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5 thoughts about thinking for the New Year

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Why read this? : We share 5 top-of-mind thoughts about thinking as we go into 2023. Learn how to smarten up your thinking with thoughtful ideas inspired by psychology and neuroscience. Read this to spark new thoughts about thinking for the New Year. 

Happy New Year. Let’s hope 2023 turns out better than last year. Less war, more peace. Less pain, more gain. Oh, and a lot less rain, please. 

We hope the break helped you refresh both physically and mentally. We’re certainly feeling re-energised here at Three-Brains. Very much looking forward to finding and sharing more information, insights and ideas about our favourite topics in 2023. 

And while we didn’t actively think marketing, creativity and e-Commerce over the holiday, we’ve definitely come back with some thoughts. And in particular some thoughts about thinking

Your brain never stops working on unfinished tasks

Those thoughts are partly down to what’s known as the Zeigarnik effect.

Zeigarnik was a Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist who noticed that waiters in a cafe found it easy to remember orders. 

But when asked about those orders later (after customers had paid and left), they found them much harder to recall.  

Her hypothesis was, when a task is unfinished, the brain keeps it in a kind of active memory, so it’s easier to access.

When the task’s finished, those thoughts are discarded, or moved to a “long-term storage” memory area, where quick access isn’t needed. A little bit like having open tabs on your computer as you work. But then closing them when you’re done. 

The inference here is your brain often works away in the background on something, even when you’re not working directly on it. It’s what creates those “a-ha” moments you get at weird times. In the shower. Out walking. Waking up in the middle of the night. The answer to that problem you’d been stuck on in that meeting, that workshop is suddenly obvious. It’s not magic. It’s the Zeigarnik effect. 

We like the idea of this a lot, because you can use it as a productivity hack. Plus, it’s also a great way to make better group decisions. 

Use the Zeigarnik effect as a productivity hack

So, how does it work as a productivity hack?

Well, if you start a new task, but then go away and do something else, your brain will keep working on that task without you even being aware of it. And when you come back to it, you’ll have better and more creative ideas. 

For example, when we write articles, we start with an outline. A headline, a theme, some sub-headlines and rough ideas to build the flow of the story. This is usually around 250-300 words. 

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

But then we’ll step away. We’ll come back to it the next day, so the Zeigarnik effect part of our brain has a chance to work. This usually means we write faster, have more ideas, and the whole article comes together more easily than if we’d tried to write it in one go. 

We’ll also then leave it at least a day to edit the draft, for the same reasons. Fresh eyes reading the draft spots things we’d have easily missed the day before.

Use the Zeigarnik effect to make better group decisions

You can also apply the same principle to how groups in your business work together. You give people time to think about better solutions, or to make more considered decisions.

For example, when you need creative approvals or an innovation business case sign-off. 

So you give people advance copies of the documentation. Then, you give them time before they need to make a decision. This lets the Zeigarnik effect do its thing. This extra time to consider usually leads to better decision-making.

Fear the amygdala

Part of what triggered us to share these thoughts about thinking was reading Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence in the run-up to Christmas.

It’s over 20 years since it first came out, just as areas like behavioural science were starting to take off.

It covers a lot of the basics of how our brains work, and what emotions do.

These basics of brain science haven’t really changed. Our emotions have been part of us for a long time. The biology of how they work is fairly clear.

What Goleman’s book (and further studies since then) focus on though, is what to do with this knowledge about our brains and emotions. 

Examples in the book include key areas like childhood development, job performance and treating health issues. 

But the first area which grabbed our attention was how he writes about the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system which governs our emotions. (See our how to use emotions article for more on this). It’s better known as the part of the brain which drives our “fight-or-flight” instincts. 

It intuitively senses danger. It primes our body to react to danger before our conscious, logical brains get a chance to think about what’s going on. We’ve all seen online videos of people jumping out of the way just before a car’s about to hit them. Or people avoiding dangerous animal attacks. Those split-second survival reactions come from the amygdala. 

