Category: Human Nature

Being Smart is Not Enough

When hiring a team, we tend to favor the geniuses who hatch innovative ideas, but overlook the butterflies, the crucial ones who share and implement them. Here’s why it’s important to be both smart AND social.

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In business, it’s never enough to have a great idea. For any innovation to be successful, it has to be shared, promoted, and bought into by everyone in the organization. Yet often we focus on the importance of those great ideas and seem to forget about the work that is required to spread them around.

Whenever we are building a team, we tend to look for smarts. We are attracted to those with lots of letters after their names or fancy awards on their resumes. We assume that if we hire the smartest people we can find, they will come up with new, better ways of doing things that save us time and money.

Conversely, we often look down on predominantly social people. They seem to spend too much time gossiping and not enough time working. We assume they’ll be too busy engaging on social media or away from their desks too often to focus on their duties, and thus we avoid hiring them.

Although we aren’t going to tell you to swear off smarts altogether, we are here to suggest that maybe it’s time to reconsider the role that social people play in cultural growth and the diffusion of innovation.

In his book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Joseph Henrich explores the role of culture in human evolution. One point he makes is that it’s not enough for a species to be smart. What counts far more is having the cultural infrastructure to share, teach, and learn.

Consider two very large prehuman populations, the Geniuses and the Butterflies. Suppose the Geniuses will devise an invention once in 10 lifetimes. The Butterflies are much dumber, only devising the same invention once in 1000 lifetimes. So, this means that the Geniuses are 100 times smarter than the Butterflies. However, the Geniuses are not very social and have only 1 friend they can learn from. The Butterflies have 10 friends, making them 10 times more social.

Now, everyone in both populations tries to obtain an invention, both by figuring it out for themselves and by learning from friends. Suppose learning from friends is difficult: if a friend has it, a learner only learns it half the time. After everyone has done their own individual learning and tried to learn from their friends, do you think the innovation will be more common among the Geniuses or the Butterflies?

Well, among the Geniuses a bit fewer than 1 out of 5 individuals (18%) will end up with the invention. Half of those Geniuses will have figured it out all by themselves. Meanwhile, 99.9% of Butterflies will have the innovation, but only 0.1% will have figured it out by themselves.

Wow.

What if we take this thinking and apply to the workplace? Of course you want to have smart people. But you don’t want an organization full of Geniuses. They might come up with a lot, but without being able to learn from each other easily, many of their ideas won’t have any uptake in the organization. Instead, you’d want to pair Geniuses with Butterflies—socially attuned people who are primed to adopt the successful behaviors of those around them.

If you think you don’t need Butterflies because you can just put Genius innovations into policy and procedure, you’re missing the point. Sure, some brilliant ideas are concrete, finite, and visible. Those are the ones you can identify and implement across the organization from the top down. But some of the best ideas happen on the fly in isolated, one-off situations as responses to small changes in the environment. Perhaps there’s a minor meeting with a client, and the Genius figures out a new way of describing your product that really resonates. The Genius though, is not a teacher. It worked for them and they keep repeating the behavior, but it doesn’t occur to them to teach someone else. And they don’t pick up on other tactics to further refine their innovation.

But the Butterfly who went to the meeting with the Genius? They pick up on the successful new product description right away. They emulate it in all meetings from then on. They talk about it with their friends, most of whom are also Butterflies. Within two weeks, the new description has taken off because of the propensity for cultural learning embedded in the social Butterflies.

The lesson here is to hire both types of people. Know that it’s the Geniuses who innovate, but it’s the Butterflies who spread that innovation around. Both components are required for successfully implementing new, brilliant ideas.

Job Interviews Don’t Work

Better hiring leads to better work environments, less turnover, and more innovation and productivity. When you understand the limitations and pitfalls of the job interview, you improve your chances of hiring the best possible person for your needs.

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The job interview is a ritual just about every adult goes through at least once. They seem to be a ubiquitous part of most hiring processes. The funny thing about them, however, is that they take up time and resources without actually helping to select the best people to hire. Instead, they promote a homogenous workforce where everyone thinks the same.

If you have any doubt about how much you can get from an interview, think of what’s involved for the person being interviewed. We’ve all been there. The night before, you dig out your smartest outfit, iron it, and hope your hair lies flat for once. You frantically research the company, reading every last news article based on a formulaic press release, every blog post by the CEO, and every review by a disgruntled former employee.

After a sleepless night, you trek to their office, make awkward small talk, then answer a set of predictable questions. What’s your biggest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years? Why do you want this job? Why are you leaving your current job? You reel off the answers you prepared the night before, highlighting the best of the best. All the while, you’re reminding yourself to sit up straight, don’t bite your nails, and keep smiling.

It’s not much better on the employer’s side of the table. When you have a role to fill, you select a list of promising candidates and invite them for an interview. Then you pull together a set of standard questions to riff off, doing a little improvising as you hear their responses. At the end of it all, you make some kind of gut judgment about the person who felt right—likely the one you connected with the most in the short time you were together.

Is it any surprise that job interviews don’t work when the whole process is based on subjective feelings? They are in no way the most effective means of deciding who to hire because they maximize the role of bias and minimize the role of evaluating competency.

What is a job interview?

“In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won’t get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.”

— Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

When we say “job interviews” throughout this post, we’re talking about the type of interview that has become standard in many industries and even in universities: free-form interviews in which candidates sit in a room with one or more people from a prospective employer (often people they might end up working with) and answer unstructured questions. Such interviews tend to focus on how a candidate behaves generally, emphasizing factors like whether they arrive on time or if they researched the company in advance. While questions may ostensibly be about predicting job performance, they tend to better select for traits like charisma rather than actual competence.

Unstructured interviews can make sense for certain roles. The ability to give a good first impression and be charming matters for a salesperson. But not all roles need charm, and just because you don’t want to hang out with someone after an interview doesn’t mean they won’t be an amazing software engineer. In a small startup with a handful of employees, someone being “one of the gang” might matter because close-knit friendships are a strong motivator when work is hard and pay is bad. But that group mentality may be less important in a larger company in need of diversity.

Considering the importance of hiring and how much harm getting it wrong can cause, it makes sense for companies to study and understand the most effective interview methods. Let’s take a look at why job interviews don’t work and what we can do instead.

Why job interviews are ineffective

Discrimination and bias

Information like someone’s age, gender, race, appearance, or social class shouldn’t dictate if they get a job or not—their competence should. But that’s unfortunately not always the case. Interviewers can end up picking the people they like the most, which often means those who are most similar to them. This ultimately means a narrower range of competencies is available to the organization.

Psychologist Ron Friedman explains in The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace some of the unconscious biases that can impact hiring. We tend to rate attractive people as more competent, intelligent, and qualified. We consider tall people to be better leaders, particularly when evaluating men. We view people with deep voices as more trustworthy than those with higher voices.

Implicit bias is pernicious because it’s challenging to spot the ways it influences interviews. Once an interviewer judges someone, they may ask questions that nudge the interviewee towards fitting that perception. For instance, if they perceive someone to be less intelligent, they may ask basic questions that don’t allow the candidate to display their expertise. Having confirmed their bias, the interviewer has no reason to question it or even notice it in the future.

Hiring often comes down to how much an interviewer likes a candidate as a person. This means that we can be manipulated by manufactured charm. If someone’s charisma is faked for an interview, an organization can be left dealing with the fallout for ages.

The map is not the territory

The representation of something is not the thing itself. A job interview is meant to be a quick snapshot to tell a company how a candidate would be at a job. However, it’s not a representative situation in terms of replicating how the person will perform in the actual work environment.

For instance, people can lie during job interviews. Indeed, the situation practically encourages it. While most people feel uncomfortable telling outright lies (and know they would face serious consequences later on for a serious fabrication), bending the truth is common. Ron Friedman writes, “Research suggests that outright lying generates too much psychological discomfort for people to do it very often. More common during interviews are more nuanced forms of deception which include embellishment (in which we take credit for things we haven’t done), tailoring (in which we adapt our answers to fit the job requirements), and constructing (in which we piece together elements from different experiences to provide better answers.)” An interviewer can’t know if someone is deceiving them in any of these ways. So they can’t know if they’re hearing the truth.

One reason why we think job interviews are representative is the fundamental attribution error. This is a logical fallacy that leads us to believe that the way people behave in one area carries over to how they will behave in other situations. We view people’s behaviors as the visible outcome of innate characteristics, and we undervalue the impact of circumstances.

Some employers report using one single detail they consider representative to make hiring decisions, such as whether a candidate sends a thank-you note after the interview or if their LinkedIn picture is a selfie. Sending a thank-you note shows manners and conscientiousness. Having a selfie on LinkedIn shows unprofessionalism. But is that really true? Can one thing carry across to every area of job performance? It’s worth debating.

Gut feelings aren’t accurate

We all like to think we can trust our intuition. The problem is that intuitive judgments tend to only work in areas where feedback is fast and cause and effect clear. Job interviews don’t fall into that category. Feedback is slow. The link between a hiring decision and a company’s success is unclear.

Overwhelmed by candidates and the pressure of choosing, interviewers may resort to making snap judgments based on limited information. And interviews introduce a lot of noise, which can dilute relevant information while leading to overconfidence. In a study entitled Belief in the Unstructured Interview: The Persistence of an Illusion, participants predicted the future GPA of a set of students. They either received biographical information about the students or both biographical information and an interview. In some of the cases, the interview responses were entirely random, meaning they shouldn’t have conveyed any genuine useful information.

Before the participants made their predictions, the researchers informed them that the strongest predictor of a student’s future GPA is their past GPA. Seeing as all participants had access to past GPA information, they should have factored it heavily into their predictions.

In the end, participants who were able to interview the students made worse predictions than those who only had access to biographical information. Why? Because the interviews introduced too much noise. They distracted participants with irrelevant information, making them forget the most significant predictive factor: past GPA. Of course, we do not have clear metrics like GPA for jobs. But this study indicates that interviews do not automatically lead to better judgments about a person.

We tend to think human gut judgments are superior, even when evidence doesn’t support this. We are quick to discard information that should shape our judgments in favor of less robust intuitions that we latch onto because they feel good. The less challenging information is to process, the better it feels. And we tend to associate good feelings with ‘rightness’.

Experience ≠ expertise in interviewing

In 1979, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston suddenly had to increase its incoming class size by 50 students due to a legal change requiring larger classes. Without time to interview again, they selected from the pool of candidates the school chose to interview, then rejected as unsuitable for admission. Seeing as they got through to the interview stage, they had to be among the best candidates. They just weren’t previously considered good enough to admit.

