My Brain is Lazy

People don’t resist change; they only resist what they feel is a threat to their safety.

In 2002, Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Economics Prize. How, you might ask, did a psychologist win the economics prize? It was recognition for 25 years of research Kahneman performed on the human process of decision-making. Kahneman’s thesis is that all decisions are made in the limbic brain on an emotional level, then justified by the neocortex on a logical level. By 2002, MRIs had evolved to sufficient accuracy to confirm Kahneman’s hypothesis.

In 2011, Kahneman published the most sold, least read book in the world. Thinking Fast and Slow is a rambling exposition on Kahneman’s life and research. It contains some brilliant observations obscured in a swamp of repetitive examples. Most importantly, Kahneman tells us that the human mind:

  • Thinks fast – intuition — amygdala
  • Thinks slow – logic — neocortex
  • Is prone to confirmation bias – it seeks information to confirm what it already believes
  • Is lazy – wants to feel safe, does not want to waste energy

There are many directions these realizations can take us. In the coming weeks, I will explore several of them to provide a better understanding of how this influences our behavior – both personally and organizationally. Today’s focus is on presenting changes, and how we resist them.

Kahneman tells us that the human brain basically only wants to feel safe. Whenever we are confronted with an unfamiliar circumstance, a part of our brain, the amygdala, is triggered to assess the level of danger. When the danger is detected, the amygdala reacts in one of four possible patterns:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Appease

This reaction is not a choice! When the amygdala is triggered, the rest of the brain is not able to make any kind of decision. In emotional intelligence parlance, this experience is called the amygdala hijack. The other thing to know about the amygdala is that it that when the amygdala is activated no learning takes place. There is lots of action but none of that action translates into usable learning which would be accessible later.

Equally important, the amygdala does not know the difference between a physical threat and a social threat. Both are assessed as equally life-threatening. Imagine walking down a dark street, late at night. You hear a dog bark. You turn around. It’s a Chihuahua. What reaction does the amygdala provide — fight, flight, freeze, or appease?

 In this case fight. I can beat that puppy. But if you turn around and it’s a Pitbull, you have a whole different situation. Fight is not possible, so the amygdala, without any input from me, instantaneously assesses:  

  • Flight: can I make it to the porch before the dog gets to me?
  • Freeze: I’m just going to stand perfectly still and hope the dog doesn’t see me.
  • Appease: the dog wants a bone, preferably not one of mine. What do I have to offer the dog? I have a throat lozenge. Do Pitbulls like throat lozenges?

The same situation takes place in an office meeting. When I walk into the room, my amygdala immediately scans for danger. If someone is acting out and I have more authority than that person, the reaction is fight. I can tell that person to knock off that behavior. If that person has more status than I do, my amygdala automatically considers another course of action, flight: let me out of this room. I’ve got a phone call I’ll be right back. Just get me away from the immediate danger. Freeze: I am again going to shrink and hope that the angry energy in this room does not affect me. Appease: we also call it sucking up. I’m going to do anything I can to make my boss happy

The meeting is finally over.  I leave the room. On my way back to my office, I think, “Oh man! What I should have said was…”, because now my neocortex is reactivated. The perceived immediate danger is now past, and I can begin to think logically.

The importance of this realization is that every time we hold a meeting, we are dealing with other people’s fear. The reality is that people do not resist change; they only resist what they feel is a threat to their safety. The size of the meeting is irrelevant. This fundamental precept is not. To create safety in a meeting I first must make certain that everyone in the room trusts that we can have a meaningful conversation. I have to be sure that we are not in an argument or a debate, but that we are in a dialogue. A dialogue is an exploration of all the options.

 It is the primary responsibility of the facilitator of the meeting to make it safe for all points of view to be heard. I must be certain that no one person is dominating the meeting and preventing people from having their say. I have an agenda, of course. Otherwise, why would I hold a meeting? That agenda must be transparent, and I must make exploring that agenda the focus of our meeting.

In another book from 2002, The Communication Catalyst, Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek, offer this solution: Whenever we’re introducing change, we must the first talk about what is going to stay the same. By letting people know which aspects of the organization are not changing, there is a much better probability that people will not perceive what is new as a threat.

It is a simple rule. The brain only wants to feel safe. It wants the amygdala to scan for danger, and find it lacking. When the brain feels safe, it can absorb and learn. It can allow the logical part of the brain, the neocortex, to function without warning signs flashing. The basis of feeling safe is trust and the basis of trust is making certain that every person is heard. Try this in your next meeting and let me know how it goes.

David Belden, Professional Outsider

David Belden, Professional Outsider

David Belden lived abroad for 30 years, successfully completing 5 startups and 3 major turnarounds internationally.

For over 20 years, ExecuVision International has helped companies create organizations where every employee is encouraged to contribute at their highest level of ability.

This Post Has 30 Comments

  1. David
    That is the most lucid explanation of a consequential book that I found hard to read. And your remarks were very insightful and gave me new understanding. Wow well done, and thank you! It will inform all of my teaching. And my work with colleagues.
    Andres

    1. Andres, Thank you very much for your comments. They are much appreciated.

      1. I completely agree. I struggle with this because I find change exciting, fascinating and motivating and am at times a bit too aggressive in my support of it.

  2. Brilliant read and absolutely right. It is not the change but the fear of change which has bothered human beings since forever…

    1. Raj, Thank you for your comments. Yes, we have to learn to manage the fear. These are anxious times. One of the roles of the leader is to relieve that anxiety.

  3. Thank you for such a succinct and easy to digest tutorial (as per usual). The difficult part is now to remember this lesson in real life interactions. The second to last paragraph seems of paramount importance to our organization when trying to communicate change with people that have been part of a 50 year old organization for a fair amount of that time. My other takeaway was that I need need to focus more on organized, clear agendas.