Marketing and the amygdala

Our thought as we read this though, was that until very recently, we’d never heard anyone in marketing talk about the amygdala. No-one there seems to know what it is. It’s only because we’ve studied behavioural science, that we now see the odd marketing researcher or copywriter mention the amygdala. But we reckon most marketers or agencies have no idea what the amygdala is, or what it does. 

And that’s a missed opportunity. 

Because the same fight or flight mechanism which alerts us to the crashing car or wild animal activates when we’re suddenly exposed to new and unexpected marketing messages. 

Our brain’s first instinct is to work out if there’s a threat. Does this new LinkedIn connection request seem dodgy? Is that unasked for, sponsored Facebook Post / Tweet suspicious? This is why establishing trust early is so important in marketing. It’s why it’s often the first stage in the brand choice funnel. You have to get past the amygdala to establish trust. 

Your brand name’s not on the list

If you think of your customer’s brain as like a nightclub your marketing message is trying to get entry to, the amygdala’s the bouncer on the door.

It’s our brain’s first line of defence against the unknown. If your (brand) name’s not on the list, you’re not getting in. 

That’s why customers ignore your adverts. Delete your emails. Reject your connection request. They haven’t passed the amygdala test. 

How do you fix that? You build trust.

You make sure your first marketing contact with someone puts them at ease. Makes it clear you’re no threat. Makes it clear you’re there to help them. That’s how you get past the amygdala. 

So you do targeted messages talking about a customer’s actual problem. Not mass and generic blasts which try to appeal to everyone, but actually appeal to no-one. You get specific. You show empathy. To get past the amygdala with your message, you create messages which make the customer’s brain want to welcome you in. You make it about them, not about you. 

Over confident decision making

The amygdala’s existence isn’t secret. You can find many medicine, psychology and behavioural science references to it online. So why don’t more marketers and agencies know about it?

Our thought is that much of this is down to over-confidence. Most of us think we know a lot more than we do. That we know enough. But this belief closes us off to new ways of thinking. And many marketers seem particularly guilty of this. 

Daniel Kahnemann in his book Thinking Fast and Slow calls this WYSIATI. What You See Is All There Is.

It’s the Fast (System 1 as he calls it) part of our brains which make quick, rule of thumb judgements about how to handle everyday situations.

Our emotional brains / limbic systems play a big role in this type of decision-making. It’s what leads us to make snap judgments about people and situations.

For example, there’s an old saying about “never trusting a man wearing brown shoes”. But rationally, that makes no senses. The colour of someone’s shoes makes very little difference to anything. But emotionally, for some people, brown shoes are a warning signal of someone who’s unreliable. 

Recognise prejudice and biases

What’s most challenging is when people don’t recognise these prejudices and biases.

It takes the slower, more logical (System 2) part of their brains to kick in, and reflect on why they think like that.

That part of our brain makes the most well thought-out decisions. But it’s incredibly energy intensive. So it only works in short bursts. It’s lazy. Most of the time, it’s the more unreliable, irrational parts of our brains which handle our day-to-day decisions. 

Triangular warning sticker with large exclamation mark on a wall. Sticker has many rips and tears in it.

This helps explain many of the terrible decisions people make. From minor goofs such as poorly thought-out social media content to terrible decisions in your personal and professional life. 

For example, think about the common bias around being decisive. HR / leadership types love to bang on about how important it is to make fast, confident decisions. How this gets people on board. How it’s a sign of a strong leader. But feeling confident about something, isn’t the same thing as being right about something. As Kahnemann puts it, confidence isn’t evidence of the truth.

This decisiveness belief doesn’t bear up to close scrutiny. Being right surely has to be better than being decisive, right? But being right takes time. It’s harder work. And as we said, System 1 only works in short bursts. There’s plenty of historical leaders you could say were decisive. Hitler. Stalin. Pol Pot. Genghis Khan. Putin. All decisive leaders. But were their decisions right? No, of course not.  

So over-confidence about decisions is something to be wary of. Asking for time to make a decision isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s about being considerate. Thoughtful. Being a strong-minded leader who champions good decisions. 