When researchers later studied the result of this unusual situation, they found that the students whom the school first rejected performed no better or worse academically than the ones they first accepted. In short, interviewing students did nothing to help select for the highest performers.

Studying the efficacy of interviews is complicated and hard to manage from an ethical standpoint. We can’t exactly give different people the same real-world job in the same conditions. We can take clues from fortuitous occurrences, like the University of Texas Medical School change in class size and the subsequent lessons learned. Without the legal change, the interviewers would never have known that the students they rejected were of equal competence to the ones they accepted. This is why building up experience in this arena is difficult. Even if someone has a lot of experience conducting interviews, it’s not straightforward to translate that into expertise. Expertise is about have a predictive model of something, not just knowing a lot about it.

Furthermore, the feedback from hiring decisions tends to be slow. An interviewer cannot know what would happen if they hired an alternate candidate. If a new hire doesn’t work out, that tends to fall on them, not the person who chose them. There are so many factors involved that it’s not terribly conducive to learning from experience.

Making interviews more effective

It’s easy to see why job interviews are so common. People want to work with people they like, so interviews allow them to scope out possible future coworkers. Candidates expect interviews, as well—wouldn’t you feel a bit peeved if a company offered you a job without the requisite “casual chat” beforehand? Going through a grueling interview can make candidates more invested in the position and likely to accept an offer. And it can be hard to imagine viable alternatives to interviews.

But it is possible to make job interviews more effective or make them the final step in the hiring process after using other techniques to gauge a potential hire’s abilities. Doing what works should take priority over what looks right or what has always been done.

Structured interviews

While unstructured interviews don’t work, structured ones can be excellent. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how he redefined the Israel Defense Force’s interviewing process as a young psychology graduate. At the time, recruiting a new soldier involved a series of psychometric tests followed by an interview to assess their personality. Interviewers then based their decision on their intuitive sense of a candidate’s fitness for a particular role. It was very similar to the method of hiring most companies use today—and it proved to be useless.

Kahneman introduced a new interviewing style in which candidates answered a predefined series of questions that were intended to measure relevant personality traits for the role (for example, responsibility and sociability). He then asked interviewers to give candidates a score for how well they seemed to exhibit each trait based on their responses. Kahneman explained that “by focusing on standardized, factual questions I hoped to combat the halo effect, where favorable first impressions influence later judgments.” He tasked interviewers only with providing these numbers, not with making a final decision.

Although interviewers at first disliked Kahneman’s system, structured interviews proved far more effective and soon became the standard for the IDF. In general, they are often the most useful way to hire. The key is to decide in advance on a list of questions, specifically designed to test job-specific skills, then ask them to all the candidates. In a structured interview, everyone gets the same questions with the same wording, and the interviewer doesn’t improvise.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in The Talent Delusion:

There are at least 15 different meta-analytic syntheses on the validity of job interviews published in academic research journals. These studies show that structured interviews are very useful to predict future job performance. . . . In comparison, unstructured interviews, which do not have a set of predefined rules for scoring or classifying answers and observations in a reliable and standardized manner, are considerably less accurate.

Why does it help if everyone hears the same questions? Because, as we learned previously, interviewers can make unconscious judgments about candidates, then ask questions intended to confirm their assumptions. Structured interviews help measure competency, not irrelevant factors. Ron Friedman explains this further:

It’s also worth having interviewers develop questions ahead of time so that: 1) each candidate receives the same questions, and 2) they are worded the same way. The more you do to standardize your interviews, providing the same experience to every candidate, the less influence you wield on their performance.

What, then, is an employer to do with the answers? Friedman says you must then create clear criteria for evaluating them.

Another step to help minimize your interviewing blind spots: include multiple interviewers and give them each specific criteria upon which to evaluate the candidate. Without a predefined framework for evaluating applicants—which may include relevant experience, communication skills, attention to detail—it’s hard for interviewers to know where to focus. And when this happens, fuzzy interpersonal factors hold greater weight, biasing assessments. Far better to channel interviewers’ attention in specific ways, so that the feedback they provide is precise.

Blind auditions

One way to make job interviews more effective is to find ways to “blind” the process—to disguise key information that may lead to biased judgments. Blinded interviews focus on skills alone, not who a candidate is as a person. Orchestras offer a remarkable case study in the benefits of blinding.

In the 1970s, orchestras had a gender bias problem. A mere 5% of their members were women, on average. Orchestras knew they were missing out on potential talent, but they found the audition process seemed to favor men over women. Those who were carrying out auditions couldn’t sidestep their unconscious tendency to favor men.

Instead of throwing up their hands in despair and letting this inequality stand, orchestras began carrying out blind auditions. During these, candidates would play their instruments behind a screen while a panel listened and assessed their performance. They received no identifiable information about candidates. The idea was that orchestras would be able to hire without room for bias. It took a bit of tweaking to make it work – at first, the interviewers were able to discern gender based on the sound of a candidate’s shoes. After that, they requested that people interview without their shoes.

The results? By 1997, up to 25% of orchestra members were women. Today, the figure is closer to 30%.

