual reality of the situation tends not to get much of a look-in.

So maybe we had a great meeting because we have had lots of them recently and so expect them to be great?  Food for thought maybe if you are having lots of ‘predictable, boring, unproductive’ meetings in your world at the moment?

A small helping of imposter syndrome for my executive team please!

The thing that is important is to try to distinguish one’s own insecurities from real weaknesses. Insecurities have the habit of becoming realities if left unchecked.

Recently, when watching the senior director of a global organisation deliver some of the worst presentations I have ever witnessed, it was interesting to observe that the  large audience of in-house senior managers were held captive and hanging off his every word (or at least doing an excellent job of appearing to do so). This phenomenon also appears to be true for some celebrities who reach a certain level of fame; it doesn’t seem to matter how good they are anymore, they are forever carried along on the tidal wave of success from their past glories. This is doubtless great for the individual but far less so for the organisation and those around them. I am sure that the director is highly competent in many other aspects of his role but it would seem key to the all round success of anyone performing at a high level, to be able to get up in front of large groups and communicate important information or to be able to motivate and rally a call to action in the people they have connections to.

Another thought that popped into my mind was of people in business being like horses. . . . . . bear with me now. . . . . Do horses think we all drive at 10 miles an hour? Well, that is all they get to witness as we slow down to overtake them. They don’t observe that when we are at a safe distance we begin to speed up. Was the director akin to the horse? If he received no contrary view of his performance how would he know that his presentation skills were not up to scratch?

So what is the moral of the story? If you don’t think you have a bit of imposter syndrome or its elements stalking you to some degree, let that be the call to action to ensure you get solid, constructive feedback from those around you to ensure you keep the Peter Principle at bay, at least until your next promotion!

The Plastic Mind by Sharon Begley

It gives a thorough walk through of where current understanding about the brain has come from and highlights the fantastic insights that are being discovered by putting monks/people who have spent thousands of hours in their lives meditating into FMRI Brain scanners. The book talks through the meeting of the Dalai Lama and top neuroscientists to help bring forward practical understanding of how the brain operates . It takes these insights and puts forward ways others can benefits from being more aware of their brains and increase their thinking about their thinking. Great book, I hope you agree.

Rewire your Brain

I can also see that the FEED model for changing habits will be quite useful .  I will post an update when I have finished the book – which shouldn’t take too long as I find it is written in a very accessible and readable style – and some of the later chapters have got intriguing titles – ‘Social Medicine’?.