Which would your rather be? Hesitatingly right, or decisively wrong?

Non-binary decision making

Well, actually, that’s a deliberately unfair question. Because of course, you could be decisively right.

But it’s a good example of the next of our thoughts about thinking, and that’s how often you see people position decisions as binary. 

You’re with us, or against us. 

You’re guilty, or not guilty. 

Pizza with pineapple is great, or it’s an abomination. 

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

Except, most decisions in life don’t have to be binary like this. Particularly in marketing, most decisions come down to “somewhere inbetween”. You try to find a balance so you get the best of both worlds. 

For example, in Luke Sullivan’s excellent advertising book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, he talks about the advertising message challenge as finding the sweet spot between being “clear” and being “clever”. 

Being clear, is well, clear. Everyone understands something that’s clear. But as he points out, clear can often be dull. Boring. Predictable. That’s not what you want in your advertising. 

Clever is, well clever. It’s interesting. Inspiring. Insightful. But if you’re too clever, it’s not clear. People won’t understand it. They won’t make the effort if it’s too hard to “get” the cleverness.

So in reality, the best answer is somewhere inbetween. You want to be clear and clever.  

When you recognise this binary bias in decision-making, you soon see how often people abuse it. Politicians, business leaders and other manipulators use it all the time. So once your amygdala alerts you to them doing it, that’s when you ask, well why is it that choice? Why not both? Why not another choice that’s somewhere inbetween, or something else entirely? 

Stay open-minded

Which brings us to the last of our thoughts about thinking. This one came from Adam Grant’s book Think Again, one of our more interesting reads from last year.

It champions the value of being more open-minded. About admitting that sometimes you might have got it wrong. It asks you to see the value in thinking again. Hence the title, obviously. 

Being open-minded means you learn more. You get better ideas. You’re a better person to work with.

You get out of the trap of being close-minded. Of being stuck with a way of thinking. (close-mindedness drives a lot of barriers in businesses such as those we’ve covered previously about marketing and e-Commerce).  

So, be more open-minded. Be open to revisiting and reviewing your previous beliefs.

Maybe those yucky Christmas Brussel Sprouts you’ve always hated actually aren’t all that bad? And maybe, being decisive isn’t actually the most important leadership skill to focus on? 

Learn how to step back and think again. Think about what you’re doing, and the impact it’ll have on others. 

As we continue our learning journey this year, that would be our ask of you. Stay open-minded and keep learning new things. It’s what motivates us and we hope motivates you going into 2023.

Conclusion - 5 thoughts about thinking

When you’ve given your brain a rest, it can be a shock if you then suddenly ask it to think hard again. Hopefully, these 5 thoughts about thinking haven’t been too much of a shock to the system. 

Now, you’ve read them, we suggest you let the Zeignarnik effect go to work.

Don’t do anything with them right now. But mark out 10 minutes in your diary tomorrow to review which of these thoughts has stuck in your head. Think about what you can do with them. 

man in a blue T-shirt looking at the ceiling

Maybe it’s thinking about the amygdala? About how it governs whether that person you’re trying to influence lets you in, or shuts you out. 

Maybe it’s thinking about finding the right level of confidence in your decision-making? About being confident enough to ask for time to make a decision, so you can be surer it’s a good one. 

Or maybe it’s about recognising that most decisions aren’t binary? Most decisions are somewhere inbetween. You find better answers when you use the best bits of both sides of an argument. 

Whichever thought sticks out the most, stay open-minded about how you get the most out of your thinking. That thought’s going to be top of mind for our thinking this year. 

Check out our article on using emotions and decision-making for more on this topic. Or contact us, if our thoughts about thinking has stirred any new thoughts for you. 

PS : To give ourselves (and you) a bit more time to think, our next post will be in 2 weeks time. 

Photo credits

Man looking at ceiling (adapted) : Photo by Anton Danilov on Unsplash

Coffee cups : Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Three people pointing at laptop : Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Write without fear : Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

Hand / Stop : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Attention sign : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Legal scales : Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

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