Although this is sometimes difficult to replicate for other types of work, blind auditions can provide an inspiration to other industries that could benefit from finding ways to make interviews more about a person’s abilities than their identity.

Competency-related evaluations

What’s the best way to test if someone can do a particular job well? Get them to carry out tasks that are part of the job. See if they can do what they say they can do. It’s much harder for someone to lie and mislead an interviewer during actual work than during an interview. Using competency tests for a blinded interview process is also possible—interviewers could look at depersonalized test results to make unbiased judgments.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential, “The science of personnel selection is over a hundred years old yet decision-makers still tend to play it by ear or believe in tools that have little academic rigor. . . . An important reason why talent isn’t measured more scientifically is the belief that rigorous tests are difficult and time-consuming to administer, and that subjective evaluations seem to do the job ‘just fine.’”

Competency tests are already quite common in many fields. But interviewers tend not to accord them sufficient importance. They come after an interview, or they’re considered secondary to it. A bad interview can override a good competency test. At best, interviewers accord them equal importance to interviews. Yet they should consider them far more important.

Ron Friedman writes, “Extraneous data such as a candidate’s appearance or charisma lose their influence when you can see the way an applicant actually performs. It’s also a better predictor of their future contributions because unlike traditional in-person interviews, it evaluates job-relevant criteria. Including an assignment can help you better identify the true winners in your applicant pool while simultaneously making them more invested in the position.”

Conclusion

If a company relies on traditional job interviews as its sole or main means of choosing employees, it simply won’t get the best people. And getting hiring right is paramount to the success of any organization. A driven team of people passionate about what they do can trump one with better funding and resources. The key to finding those people is using hiring techniques that truly work.

Muscular Bonding: How Dance Made Us Human

Do we dance simply for recreation? Or is there a primal urge that compels us to do it? Historian William McNeill claims it saved our species by creating community togetherness and transforming “me” into “we.”

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“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”  

— Voltaire

Why do we dance? To most, it might seem like a trivial topic. But if you contemplate the sheer pervasiveness of dance across all of human society, it becomes apparent that it is anything but.

It’s more useful to learn foundational principles that won’t go out of date than it is to go all in on the latest fad. When it comes to understanding people, we can learn a lot by studying human universals that exist across cultures and time. These universals give us insight into how to create connections in a way that fosters social cohesion and cooperation.

Once such universal is dance. At every point throughout history, all over the world, people from every walk of life have come together to dance; to move in unison alongside music, singing, and other rhythmic input, like drumming or stomping. The specifics and the names attached vary. But something akin to dance is an ever-present cultural feature throughout human history.

Soldiers perform military drills and march in time. People in rural communities carried out community dances at regular events, like harvests. Hunters in tribal communities dance before they go off to catch food and have likely done so for thousands of years. We dance during initiation rites, like coming-of-age ceremonies. We dance before going to war. We dance at weddings and religious festivals. Countercultural movements, like hippies in the United States, dance. Fanatical leaders force their followers to perform set movements together. Calisthenics and group exercise are popular worldwide, especially in parts of Asia.

The more you look for it, the more examples of dance-like activities appear everywhere. From a biological perspective, we know species-wide costly activities that are costly in terms of time, energy and other resources must have a worthwhile payoff. Thus, the energy expended in dance must aid our survival. In his 1995 book, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, historian William H. McNeill made a bold claim: he argued that we owe our success as a species to collective synchronized movements. In other words, we’re still here because we dance.

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In the 1940s, the U.S. Army drafted William H. McNeill. With limited supplies, there was little to occupy him and his peers during training. So, whenever things got boring, they performed marching drills. For hours, they walked in circles under the hot Texas sun. On paper, it was dull and pointless. What were they even achieving? When McNeill reflected, it seemed strange that drills should be an integral part of training. It also seemed strange that he’d quite enjoyed it, as had most of his peers. McNeil writes:

Marching aimlessly about on the drill field, swaggering in conformity with prescribed military postures, conscious only of keeping in step so as to make the next move correctly and in time somehow felt good. Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved . . . marching became an end in itself.

Upon further thought and study, McNeill came to identify the indescribable feeling he experienced during army drills as something “far older than language and critically important in human history, because the emotion it arouses constitutes an indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time.”

What exactly did he experience? At the time, there was no term for it. But McNeill coined one: “muscular bonding.” This refers to a sense of euphoric connection that is sparked by performing rhythmic movements in unison to music or chanting. Few people are immune to the influence of muscular bonding. It played a role in the formation and maintenance of many of our key institutions, such as religion, the military, and politics. We can all relate to the endorphin hit that comes from strenuous dancing, as with other forms of exercise. If you’ve ever danced with a group of people, you may have also noticed a remarkable sense of connection and unity with them. This is the effect of muscular bonding.

Seeing as there has been little study into the phenomenon, McNeill puts forward a theory which is, by his own admission, unprovable. It nonetheless offers one perspective on muscular bonding. He argues that it works because “rhythmic input from muscles and voice, after gradually suffusing through the entire nervous system, may provoke echoes of the fetal condition when a major and perhaps principal external stimulus to the developing brain was the mother’s heartbeat.” In other words, through dancing and synchronized movement, we experience something akin to what we did at the earliest point of existence. While most likely impossible to prove or disprove, it’s an interesting proposition.

