Leverage the Science of Resilience

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

With the world in flux, we naturally feel “at sea” and “out of our comfort zone”. This article looks at how the cognitive brain is intuitively geared to handle (or not) change and uncertainty. It offers 7 different neuro-based suggestions on how we can mentally and socially prepare for VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity): 1. Know when you’re on autopilot Your brain resists change as a rule quite simply as it takes a lot of mental energy to process. Although we can adopt new behaviours quickly, taking just 90 days to create the neural pathway, we also cling to habits beyond their usefulness. This is automatic and the brains attempt to remain in control. Pre-wired to operate as an “anticipation machine”, uncertainty upsets forecasting, one of the brains preferred activities. If the brain was a plane, it is on autopilot and engaged in reflexive mode or “thinking fast” (Kahneman). Being frugal, the brain saves its effort for “thinking slow” or higher order thinking e.g. during decision-making and problem-solving. The reflexive System 1 for “thinking fast” is simply not up to tricky jobs like landing a plane. Yet during times of uncertainty, and when we need it most, the brain needs a deliberate switch-over from Autopilot to “Manual” i.e. System 2. Often associated with uncertainty are the different but related phenomena of irregularity and unpredictability. Even experts will rely on intuition rather than processing irregular events, preferring to file these as “once-off”. However, these can have dire outcomes. Remember a single starling can bring a jet plane to the ground if it gets caught in an engine. In short, our brain is complex but lazy avoiding activity that is psychologically expensive. To master uncertainty, we need to be aware of our brain’s preference to skive off. If we let it, the brain will over-rely on System 1. We need to overcome some initial discomfort and think more reflectively rather than reflexively. 2. Avoid you heads in the clouds The brain likes to notice small changes in the physical environment but largely those that it can easily explain. What the brain really tunes into is regularity, looking for cause–effect relationships and patterns (particularly facial patterns). When working in tandem System 1 and System 2 become engrossed in this and miss other really obvious details. This video proves just how selective our attention is - is System 1 comes neurologically hacked with what are called “cognitive biases”. These effectively shortcut thinking to prevent information overload and also reduce our objectivity. We prefer to see what we want to see i.e. “confirmation bias” and are prone to “availability bias”. This is where our decisions are often based on over-estimating the relevance of our recent personal experiences. In a nutshell, it’s advisable to be sceptical about our own thinking clarity. Doubt is, somewhat counterintuitively, our best tool at times of uncertainty. It prompts us to test our assumptions regularly e.g. talking with someone trusted but apart from our immediate situation. As much as we like to fly, we also need honest discourse to bring our feet back safely onto the ground. 3. Find your laughing altitude There is nothing wrong with losing ourselves to a good comedy. Humour also has a serious side, however. To save on forecasting energy, the brain has stored mental models of how the world works. Humour acts like a flashlight for metacognition in highlighting these. First off, if you can laugh at yourself in uncertainty this is a good sign as you have some perspective. What we laugh at tends to stay with us long enough for System 2 to register it. Emotions, positive and negative, bed down both memories and mental models very well. For example, the instruction to “turn off the immersion” is funny to Irish people (translation for everyone else – this means to turn off the boiler to heat water for a shower) because of how frequently and insistently we heard this growing up. Our laughter is slightly tinged in discomfort being reminded of our parents’ cost-sensitivity. Many of us to experience “cognitive dissonance” if we realise our failure to follow a “do not waste” principle even during economic crisis. When experience collides with belief, we received a useful cue to question our own mental models. We can ask ourselves if these are serving us well and ensure we don’t over-extend them. It is one thing saving heating oil, but a “fast-and-frugal” decision rule (choosing the quickest working and cheapest option) is an over-simplification in other contexts e.g. making a treatment choice in healthcare.  4. Gather your Crew Social drivers form our decision rules as much as mental ones and can help us be resilient in uncertainty. As humans, we’re neurologically unique in our ability to trust; particularly those outside our immediate crew. The brains outer surface supports planning and insight to transport us into another person’s mind. System 1 and 2 work in tandem for abstract thinking to imagine - “if I was her, I would do this …..or need this”. As a result, we can forecast how others will behave and can coordinate with them. In fact, help others and your brain rewards you with the happy neurochemicals of oxytocin and dopamine. Together these cause us to feel empathy for others and reinforce our helping instinct. We’re primed to even lean on strangers and to ask anyone for help. Yet paradoxically, at times of uncertainty, we may also respond maladaptively. Increased threat aversion may override our instinct to ask for assistance. Fear can be learned by words as much as actions so it is really important we model positive talk during times of uncertainty. 5. Do not blame your passengers As we see although we’re hard-wired to assume positive intent in others, the brain is very sophisticated. We see our own flaws quite differently to those of others. With separate neural networks used to evaluate these, the net effect is that we judge the same behaviour more harshly in others. This is called “Person-centric bias” and at its most extreme becomes a “Horns Effect” i.e. where a particular person can do no right as our “reasoning” becomes highly personalised. Blame is the sister to denial and both are arch- enemies to resilience. When mistakes get made, sadly, we won’t see our own role as clearly. The same problems then tend to resurface, bobbing up again and again to put our boat off course. A good approach is to stay on board, take responsibility for own errors and be more forgiving of others. With more uncertainty expected, mistakes are going to be made. If we learn from these (the basis for Error Management Training ), we create strong social ties and maybe even get ahead of future change. 6. If the crew is restless – become a life raft Cabin fever often sparks volatility and tensions can build in the crew. A useful mindset is to rest trying to control others and instead focus on self-directing your own response: Fighting On Deck? Conflict may arise from one crew member dominating others. The testosterone hormone that fuels aggression is contagious and will influence your own response so be careful. Take a breath – your brain needs to be calm to evaluate the implication of what you might do or say. Avoid a person-centric approach and address the actual right or wrong of the behaviour itself. Man over-board? It is common for social disruption to cause a crew member to come adrift. Loss of contact with friends and/or being separated from the home crew causes social pain. Neuroscientific studies show that this is registered in the same neurological matrix as physical pain but with longer residual effects. Explore ways to help your person overboard to rebuild social ties. Be measured, however, and ensure you fairly distribute yourself. By giving one person more attention than others, this increases his or her testosterone level. In turn, this inhibits oxytocin production and may reduce the co-operation needed. When it comes to social habits, matters of degree really matter. 7. Find your Moral Compass We all need a good handle on ourselves in order to be resilient. Each of us is a unique nexus of traits, tastes and talents. The emotion centre is like the brain’s legacy system and creates “affect heuristics”. The truth is that our beliefs are largely a function of our likes and dislikes. Hence, our best defence during uncertainty is a have a firm grip on our moral compass. The values we hold dear are ultimately our “True North”. While minor adjustments might be expected, if we own our value set, we reduce stress and allow the brain to map a future course more easily. Conclusion As our brain can imagine itself as a plane, a boat or a liferaft, it can also evaluate which habits serve us well or badly. Neurologically, we have both the seeds of our own destruction (e.g. overrelying on hacks, heuristics and System 1) and the capacity to reflect well to self-direct a future. The choice is ours. Think4Purpose equips professionals to broaden their range of reasoning and problem-solving skills. Check out our Resilience and Coaching Programmes.


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