How we normalize strange behavior
Today I was speaking at the LeanKanban Nordic conference. I was talking about our reward system, what we need to get things done instead of starting something new. I was telling about how our PFC, the executive function works linearly and is really easily distracted. And about how our brain actually is a prediction machine. Predicting what will happen. Our brain wants to see patterns, wants to have certainty.
Then I started distracting people’s focus.
I had asked my colleague in the audience to clap once every four minutes. On the clap I jumped up on the sofa (on stage) and tried to continue speaking as if nothing would have happened. I broke all the rules of public speaking I am sure. I broke the patterns. Oooh, it was shameful and just weird, you should have been inside my head then! On three first claps I jumped up on a sofa. On the fourth I sat down. Again, breaking a pattern.
After a while, I asked the audience who were surprised to see me jump on the sofa the first time? Everyone raised their hands. Second? Maybe 50% raised their hands. Third? About 30% hands left in the air. We saw some conditioning happening there.
What I did with this circus was
a) Mess with the audience’s brains’ executive function, interrupting both their and my own logical linear reasoning.
b) Create a threat: doing something that they really could not expect at all. I guess the perceived threat quickly turned into amusement (social reward) or just a form of pity (what we call in Finland “co-shame”). (social punishment, distancing yourself from the act).
c) With jumping on the sofa first, I created novelty/threat, which then formed a pattern. With three times doing something extremely ridiculous 70% of the audience was expecting it, so I almost created a habit (“normalized” a weird event). So, there was no surprise (novelty, threat, reward) anymore with seeing a speaker stand on a sofa. [Which, for the love of mother earth, just should be surprising even after 3 times, so thank you for the 30% still raising their hands!]
d) I explained to the audience that we’d been through creating some conditioned learning (accepting that a speaker will stand on the sofa when there is a clap = mental model or habit) in just 3 times. About 70% of the audience expected me to be up on a sofa anytime during my speech. Is that not a crazy expectation?
e) People had different explanations on why I did what I did. Humans are looking for an answer to settle the uncertainty and loss of pattern from strange behavior. Because I sat down the fourth time people asked me, “was there another pattern of the clap?” Some people said, they wanted to “clap themselves to see what would be happening”. “First I thought about why are you doing this, and then I thought you have to have a reason for it”.
- We all disturb our quality thinking time with a lot of distractions all the time. It is just as stupid as jumping up on a sofa when speaking publicly. You are just making it harder for yourself to finish. Don’t.
- Non-goal focused distractions in your surroundings disturbing you from getting things done… are you just grown used to them and habitually accepting them nowadays?
- How many of irresponsible behavior patterns are just “normalized” in your organizations because they are so frequent?
- If you see something fun happening totally off your goal focus, would you just want to go there and “clap to see what happens?” (quick reward).
I guess the audience who could concentrate learn and disregard my circus, are probably far with their self-regulation (regulating emotions, good or bad), in directing your attention to what is relevant. The content was relevant and many people found it useful. The circus was not.
The ones who were left with (co-) shame, confusion or irritation – what can you learn from it? Were you able to listen to the content, or were you too confused about me making an idiot out of myself? Now that is the interesting part.
The emotions induced by people around you are real, and can get in the way of being focused and using your best thinking power. If you are able to notice your own emotion (especially negative) and decide that it should not get in the way of thinking, you are exerting your veto power, using your brains braking system.
I want to thank my audience for the trust I got back. I know some of you went home just puzzled, because I did not explain this well enough. Sorry for that.