Since the publication of Keeping Together in Time, new research has lent greater support to McNeill’s theories about the effects of muscular bonding, although studies are still limited.

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How exactly has muscular bonding aided us in more recent times? To explore the concept, let’s look at the type McNeill was closest acquainted with: the military drill. It enables collective organization through emotional connections facilitated by synchronous movement.

Drills have obvious, tangible benefits. They encourage obedience and compliance with orders, which are valuable attributes in the fog of war. They can fit in with maneuvers and similar group efforts on the battlefield. In ancient times, it helped units stay together on the field and work together cooperatively when communication was difficult, and all fighting took place on the ground.

But drills are also a powerful form of muscular bonding. According to McNeill’s theory, they assist in creating strong connections between soldiers, possibly because the physical movements promote the experience of being a small part of a large, cohesive unit.

While we cannot establish if it is causation or correlation, it is notable that many of the most successful armies throughout history emphasized drills. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans both incorporated drills into their military training. And around the sixteenth century, drills became the standard in European armies. McNeill explains how this helped soldiers develop intense ties to each other and their cause:

The emotional resonance of daily and prolonged close order drill created such a lively esprit de corps among the poverty-stricken peasant recruits and urban outcasts who came to constitute the rank and file of European armies that other social ties faded into insignificance beside them.

These armies were cohesive, despite the different backgrounds of members. What made this possible was the allegiance soldiers had to each other. Loyalty to the army replaced former loyalties, such as prior alignments with the church or their families. Many soldiers report experiencing the sense that they fought for their peers, not for their leaders or their country or ideology. And it was moving together that helped break down barriers and allowed the group to reconstruct itself as a single unit with a shared goal.

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“You can’t dance and be sad. You can listen to music and cry, you can read and cry, you can draw and cry but you can’t dance and cry. The body wont let you.”

Esther Perel

Today, a growing percentage of people find themselves alienated from any particular community, without strong bonds to any discernible group. Loneliness is on the rise. More people live alone, remain single or childless, move to new geographical locations on a regular basis, and otherwise fail to develop close ties. This is a shift that is unprecedented in human history.

What that means is that there is tremendous value in considering how we can bring connection back into our lives; we must figure out how to help alleviate the dangerous effects of isolation and alienation from each other. There is an incredible precedent in history for using dance to create a sense of community and intimacy. Physical movement helps us forge connections that can override our differences. For instance, countercultural movements of those people rejected by mainstream society have often danced to create their own distinct community, as was the case during the hippy movement in 1960s America.

Giving thought to what it takes to unify people is even more important now as we face problems that affect humanity as a whole and require wide-scale collaboration to resolve. Again and again, history has shown us that keeping together in time forms groups that have a power greater than the sum of their parts. The emergent properties of moving together can be achieved even if we are not physically in the same space. As long as we know we are moving in a way that is being done by others, the bonding effects happen.

McNeill writes: “It is and always has been a powerful force at work among humankind whether for good or ill. . . . Our future, like our past, depends on how we utilize these modes of coordinating common effort for agreed purposes.”

Muscular bonding is not a panacea. It cannot instantly heal deep rifts in society, nor can it save individuals from the effects of social isolation. But it will pay off for us to look at history and see the tools we have at our disposal for bringing people together. Dance is one such tool. Whether you’re able to attend a concert or club, or simply have a dance party in your living room with your kids or over video chat with loved ones you can’t be near, when we move together we have an experience that deepens our connection to one another and gives us the openings for unity and cooperation.

Is Vulnerability a Choice?

Being vulnerable is not a choice. It’s a reality of living. What we do with that vulnerability can either open doors to deeper connection, or throw up walls that stifle growth and fulfillment.

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Vulnerability: the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.

Given the potential consequences, why would anyone ever choose to be vulnerable? Who wants to risk an emotional or physical attack?

At the basic biological level, it seems to make very little sense to be vulnerable. When we are, we can more easily get hurt. We can get physically maimed or killed by a predator. Emotional attacks can make us afraid of rejection. Since the vast majority of us don’t want to die and instead pass on our genes, avoiding vulnerability seems to make perfect sense. Be tough in order to increase your chances of a long life. Don’t give anyone the opportunity to hurt you.

However, humans usually want to do more than just survive. We focus on the quality of our lives as well. Yes, we want our lives to be long. But we also want them to be good.

Part of a good life is having good relationships. We are social creatures and live longer, healthier lives when we have people around us that we trust and love. We want to be around people who can make us laugh and help us through life’s inevitable hard times. Our lives are less stressful when we have people with whom we can relax and be authentic. Without genuine vulnerability, it’s impossible to build the types of relationships that can provide comfort and increase resilience. The risks of vulnerability may be high, but the rewards of positive, strong relationships are even higher.

The reality is, we are vulnerable in some way at all times. We are vulnerable to viruses and accidents, misunderstandings and the pain caused by our fears and anxieties. Vulnerability is a part of life for all of us. Having close relationships where we can be vulnerable is actually a way to reduce our overall weakness. As Dr. Sue Johnson said on The Knowledge Project, “We need connection with others like we need oxygen. We’re way too vulnerable without it.”

The only choice we really have when it comes to vulnerability is the choice to acknowledge it or not. There is no doubt it can be hard to be vulnerable, especially if we didn’t have positive experiences with it as children. But social connections sustain us, and meaningful social connections are hard to build and maintain without mutual vulnerability.

