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Organisational behaviour

Brainstorms actually stifle creativity

Back in 1940s, advertising executive Alex Osborn argued that it was possible to enhance creativity by putting a group of people in a room and have them follow a simple set of rules, like coming up with as many thoughts as possible, encouraging wild and exaggerated ideas, not criticizing or evaluating anyone’s comments. Not surprisingly it became a hit. Over the years, organizations around the world have encouraged their employees to tackle key problems using this approach, commonly known as brainstorming.

But the scientists aren’t convinced. (Nor am I). Brian Mullen from the University of Kent at Canterbury and his colleagues analyzed twenty studies that tested efficacy of group brainstorming and discovered that in the vast majority of experiments, participants working on their own produced a higher quantity and quality of ideas than those working in groups.

The reason, group brainstorming fails, is because of a phenomenon called ‘social loafing’. Simply put it is diffusion of responsibility. When people work on their own, their success or failure is entirely due to their own abilities and hard work. If they do well, the glory is theirs. If they fail, they carry the can. However, add people to the situation and everyone stops trying so hard, safe in the knowledge that, though they will not receive personal praise if the group does well, they can always blame others if it performs badly.

Years of brainstorming may have inadvertently been stifling, not stimulating, creative juices. So have faith in yourself, work alone, regroup to discuss your ideas with your team and kick ass.

Self-portrait by Mayur Tekchandaney

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What you wear can affect how you act

We feel confident when we wear good clothes, and may be not that confident when wearing clothes we feel not good enough. Seems intuitive. But did you know that if you wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a doctor, your ability to pay attention increases sharply. While if you wear the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, you will show no such improvement.

Dr. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and his colleague Hoja Adam call this phenomenon ‘enclothed cognition’ to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. That’s a play off the term ‘embodied cognition’, a line of research that examines the ways bodily sensations influence our thoughts and emotions.

As a test of the ‘enclothed cognition’ perspective, their research explored the effects of wearing a lab coat on ordinary people. They had to look at two very similar pictures side by side on a screen and spot four minor differences. It was found that attention (finding more number of differences) did not increase when the coat was not worn or associated with a painter. Attention only increased when the coat was a) worn and b) associated with a doctor. The effect occurs only if you actually wear the coat and know its symbolic meaning — physicians tend to be careful, rigorous and good at paying attention.

“There is a huge body of work on embodied cognition”, says Dr. Galinsky. “The experience of washing your hands is associated with moral purity and ethical judgments. People rate others personally warmer if they hold a hot drink in their hand, and colder if they hold an iced drink. Other experiments have shown that women who dress in a masculine fashion during a job interview are more likely to be hired, and a teaching assistant who wears formal clothes is perceived as more intelligent than one who dresses more casually.”

Illustration by (now you don’t need to wear a labcoat for guessing that)

You should sleep over it

Warning: If you are a consultant you may not like this post, but if you are a client you are likely to love it.

That’s because solution providers don’t particularly like to hear the words ‘Let’s sleep over it’, but this phenomenon is proven to be good for complex cognitive skills like decision-making.

In one of the first studies of its kind, Dr. Rebecca Spencer and postdoctoral fellow Edward Pace-Schott investigated the effects of sleep on affect-guided decision-making, which is decisions on meaningful topics where subjects care about the outcome, in a group of 54 young adults. They were taught to play a card game called the Iowa Gambling Task, for rewards of play money in which wins and losses for various card decks mimic casino gambling.

The researchers gave two groups of 18- to 23-year-old college undergraduates a brief preview of the gambling task, so brief that it was not possible for them to learn its underlying rule. Subjects were then asked to come back in 12 hours. The 28 subjects who got the preview in the afternoon went home to a normal evening and their usual night of sleep, while the 26 who received the game preview in the morning came back after a day of normal activities with no naps. On the second visit, subjects played the full gambling task. (You can read the detailed study in the online issue of the Journal of Sleep Research)

Subjects who had a normal night’s sleep as part of the study drew from decks that gave them the greatest winnings four times more often than those who spent the 12-hour break awake, and they better understood the underlying rules of the game.

“There is something to be gained from taking a night to sleep over it when you’re facing an important decision. We found that the fact that you slept makes your decisions better.”, says Dr. Rebecca Spencer.

She believes this sleep benefit in making decisions may be due to changes in underlying emotional or cognitive processes. “Our guess is that this enhanced effect on decision-making is something that depends on rapid-eye-movement or REM sleep, which is the creative period of our sleep cycle.”

Not convinced? May be it’s a good idea for you to sleep over it.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Its all about the food, bugger

Want your meeting to go well? Want to get that much needed approval from your client in that meeting? Want the participants at your workshop to be in a good mood? Want your wedding reception to be remembered?

