May 28, 2024

Brain Hacks for OEHS Professionals

By Ed Rutkowski

Our brains may be lazy, but they got a strenuous workout from Helena Boschi’s closing session on May 22. Boschi, a psychologist who specializes in applying neuroscience to the workplace, briskly explained how our brains evolved into erratic, work-avoiding rationalization machines that are both easily duped and stubbornly resistant to what’s good for us, like wearing our respirators. With her rapid-fire delivery, good humor, and frequent references to pop culture, Boschi seemed intent on rousing our brains from their lethargy and getting them to acknowledge their true nature.

Laziness is just one of the problems with our brains. They are also “negatively wired,” Boschi said, predisposed not to embrace life but avoid death. They tend to make predictions based on recollections of prior experiences that may be inaccurate. “We jump to conclusions and make rapid judgments,” Boschi said, “but we don’t always get it right.”

Middlingly effective in the best of circumstances, our brains become overwhelmed when afraid, directing resources away from the frontal lobe, which governs rational thought. The hippocampus shrinks, interfering with cognition and memory, while the amygdala, the seat of anger, enlarges.

These responses served us well long ago, when our lives often depended on snap fight-or-flight judgments. Today, we see their legacy in our great preference for the familiar over the unfamiliar. “Because the brain is predictive, it really struggles with uncertainty, and it struggles with change,” Boschi explained. She described an experiment in which test subjects preferred to give themselves a mild electric shock over being placed in a room with no distractions. In another experiment, people who were told they had a 50 percent chance of receiving an electric shock were found to have higher stress levels than those informed they would definitely receive a shock. Given a choice, we prefer to know what’s coming, even if it’s painful.

Hand in hand with our brain’s laziness and discomfort with uncertainty is its stubbornness. “The brain is a control freak,” Boschi said: it hates being told what to do. This is one reason why OEHS professionals encounter resistance when trying to get workers to wear personal protective equipment or convince company executives to invest in engineering controls.

Fortunately, there are ways around these shortcomings. The first way to “hack your brain,” as Boschi put it, is to adopt new perspectives. “What we need to do is become more exploratory in our thinking,” she said. Think about the world through another person’s eyes. Ask yourself what they want and what they are worried about.

The second hack is to involve other people in proposed changes. If you need them to do something, help them feel like they have a choice in the matter. Research has shown that people are susceptible to the “decoy option,” a choice whose purpose is to make another choice more likely, and to “anchoring,” in which the first choice provides the context by which other choices are judged. Anchoring is the reason why the most expensive items on a menu are listed first: the middle options feel like bargains when they follow the pricey ones. When you need people to do something, Boschi said, anchor the preferred choice next to the cost of not doing it.

The third hack is to build off ideas from other people. It’s much easier to improve on what others have done than to come up with something entirely new. First movers have a much higher rate of failure than improvers, Boschi said. She advised her audience to look for opportunities to learn from and improve on what others are doing, to be curious about others’ ideas, and to embrace teamwork: “When we try to do stuff on our own, we deny the brain the opportunity to work with other brains.”

The fourth and final hack is to activate the laws of persuasion. Given the brain’s preference for visual information, Boschi recommended using graphs, visuals, colors, and pictures to get a message across. If pictures aren’t available, storytelling can do just as well.

By the end of Boschi’s presentation, it was clear that her description of the brain’s problems and proclivities was itself a story—a true one, to be sure, but not the only one that can be told. Yes, our brains are imperfect. They are also adaptable and capable of growth if we care for them properly. Part of that care, Boschi advised, is to do something new every day: new activities make new connections in the brain. Earlier, she had talked about neuroplasticity, the ability of our nervous system to reorganize itself. It turns out that our lazy brains don't define us. “We’re born unfinished,” Boschi said. “We shape ourselves until the day we die.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.