Why Don't We Act in Our Own Best Interest?

08 Feb. 2012 | Comments (0)

At the World Economic Forum last week, I attended a small dinner that included eight Nobel Prize winners. What a privilege in itself.

The question the Laureates were asked to address was "What do you see as the world's biggest challenges?" They facilitated conversations at each table, and at the end, each of them reported out.

Their suggestions included overpopulation, unemployment, the environment, and inequality. Each of the Nobel winners was eloquent and wise about these issues, but the reality is that the challenges are familiar, and they're getting worse, not better. The common denominator among all of them is that they are problems created by humans. So why can't we humans solve them?

The most basic answer is that we don't make a connection between our current behavior and its future consequences. As Muhammad Yunus, the Bagladeshi economist, put it, "Leaders don't have time for the future because they're too busy with the present."

The more primitive parts of our brain conspire against our thinking about the future. Our amygdala is designed to be hyper alert to signs of threat, but only immediate threat. At the same time, we're powerfully pulled to immediate gratification, even if it's undermining our own long-term well-being.

As the wonderfully gentle and self-effacing astrophysicist and Nobel Prize winner Saul Perlmutter put it, "We're limited by being human. We want results fast, and we discount the future."

Consider, for example how this applies to companies and their employees. The factual arguments for investing in employee well-being — so that people can bring more of themselves to work every day — are now overwhelming.

A meta-analysis of existing research, conducted by three Harvard researchers, found that the savings from wellness programs in organizations averages $3.27 for every dollar spent. That's true even though the quality and depth of many such programs is still very limited.

At one point during a Davos session last week, I asked more than a half dozen CEOs at a discussion I was leading, "Do you believe that your employees perform better if they're happier and healthier? The unsurprising and unanimous answer was "Yes." Then I asked the CEOs, "If that's the case, how much time, energy and money do you invest in insuring that your employees are healthier and happier?" Nearly all of them agreed the answer was very little.

The value of investing money and time in taking care of employees, rather than simply trying to get more out of them, can seem hard to measure. Also, because it doesn't produce instant results, it may seem at odds with the urgent aim of getting more done, faster, right now.

When we're run by the more primitive parts of our brain — and we are far more often than we recognize — we become myopically short-term in our perspective.

So what's the antidote? It's to rely more on our pre-frontal cortex, which allows humans alone to imagine the future consequences of our actions. Too often, instead, we use our pre-frontal cortex after the fact, to rationalize and minimize our short-term and ultimately self-defeating behaviors.

We don't lack for potential solutions to our problems so much as we do the willingness to intelligently sacrifice in the short term, in the service of generating more value in the long term.

To do that, we need to learn to better regulate our emotions, which begins with gaining more control of our attention. That's the next great evolutionary leap, and it's on the horizon.

The most interesting conversations I had at Davos were with two neuroscientists — Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin and Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute — and one of their experimental subjects, the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

Through their research, both Davidson and Singer have demonstrated that our brains have extraordinary plasticity. It's possible, they've found, for human beings to systematically train the regulation of negative emotion and to increase our capacity for calm reflectiveness in the face of high stress. MRI scans can measure, for instance, brain activity associated with empathy and compassion — and people can cultivate those attributes through deliberate practice. Mathieu Richard, who runs 110 humanitarian programs around the world, has done precisely that.

Our own work at The Energy Project focuses on helping individuals and organizations institute highly specific rituals — behaviors and practices that eventually become automatic and serve sustainable well-being and effectiveness.

We can learn to be far more conscious and intentional in our behavior, and less self-centered and short-term in our perspective. Doing so requires deliberate practice.

The biggest lesson I took away from my conversations at Davos is that to transform the world, we must first transform ourselves.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 1/31/2012.

  • About the Author: Tony Schwartz

    Tony Schwartz Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project,a company that helps individuals and organizations fuelenergy, engagement, focus and productivity by harnessingthe science of high performance.…

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