Some people constantly pretend they have no vulnerabilities. Those people are frustrating to be around. Why? Because everyone is vulnerable in some way, so we know that those who say they aren’t are lying. No one likes to spend time around people who can’t be honest. Furthermore, people who refuse to acknowledge their vulnerabilities (at least to themselves) don’t make great friends or partners because we can’t learn much from them to help us process our own vulnerabilities. Even if it’s hard to pinpoint, we sense something is missing in our interactions with them. They don’t trust us enough to risk hurt.

Someone who goes on about how everything in their life is okay can’t offer much insight into how to deal with things that are most definitely not okay. And someone who thinks they are infallible tends to blame others when things don’t work out. They can’t admit to being wrong, which is another drawback to having them as a friend.

In her TED talk on the subject, author Brené Brown says, “The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are.” We develop these lists of all the things we won’t do and all the ways in which we won’t engage with people in order to protect ourselves. Our vulnerabilities get registered as something that could be exploited to hurt us. So we put up big buffers of denial and anger because it seems that if we admit we are afraid of something, our whole lives are going to come crashing down as people rush in to take advantage of our weaknesses. Except that isn’t true.

When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable (most often to those we are closest to, but also occasionally to others when the situation would benefit from us putting ourselves out there), we can create amazing reciprocal interactions that empower all parties.

When we are able to say the following: “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” “I’m sorry for causing you pain,” “I’m scared,” “I cried last night,” or “I’m struggling with this,” we actually free up energy because we no longer have to put effort into maintaining our buffers and our illusions. When we open up and admit to our vulnerabilities, we give people the opportunity to safely admit to theirs as well. We might hear back: “I make mistakes all the time,” “I’m scared as well,” “I cry too,” or “I also struggle with that.” And in that shared space, we can let go of some of the fear and make room for a deeper connection. When we are vulnerable with someone who doesn’t judge us for it, we can grow stronger. We can become less affected by situations that normally cause us stress.

Most importantly, we strengthen our connection with the people we are sharing with.

Although someone may react by ridiculing you when you admit to a fear, a far more common reaction is respect for your bravery and a sigh of relief over a shared circumstance. Someone doesn’t have to share your particular fear to feel a connection. We’re all afraid of something, and by being honest about your fears, you have signaled that others can share their fears with you in return.

We have written before about the social media prism and how it distorts reality, leading most of us to believe we are the only ones whose lives suck sometimes. The endless posts about career successes and fabulous vacations are really a large-scale representation of the fear of vulnerability. Complex, varied lives become little more than a glittering highlight reel. We never get to see the outtakes.

But coming clean about the downs increases the value of sharing the ups. At the very least, it’s more relatable. We learn more through failure than we do through success. And since we can’t try everything, learning from others’ failures is exceptionally valuable. To just hear the story of the person who made it big and sold their company is not useful. To hear about their multiple failures, their trials, their stops and starts and all the times they doubted themselves—now that’s an insight worth sharing.

Being vulnerable starts with being honest with yourself. How can you get better if you can’t admit that you could be better? How are you going to be a better partner or friend if you can’t admit that sometimes you aren’t a great one? How will you learn from your mistakes if you don’t acknowledge making any?

When we share that vulnerability and find people we can be open with, we form valuable connections. After all, to really trust someone, we need to know if they are going to be there when we are vulnerable. As Dr. Sue Johnson explained on The Knowledge Project, “When you can be vulnerable for a moment, and that person tunes in and cares about your vulnerability, that’s the person to go with.” In this way, vulnerability can also serve as a litmus test for your close relationships. If you can’t be vulnerable with someone, why bother? What can you really get from a relationship in which you can never relax and be yourself?

When we have people with whom we can be vulnerable, we actually reduce our exposure to potential harm and improve the quality of our life. By putting ourselves out there and risking hurt, we often find that we create more meaningful interactions with the people in our lives. When we have people we can trust with our deepest vulnerabilities, we increase our ability to be resilient in the face of chance and change.

The Evolutionary Benefit of Friendship

Healthy friendships offer far more than a reliable person to share a beer with. Research shows they can make us healthier, wealthier, happier and overall more successful. Here’s how.

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Is friendship important for our survival?

At first glance, the answer isn’t obvious. Other relationships get more play: romantic partners, parents and kids, families, professional networks. It’s easy to find books on improving your marriage or your relationship with your coworkers. The ability to create and maintain friendships, though, seems a bit taken for granted. Often it appears that either we all do it with relative ease, or we just don’t care. We have a feeling that neither of these is true.

Friendships require sustained effort that can often be just as confusing to navigate as a marriage. Over time they will go through ups and downs, face challenges from time pressures or geographical constraints, and have to resolve misunderstandings. And these are the good ones. We also have to try out many friends to find the ones who stick, and weed out the ones who turn out to be bad for us. And unlike our ancestors, we have to put a lot of effort into considering what is a friend, given the seemingly infinite number of connections we can make on social media.

Our ability to form relationships with people who aren’t related to us, however, is a critical skill that helped turn us into humans. It’s a fundamental part of who we are.