    1. Jean, Catching ourselves before the “hijack” takes place is the key. It is not an easy task, as you know.

  4. Great article David! I think society would all benefit from a “Brain 101” class that helps us understand our “mostly” normal reactions. Change is hard, but necessary and inevitable. Embracing change means we often need to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That takes lots of practice.

    I love the advice provided in The Communication Catalyst, Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek:

    Tell people what will stay the “same” in the midst of change. This provides an anchor for their psyche, allowing them to weather the storms of change.

    1. Kim, Thanks for the above. I always appreciate your comments and your contributions.

  5. Well done, clear and succinct. Thanks for sharing. And, I would add a challenge for the leader to evolve to a place and state of mind that is attainable – to retrain his or her brain to be self-aware enough to engage their prefrontal cortex ‘on demand’ with practice more consciously so as to override the amygdala. Not only have I been able to do this in life threatening situations as a physician – we now know in neuroscience that we are capable of this with meditation/mindfulness intentional practice. The catch of course, is that it initially takes effort to learn, like any other new skill.Things that I used to be very reactive to, many of those things I can now observe without having my fearful amygdala alarm in the first place or to quiet it down quickly and with clarity. This is the place of self-empowerment that we are capable of and thank goodness for it. It is what gives the human species its advantages in survival. Hopefully we will arise to our current challenges and overcome instead of allowing – and I do mean allowing – our ‘amygdala hijack’ to continue to just jerk us around. I’ve experienced this ability to ‘take back the steering wheel of our mind’, so I know from experience it is possible – and it is now science also.

    1. Valencia, Thanks for your response. Yes, it is possible to consciously deal with the amygdala. As you note, it always starts with increased self-awareness.

  6. Thank you David. This article reminds me of a situation I was involved in only two days ago. I was in a restaurant, relaxing with my daughters. Suddenly it became obvious there was a an argument brewing between an unruly customer and the server. The customer made it clear he was looking for a fight and everyone in the restaurant was getting on edge, including me. I went from feeling relaxed to thinking about what my next move would be if the fight broke out. Luckily, the owner of the restaurant handled the situation masterfully and was able to defuse a feist.
    After reading your article, I can identify that switch from my neocortex to the amygdala. Thanks for the article David. Very well presented.

    1. Joe, thanks for the real life example. It happens to us thousands of times a day, though usually not so dramatically.

  7. Yes, making certain that we can have a meaningful conversation and a dialogue to explore options in a meeting is the key for not triggering amygdala. But usually and unfortunately, aggressive lots dominate the meeting and prevent others from having their say.

    Thanks David for summarizing succinctly the decision-making process of human brains and what leaders need to do, especially communicating change to people.

  8. David,

    Congratulations, and thank you, for crystallizing a complex and consequential matter. Indeed, leaders are human, and, like everyone else, have neurologically predictable natural reactions. The greater lessons and implications you synthesized are powerful.

    1. Thanks, Beth. I know this is something you also use in your work.

  9. Nicely done. I have always heard that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed. Among other points, you help bring some clarity to why that is so.

    1. Thanks, Leo.

  10. Excellent summary David. This is a very valuable write-up that lays out what is hidden from our view. I kept on thinking about who is really controlling my navigation system and the systems of those I work with.

    1. And so often, it’s our own primal brain doing the controlling.

  11. David

    As always, you’ve provided valuable insight into organizational behavior. I always love a good psychology leason!

    Brilliant ideas might not get shared in business meetings unless participants can speak openly without fear of being argued with or shot down in front of the group. I guess what you’re really getting at is that the mind must be relaxed and free from fear in order to work creatively.

    1. Exactly, Keith.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I’m glad you liked it.

  12. The research and data were right for the time it was written and studied. Is it still as applicable today? As we have seen since 2011 there is an emergence of ways minds are interacting with electronic devices, and the actions of the mind are changing. Humans are trusting the device over their own mind – (consider the person who drives into the river/lake/over the embankment because the GPS said to turn).The algorithms and endless “in your face” use of devices and programs is showing up in more scientific studies devices are “hacking our minds.” While nature will continue to have a strong influence in how we think and act, it is also being over-ridden by our willingness to allow the device/program to lead our thoughts, beliefs and actions. Facebook and Google provide us the news and where we should look for information and goods. Twitter is now driving our politics and actions without any censorship. 10 seconds of a video from a cell phone can bring on outrage even if the previous and next 30 seconds tell a different story – who is published/seen first is the one to believe. Programs like Tinder are telling us how to meet and date.

    Will our fight or flight work if a device does not indicate what to do? Will our minds become dulled to every day interactions with “real things” (the neighbor, dog, person on a subway or bus) as we encounter them or do we “freeze” simply because I will not take my eye off my phone until the device tells me what to do. Do are natural minds and body functions develop in order for us to really react to the every day real life actions.

    The more the mind is attached to devices, the more we will have to re-write how we really react to change.

    Thanks for prompting the discussion.

    1. Jim, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I don’t imagine that the basic neuroscience has changed. Certainly, our dependence on, or addiction to, technology has a profound impact on how we absorb and process information. That is a good topic for future blogs.

  13. Thanks David for the Lazy Brain article -good stuff! Pete Lakey

    1. Thanks, Pete. It’s good to hear from you.

  14. Although the concept of all of this is familiar to me, your explanation and examples was perhaps the best I have seen. It really makes it easy to understand.

    1. Mike,

      Thanks for the comments. I find today that I spend most of my time attempting to simply the complex, rather than complexifying the simple. Lessons of experience, I guess.

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