Re-Training the Elephant

Imagine that you are an explorer atop a mighty elephant trying to steer it into the wild grass of unexplored territory. You tug on the elephant’s ears and frantically yell directions at it, but the elephant simply continues down its familiar path, stopping for small bites and myriad distractions along the way. The elephant doesn’t take well to being steered.


Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider deftly encapsulates what psychological theorists have posited for decades and what burgeoning neuroscience confirms: your unconscious mind is your most powerful decision-driving mechanism, and it is more influenced than steered.  This means your conscious mind is far more often informed of your decisions than in charge of them.


Your unconscious problem-solving process is built through your lifetime of experiences cemented into your gut by emotional markers. It is a remarkable evolutionary feature that is much older than the conscious mind itself, and it is meant to drive smart choices. If you were in a car accident on a dark street after leaving the movies, your unconscious encodes markers of aversion, fear, and hypervigilance tied to the sights, sounds, and smells of that experience: dark streets, the scent of popcorn, and blue trucks like the one that hit you. If you fell in love at college in the fall, your unconscious encodes markers of attraction, connection, and fulfillment to fallen leaves, the smell of the library, and the taste of cider. It starts in utero, continues until the day you die, and you are never aware of it while it’s happening. You spend your entire life unconsciously training the elephant.


For those of us in the business of innovation (read: helping others improve their lives), we are faced with a challenge and an opportunity: how do we leverage the heft of the mighty elephant to serve the needs of others? The trick, as it turns out, is not to steer the elephant but to consciously train it.


This is where cognitive empathy comes in. Empathy is an innate mechanism for solving the problems of others by encoding their emotions as our own experience. Once we have been inscribed with their experience, our natural problem-solving process kicks in to solve the problem as if it were our own. Empathy is natural (and virtually unpreventable) for those most salient to us: our family, our friends, our icons and heroes. When someone we are close with needs help, we automatically snap into action and get working on finding novel solutions to their problems. For those we aren’t as naturally connected with, such as our customers, our patients, our colleagues, etc., we must engage a cognitive process of building empathy in order to get their experiences encoded into our own guts. By doing so, we are using the rider of conscious cognition to train the elephant of the unconscious.


By acknowledging that our experience is distinct from that person’s, deciding to bridge that distance by allowing their experience to affect us, recognizing their feelings and emotions in ourselves, and owning our response while allowing it to encode in us, we are building that repertoire of intuition according to their needs. We are no longer making jerking pulls and tugs to try to sway the massive unconscious against its training. We are re-training the unconscious to take us somewhere new, and this becomes the core mechanism of our ongoing innovation on their behalf.

By: Justin Masterson, Master Consultant


What We’re Reading

At Seek, we’re passionate about understanding humans and what makes us tick. Our Justin Masterson is always reading up on the latest in neuroscience and human behavior. Here’s a peek at five books he recommends if you want to take a progressive plunge into the fascinating world of behavioral economics.


1. How We Decide – Jonah Lehrer
A highly accessible primer on how our emotional and rational minds play together in decision-making.  Fast-paced, intriguing, and chock full of rich storytelling, it is an ideal entrance-point into the role of the unconscious in driving behavior. Learn More>>


2. Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
A breakthrough book from a preemptive thought leader that brought behavioral economics into the popular frame.  If
How We Decide catches your interest in behavioral science, this book will absolutely cement it.  Ariely is a brave, candid and unabashedly committed to the science of understanding why we do what we do.  Learn More >>


3. Thinking, Fast & Slow – Daniel Kahneman
The definitive text on the unique roles of the “fast” unconscious and “slow” conscious mind from a Nobel laureate. Kahenman and his long-time partner, Amos Tversky, virtually defined the field of behavioral economics, and this book serves as the culmination of their storied careers…if you have heard terms from behavioral economics floating around, they were probably coined here. Learn More>>


4. Incognito – David Eagleman
A thrilling look at the impact of the hidden brain on both the individual and society.  Eagleman is a daring neuroscientist who ties insight and invention together brilliantly, and who moves deftly between microcosmic examples of the individual influence of the subconscious, and implications for societal reform as a whole.  Learn More >>


5. Subliminal – Leonard Mlodinow
A depth look into the subconscious mind from, of all places, a quantum physicist.  Mlodinow takes us into the deepest recesses of the subconscious mind and draws remarkable connections between the neurological and physical structures in our heads/bodies and the choices we make that change our lives.  Learn More >>

Justin Masterson is Seek’s Account Strategy Director and resident neuroscience geek.