Biologically, our ability to develop and maintain social connections is directly related to the size of our brain. The research of Robin Dunbar (of Dunbar’s Number, one of our mental models), has demonstrated that because we are limited by our brain capacity, the fitness advantage of larger social groups was a driver in the evolution of parts of the brain. Other scientists have corroborated this idea that our larger brains are primarily a social versus ecological adaptation. It wasn’t because we happened to have a bigger brain for say, hunting, that we pursued complex social relationships, but rather that these relationships were critical for the evolutionary development of neocortical capacity. Friends made us smarter and gave us more potential.

Looking at ourselves through a biological lens also suggests that one of the obvious advantages to friendships is the diversity they create. If you are being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, it would be nice to be able to rely on more than one individual for help. And, perhaps more importantly, your chances of thwarting the tiger are increased if you are part of a tribe that includes people with different skill sets. Someone who understands tiger behavior, someone who can kill it, and someone who can treat any resulting wounds could be helpful. Furthermore, being part of this diverse group means that when the environment changes, someone can likely adapt and lead the way for everyone else.

In a modern context, having diversity in our relationships has multiple applications. For one, it doesn’t make much sense to put all your emotional eggs in one basket. Committed romantic partners are wonderful, but if they die the last thing you want to be is alone. Your survival is quite literally dependent on having close friends who can support you through the hard times. And having friends with different specialties, interests, strengths and weaknesses can help us test out ideas and develop our character by giving us a safe space to experiment.

What about the value of friends who are smarter or better at the things we aspire to do? As in dealing with the tiger, friends with different talents can help us realize our own potential.

In her book The Friendship Cure, Kate Leaver provides a convincing argument for the value of friends. They are worth it for the benefit to cardiovascular health alone! Interestingly, she writes that “social integration and close relationships are the most important predictors of mortality, well above things like alcohol consumption, exercise and diet.” With a network of reliable friends, we live longer and in better health. And good friends make us feel good. There is a reciprocity that Leaver explores in all sorts of manifestations, demonstrating just how amazing friendships can be for the quality of our lives.

The value of friendship has been evident for a long time. Aristotle devoted a good part of the Nicomachean Ethics to contemplating friendship, but took it as self-evident that friends were important. He wrote, “for no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Defining what makes a good friend, fine, he could spend some time on that, but there was no doubt that friendship itself was “a necessary component of happiness.”

To really see the value of friends, think of your social ecosystem, the web of interpersonal connections that you engage with as you live your life. Leaver asks, “what do we get from friendship that we don’t get from romantic relationships, family or work?” When you answer this question, you’ll see where your friends fit.

The answers are going to be different for everyone. It could be that friends provide you with a place to go to admit your fears and frustrations without being judged, or a history of yourself that you tap into to keep you grounded, or someone to go to axe throwing with on Thursday nights. The point is, we can get profound positives from friends that we cannot get in our other relationships.

We become who we are in great part because of the friends we have. — Alexander Nehamas

Aristotle also said that “though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not.” Yes, they do take work. But the good news is that if you put some effort into learning what it means to be a good friend, the rest isn’t going to feel like work at all. Why? Alexander Nehamas writes in On Friendship that friendship “provides companionship and a safety net when we are in various kinds of trouble; it offers sympathy for our misfortunes, discretion for our secrets, encouragement for our efforts.”

So why does friendship seem to get relegated to the bottom of our relationship endeavors? Leaver argues that “we’ve built a culture of individuality without knowing how to be alone successfully or how to truly combat loneliness.” If friendship becomes another check box on your daily to-do list, you’re probably not going to feel like you actually have friends. That kind of social interaction is going to feel more stressful than beneficial, and consequently you will likely start to avoid it.

A further consideration is that friendship seems to go by the wayside as we pursue the things we believe we need to consider ourselves successful. Material goods, titles, fame, a large number of social media followers. Whatever.

But Leaver’s point is that friends are actually a key component of success. Without them we become isolated and vulnerable to loneliness, pain, and poor health. With them we live longer, with more laughter and less fear, and a higher quality of life. Doesn’t that sound like something worth some effort?

Edward Deci: On the Relationship Between Need Fulfillment and Motivation

Edward Deci’s work on motivation is so often quoted (Dan Pink’s Drive comes to mind) that we decided to go back to the primary text by Deci himself, a book called Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.

The author is probably best known for his thoughts on the role of autonomy in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Deci co-developed the Self-Determination Theory with Richard Ryan.

Intrinsic Motivation

Deci and Ryan believed that people naturally develop through a process of engagement and interaction with the world and that said interaction tends to be driven by a “movement toward greater consistency and harmony within.”

The urge to develop an integrated sense of self is thus a central feature of who we are as individuals, and the activity — both physical and mental — that is necessary for this natural developmental trajectory is intrinsically motivated.

This intrinsic motivation is both driven by three innate psychological needs:

  1. The need for autonomy
  2. The need to feel competent
  3. The need for relatedness

In Deci’s view, when the needs are being fulfilled, we will have plenty of motivation. When there are obstacles between us and these needs, it will be demotivating.

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In our day to day lives, we will interact with the environment and we will integrate what we feel and learn from these interactions into our sense of self. Think of this like a continuous feedback loop. This environment is littered with societal influences, which can be motivating or demotivating, depending on how they interact with our innate needs and sense of self.

