Many entrepreneurs will say they started their own companies because they couldn’t stand to work for anyone else. They’ll often say that they “have a problem with authority” or “are terrible employees”. I think this is in part because entrepreneurs often struggle to fit into existing hierarchies or power structures. I sometimes struggle with this myself. I think in part it’s because we prefer an egalitarian relationship over one where they have lower (and often, when they have higher status) with their coworkers.

And yet Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor at the Stanford graduate school of business, argues that all groups require some kind of hierarchy to be effective. Gruenfeld believes that all individuals (this includes entrepreneurs!) must learn how to operate well within a hierarchy if they want to be successful and have impact.

Stanford Business School Executive Education puts on a variety of training webinars and I tuned into one recently taught by Gruenfeld called “Acting With Power” and it provided some great insights into how our behavior and non verbal cues affect pur ability to influence, persuade and lead others.

Reading Intent and Emotion from Moving Dots

BioMotionLab 2013-11-30 13-43-13

We intuitively recognize that people reveal much more about their state of mind through their behavior and non-verbal signals than the actual content of their words. To really make this point, Gruenfeld showed us an interactive visualization created by a group called Bio Motion Labs in Queen’s University.

In playing with it, what you quickly find is that even with just a few dots moving on the screen, we can get a sense of emotion, sense of aggression, sense of what this person might be thinking or feeling. Continue reading

Easily distracted by shiny objects
Sound familiar to anyone?

There’s something thrilling about newness and uncertainty. Whether it’s watching a gripping Christopher Nolan film, starting the next level in a game or going on a first date, we can be easily captivated by what we don’t know.

The human species possesses a disposition towards novelty – and tens of thousands of years ago, that drove us to explore new lands, try new foods and see what happened when we struck two rocks together.

But just as our craving for sweets, salts and fats were valuable in the Paleolithic era, when such foods were scarce, but are now warped in the age of carmel-drizzled kettle corn, our novelty-seeking tendencies can lead us astray.

Variable rewards are a particularly powerful “hook” for the brain. Casinos and many games use frequent but hard-to-predict rewards to keep their players coming back for more.

In this post, I want to talk about how variable rewards work and how we can use them to drive positive behavior change for ourselves.

The science behind variable rewards

Variable rewards are when you positively reinforce a behavior at an non-fixed (ie less predictable) schedule. By varying when you deliver the reward for a certain behavior and how big that reward is, you can quickly reinforce that behavior and make it very strong and resistant to extinction (aka it becomes a habit or routine).

This finding is born out of the research conducted on animals, for instance: teaching a rat to press a lever. Researchers found that when compared to a fixed schedule (eg: a piece of cheese every other lever presses), mixing up the schedule (eg: two rewards in a row after one press, then a single reward after three presses, etc) was more effective even when the overall reward ratio was 1 to 2.

How Variable Rewards Work - Jason Shen
Quick chart I whipped up to explain the difference between fixed ratio and variable ratio rewards.

Why does this work?

The answer has to do with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s tightly linked with desire and habit. Getting a reward increases dopamine levels in your brain, which motivates you to do the thing which got you the reward (rats with missing dopamine receptors struggle to build habits). Continue reading