What’s Really Driving Our Decisions?

In the last five years, the marketing and innovation worlds have been buzzing about the behavioral sciences, and with good reason. The advent of brain-scanning technologies like the fMRI and PET have offered a new look at what our brains are really doing while we make choices, and the findings are stunning. For those of us who solve for human problems it is the Wild West, and our new explorers are the neuroscientists, psychologists and behavioral theorists who are linking arms to stake brand new claims in human understanding.


As a matter of summary I thought I’d share the one theme that resonates with me through study after study and headline after headline: your “gut” is doing most of your thinking for you.


The “Thought” Myth
The pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain believed to be most responsible for conscious awareness and executive function (your “thoughts”) is a relatively new evolutionary invention and at its oldest, about 500,000 years old… a mere speck in an evolutionary continuum spanning 4.5 billion years. Like most early tech launches it is riddled with glitches. Your conscious structure is a masterwork of computational power that can establish rules, apply abstract concepts to concrete phenomena, suppress animal urges, and override emotional function. Not a bad hand of tricks for such a young system, but it is wildly inefficient and highly susceptible to unconscious influence by the far more established limbic and autonomic systems. Its greatest flaw is its blindspot; your conscious mind is historically terrible at recognizing its own weaknesses.


Those of us who create new things for a living do well to strengthen our thoughts, but we also need to exercise our “gut” to empower our unconscious minds for creation, as this is where our core creative intuition lies. To do so, we must feast on a constant stream of experiences that “build our gut” by linking us physically, emotionally and mentally with those we are creating for. Why? Because it turns out that our gut is actually doing most of the thinking and creating.


Conscious Mind As CEO
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist with an unquenchable drive for innovation, offers us a helpful analogy: the conscious mind as the CEO of a large company. She is very smart, capable, and experienced; she is infinitely qualified to make strategic choices for the company. But there is no way she knows all that is going on in that company every day. She can’t, because no one person can possibly retain and process that much information. She can’t know what everybody is working on or tell you how much the company spent on restroom paper towels last year. When big strategic decisions are needed or when hit with brand new problems, she is at the wheel in action, but her attention is a very limited resource, and after setting priorities and getting the strategies and tactics rolling, she lets the system run and turns her focus to the next most important thing. She leaves most of the day-to-day choices to the much more plentiful resources of her broad organization.


Your brain works the same way. Your conscious attention (“thought” power) is a limited-capacity resource and requires a tremendous amount of energy to operate.  In order to conserve that energy for what matters, your brain wisely outsources non-essential or predictable operations to your unconscious mind, pushing operations further back into the much more efficient limbic (emotional), autonomic (peripheral) and enteric (gut) systems. These unconscious systems have a 4-billion year evolutionary head start on the conscious mind and act in concert to make most of your choices. In fact, neuroscientists studying decision-making estimate that around 95% of your decisions are made unconsciously or pre-consciously.  What you think of as your “gut” intuition is actually an entire complex system of neuronal networks built by both evolution and every experience you have ever had in your life. This system links with your central and peripheral nervous systems to drive decision-making. It is your most evolved problem-solving structure shaped by hundreds of millennia of evolution and sharpened by millions of personal data points to help you make well-informed choices.


Your Big Blind Spot
The trouble comes when you believe that your conscious mind is making most of your choices. Chances are good that you believe this because, by definition, it is all that you are consciously aware of.  The reality is that the vast majority of your “choices” have been pre-determined by your unconscious mind, then retroactively rationalized by your executive function without telling you that’s what happened. Those early drafts of the marketing materials that you green-lighted without hesitation?  Your conscious told you that you it was based on absolute trust in your agency and reasoned deliberation of the content. Your unconscious had long since decided that it was a go because it remembered the key elements and emotional impacts of your previous failed campaigns, and knew a winning idea before you did. That date you turned down last week?  You couldn’t quite put your finger on it, but something told you he was “creepy”. Meanwhile, your unconscious recalled a vivid emotional memory of a disastrous college date with a man of similar facial structure. That bag of chips you turned down at lunch?  Your conscious mind cheered you for minding your diet, but your unconscious mind had already rejected the chips with revulsion as it recalled throwing up the same brand as a kid.