Deci uses an example of a young “artistic athlete.” This individual, who has talent both in an athletic arena and with artistic expression, will ultimately be tugged at times towards being an artist or athlete. To feel authentic to themselves, they will need to find a way to express themselves in both of these realms. If they don’t then they won’t be able to feel that sense of harmony; the self they are reflecting to the world won’t be consistent with the self they feel within.

Ideally, both aspects of this individual need to be nurtured, which Deci calls “autonomy support” — supporting the development of a whole, integrated person.

To characterize our perspective more formally, we view human behavior and experience in terms of the dialectic between the person and the environment – the interaction (and potential opposition) between the active organism striving for unity and autonomy and the social context that can be either nurturing of or antagonistic toward the person’s organismic tendencies. Synthesis occurs when there is enough support in the social context so that the natural, proactive tendencies are able to flourish. But in the absence of adequate supports, not only will intrinsic motivation be undermined, but so too will the development of a more integrated or coherent sense of self.

Deci and Ryan discovered that there are specific social contexts that can undermine this integration.

First, those social contexts that are excessively inconsistent and chaotic. These situations make it next to impossible for people to know what is expected of them: They can’t understand how to behave as there is no consistent feedback, which tends to leave people with little to no motivation (they can’t tell if they are being effective and will feel less a part of the group/situation – no competence, no relatedness).

Second, those social contexts which are extremely controlling. These environments pressure people into certain types of behavior and removes autonomy. The people who comply with the demands tend to become almost robotic at times. Whether the individual is complying with or actively defying the controls, they are not acting autonomously.

Autonomy is the key; without it, Deci believes people will lose their motivation and worse, it will hinder their development.

To develop in a natural and healthy way people need to perceive that they are in a “psychological state of feeling free.” People tend to know when they are being controlled, even if they can’t name it, they feel it. We can’t even trick ourselves, sometimes we think we truly want something but we are actually doing it out of a sense of obligation or fear.

Some people believe that our need for autonomy and our need for others is inherently contradictory. Not so, says Deci:

People have often portrayed the needs for autonomy and relatedness as being implicitly contradictory. You have to give up your autonomy, they say, to be related to others. But that is simply a misportrayal of the human being. Part of the confusion stems from equating autonomy and independence, which are in fact very different concepts.

Independence means to do for yourself, to not rely on others for personal nourishment and emotional support. Autonomy, in contrast, means to act freely, with a sense of volition and choice.

Internalizing & Autonomy

So how do we nurture those around us to help them become the best, authentic version of themselves? Deci and Ryan talk about this in terms of helping people to internalize values/regulations.

They believe there are two distinct types of internalization: Introjection and Integration. Introjection is akin to swallowing a rule whole without thought, whereas integration is more like chewing and digesting a rule. This the optimal form of internalization.

The behavioral output of introjection—swallowing a rule whole—are things like rigid compliance, halfhearted adherence and sometimes even defiance.

Introjected values and regulations can thus result in a variety of outcomes, but none of these is optimal. Clearly the half-heartedness and the rebellion are good for neither party. And while the rigid compliance may please the socializing agents who prompted it, there are serious costs to be borne by the people who comply.

This introjection manifests mostly in a lack of vitality and enthusiasm. It’s hard to be motivated when you are focused on pleasing others instead of being authentic to yourself.

So how can we focus on helping people integrate the regulations and values that will help them to develop to their full potential?

If you put a rooted avocado pit in a pot of earth it will probably grow into a tree, because it is in the nature of avocados to do that. It happens naturally. But not all pits become trees; some shrivel and decompose. They fail to thrive because the climate is inadequate, or the necessary nutrients are lacking. They need sun; they need water; and they need the right temperatures. Those elements do not make trees grow, but they are the nutriments that the developing avocados need, that are necessary in order for the avocados to do what they do naturally.

The metaphor is simple but poignant. Too often we ask the avocado pit to grow into an apple tree. You can try to nudge that avocado into becoming something else but it will never happen, and you will both be miserable.

It all comes down to autonomy support, according to Deci:

It is particularly interesting that autonomy support, which was a crucial contextual nutriment for individuals’ maintaining intrinsic motivation and as a result being more creative, processing information more deeply, and enjoying their activities more, also turns out to be essential for promoting internalization and integration of the motivation for uninteresting, though important, activities.

At one level of analysis, autonomy support means to relate to others – our children, students, and employees – as human beings, as active agents who are worthy of support, rather than as objects to be manipulated for our own gratification. That means taking their perspective and seeing the world from their point of view as we relate to them. Of course, autonomy support may require more work, but then, as socializing agents, that is our responsibility. For us to expect responsibility from others, we must accept our own responsibility as the agents of their socialization.

Autonomy support is not the same as being overly permissive. Having no limits or regulations will create inconsistent and chaotic environments that are no better to generating feelings of autonomy and full development.

Permissiveness is easy, but autonomy support is hard work. It requires being clear, being consistent, setting limits in an understanding, empathic way.

People will continue to make mistakes; that’s human nature (and it’s often a byproduct of trying hard things). Reacting with either heavy-handedness or permissive indifference does not help. Setting the environment for growth and trying to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view is the best course of action.

We all have the need for autonomy, to feel competent, and to relate to others. If you want to learn more about motivation in yourself and others pick up Why We Do What We Do, it’s well worth the read. The other influential book on motivation in recent years is Daniel Pink’s Drive.