You got it. Serve good food.

To understand how food can make you happy, it’s important to understand how the brain regulates mood. The brain uses neurotransmitters as communication signals to communicate with the rest of your body and to issue its commands. Typically, serotonin is the neurotransmitter most linked to happiness. Foods that aid serotonin production include fish, chicken, cheese, spinach and bananas.

While some foods have been proven to physically affect your brain chemistry, others make us feel good just by eating them. These are Comfort Foods.

Psychological studies have turned up evidence that the comfort foods we crave are actually artifacts from our pasts . We all have memories of happier times, and by eating foods that remind us of those times, we symbolically consume that past happiness. Comfort foods can also be linked to specific people in our lives: Eating a specific food that a loved one favored can produce happy thoughts by triggering fond memories or associations of that person . This makes comfort foods fairly unique to each individual. If your childhood birthday parties represented the pinnacle of happiness for you, you’d likely crave birthday cake or some variation of the dessert when you’re feeling the blues.

Although comfort foods (or the events attached to them) vary from person to person, the foods we associate with comforting or happy emotions vary by gender, as well. A 2005 Cornell University survey of 277 men and women found that females tend to seek comfort in sweet and sugary foods like ice cream, while males prefer savory comfort foods like steak .

So know the food that leads to happiness and know the likes of whom you are serving to.  Foods’ the reason for Laughing Buddha’s happiness and could well be the reason for your happiness too.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Playing musical chairs improves creativity

There are two schools of thought relating to group dynamics and creativity. One believes in keeping teams constant, believing that the comfort of the team members with each other, makes it easier for them to come up with creative ideas. In contrast, the other school of thought is that mixing team members generates new patterns of thinking.

To find out which one really works, Charlan Nemeth and Margaret Ormiston from University of California conducted a test. Groups of people were asked to think of new ways of solving real problems like boosting tourism in San Francisco bay area. Then team members of half of those groups were kept constant, whereas the other half of the groups had their team members mixed to form new teams. Those that remained together rated their groups as friendlier and more creative. However from the perspective of creativity, the newly formed groups generated significantly more ideas, and those ideas were judged to be more creative.

In another study conducted by Hoon-Seok Choi and Leigh Thompson, three-person groups were asked to think of as many uses as possible for a cardboard box. Then team members of half of those groups were kept constant, and changed just one person in the other half of the groups. When asked to repeat the cardboard box task, analyses showed that the newcomer had helped increase the creativity of the two original team members.

With respect to group creativity, the message is clear: play musical chairs.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

My idea is better than yours

Lets be honest, each one of us believes that our ideas are the best. We fall in love with our own ideas so deeply that most of the times we’re open to any solution, as long as it’s ours. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality calls it ‘The Not-Invented-Here bias’.

‘The Not-Invented-Here Bias’ is basically this: ‘If I (or we) didn’t invent it, then it’s not worth much.’

One may argue that it is good to be attached to our ideas as it could motivate us and create a higher level of commitment. But it comes with its side effects. One example is of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb. He fell hard for direct current (DC) electricity. At that point in time Nikola Tesla developed alternating current (AC) electricity under the supervision of Edison, but Edison dismissed Tesla’s ideas as ‘splendid, but utterly impractical’.  Despite all of Edison’s efforts to foil it, AC eventually prevailed.

Sony is another example. Sony invented the transistor radio, the Walkman, the Trinitron Tube and many other successful inventions. But after a series of successful ones, Sony engineers began suffering from ‘The Not-Invented-Here Bias’. If something wasn’t invented at Sony, the engineers wanted nothing to do with it. iPod and Xbox were ‘outside’ ideas and therefore not considered as good as Sony’s ideas. We all know the consequences.

Acronyms (OAT, ECT, BCT, etc) that blossom inside companies are another example. Dan Ariely says ‘though they are a shorthand to talk about an idea, they confer a kind of secret insider knowledge. They tend to increase the perceived importance of the idea, and at the same time they keep other ideas from entering the inner circle.’

But like many findings in behavioural economics, this too, can be made useful. One example of its usefulness can be demonstrated in how Pillsbury made its instant cake mixes. When instant mixes were introduced in the US years back, housewives had to simply add water to make the cake. The mixes didn’t go down too well with housewives. So Pillsbury left out the dried eggs and required women to add fresh ones, along with milk and oil, to the mix and the sales took off. For housewives, adding eggs and other ingredients, gave a sense of ownership and pride and made them feel it was made by them. I’m sure each one also felt that their cake was better than the ones made by others.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

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