Building Gut Through Empathic Experience
Those of us who solve the problems of others through creation and innovation thus do well to hone our gut instinct by creating rich connections with the people we are creating for: our end-users, our customers, our patients, our stakeholders, our loved ones. These connections will help build a deep reservoir of personal experiences to drive our strategic instinct. To do so, we must do the dirty work of empathy:  we must feel what they feel, struggle with what they struggle with, and encode their experiences into our own until they become almost inextricably enmeshed, and we can have confidence in our gut instinct. To serve our customers well, we must step out from behind our desks and drafting tables and get wholly immersed in their experience, not as a bi-annual exercise or a kick-off to ideation, but as a matter of regular creative discipline. We must hone our gut-level instincts to care about what they care about and reject what they reject, long before our conscious mind becomes aware of it. After all, that instinct is making most of our choices anyway; we should make sure they are good ones.

Justin Masterson is Seek’s Account Strategy Director and resident neuroscience geek.


Know Your Consumer

First, I’d like you to buy a birthday gift for YOUR sister. Here’s $50. Go ahead into the mall, it’s OK; I’ll wait, this won’t take long.


You know how this works: you’ll go inside, and you’ll immediately move towards the part of the mall with the fancy tea shop. You’ll bypass the curiosity shops and knick-knack boutiques; she’s too classy for that. You’ll blindly walk by the high-end cosmetics and the ninja perfume-spraying fragrance ladies at the kiosks; too glam for her style. You’ll beeline for the fancy tea shop, drawn in by the wafting scent of orange blossom and rose hips… it’s not really your scene, but you know your sister, and she has dragged you to enough essential oil demonstrations and Jane Austen movies, you just know what she wants. Within a couple of minutes, you’ll pick up the white-tea-with-ginger gift pack, it’s just perfect, and you’ll head out the door knowing you picked another winner.


Now, let’s try something different. Here’s $50. I’d like you to pick out a gift for my sister.


Don’t worry, I’ll give you some help. She’s tall. She’s 35. She vacations a lot in the Pacific Northwest. She’s married. She’s an accountant, and she earns in the mid-sixties. She loves small dogs and horror movies, and she has never broken a bone.


Struggling? Of course you are. That shopping trip would be a nightmare: nerve-wracking, and lengthy, walking glassy-eyed past every store, wondering if she’s an Ann Taylor girl or a Banana girl, if she’s into bareMinerals sleek or MAC showy. Every store, every shelf, every product… they would all look equally good and equally bad, equally likely to wow and disappoint. You would be on your phone to me constantly, running every option by me, and eventually your selection would be whatever feels least risky given that you have run out of time.


Sound like innovation where you work? Creating something truly meaningful for your constituent by starting with a segmentation profile and a qual summary is like shopping for someone else’s sister… it takes forever, it’s deeply taxing, and the odds of getting it right on your first try are pretty low.


So, what’s the difference?


The difference is empathic connection. You know your sister well beyond her demos, per product usages, her likes and dislikes. You know her feelings, her touchy spots, her dreams, her failures, and chances are good you have felt most of it along with her. That’s empathy; the moment when you have gone beyond I feel for you, and crossed into I feel with you, and it is the most powerful problem-solving force in humanity.


Your body is a finely-tuned problem-solving machine with a couple million years of evolution towards just this purpose. The conscious “thinking” mind (the sapiens part of homo sapiens), the part we typically try to use for innovation, has only been at it for a couple hundred thousand years, and is still wildly inefficient. Deep, lasting and relevant innovation requires engagement of the whole person, and empathy is the tool that fires up head, heart, and gut for the task. But engaging in true empathy is messy business, and most businesses and brands struggle to do it consistently, and with authenticity. We find sometimes you have to slow down in order to know how to innovate quickly.

By: Justin Masterson, Global Accounts Director