Tag Archives: Psychology

Memory and Habits (Part I) — The Power of Habit


I’m savoring The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg in bits and pieces and made these fascinating discoveries.

1) The basal ganglia is central to recalling patterns and acting on them. It stores habits even while the rest of the brain asleep. The process of how the brain converts a sequence of actions into a routine, also known as “chunking” is what allows us to perform most activities in our everyday life without thinking twice.

2) Dr. Larry Squire, a professor of psychiatry, neurosciences and psychology, studied someone named Eugene who had problems with short term memory but could remember events before 1960 due to the effects of a debilitating disease. What kind of life can one lead if you cannot remember it? What Squire discovered was that “the brain has an amazing ability to find happiness even when the memories of it are gone.”

What implications does this have for Alzheimer’s patients, I wonder.

2) What Squire’s experiments with Eugene showed was that it’s possible to learn and make unconscious choices without remembering anything about the lesson or decision making. Habits are at the root of our behavior and it’s possible to form habits without memory. Once they are lodged within our brains, they influence how we act.

3) “Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our  lives far more than we realize — they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

4) Why are companies such as Procter & Gamble, Microsoft and Google focused on understanding the formation of habits and how they can be changed? Because scientific research shows we rely upon all kinds of cues — visual triggers such as a candy bar or a TV commercial or a certain feeling — to change routines. The picture I’ve posted of a supermodel eating a burger is evidence of the fast food industry capitalizing on the science of habits by using strong visual cues and rewards to create habits that increase consumption of burgers and other fast food. The cues are powerful.

For example, in the case of Eugene, he would go for walks everyday and had to rely on visual cues to find his way back home because he could not depend on short term memory.

In the case of companies — and the examples used in the book were fast food companies — they used visual cues to unconsciously influence people’s habits and make them consume more. Researchers found that everything fro the aesthetics of a fast food chain to what employees say to customers were consistent cues to trigger more consumption. Even the way fries are designed to “melt” the moment they hit your tongue are meant to cause your pleasure centers to light up and compel your brain to lock in that pattern. It’s part of habit formation.

However, different cues and rewards can help us change habits. More to follow on creating new habits…

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us


What motivates people to do what they do? How can we provide the proper incentives for people to conduct research, to innovate, and to perform their jobs well? These questions became especially relevant during the Advancement of Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) Annual Meeting in San Jose, California this year. What motivates scientists around the world to conduct their research? For some of the women scientists in developing countries with whom I spoke, any incentive to do research was met with the numerous hurdles they faced, from the lack of funding and available grants to being stigmatized as one of the few women pursuing higher education and science. Yet they continue to pursue scientific research.

How can this be explained?

I’ve been in the academy long enough to know that “loving” one’s research is too simplistic of an explanation. Recent debates about the implication of using this explanation can have a dark side in justifying the existence of an underpaid and exploited labor force in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This kind of justification would not be possible without a strong buy-in from stakeholders that suffering (simply bearing it) is part of the process — whether it’s conducting research, working as a research assistant in a science lab or serving overseas in a longterm mission. The idea that one is not “loving’ the process enough and is therefore to blame for raising questions, concerns and injustices that contribute to the suffering is a consequence of the insidious part of this kind of justification. It’s often hard to distinguish between the fine line of persisting and being resilient and knowing when to make a drastic change or walk away. After all, is it fair to expect people to be intrinsically motivated when extrinsic conditions are to too harsh? Are intrinsic motivations enough to produce innovations like Google and other revolutionizing innovations?

Without getting into the debates about the problem of using “love” or other types of intrinsic motivating factors to discuss labor, I wanted to see what the research in behavioral economics, psychology, management theory and the social sciences says about the topic, and more specifically, what career analyst Daniel Pink concludes, drawing from extensive scientific research, in his book.

Here’s what I found interesting from the book:

1) Extrinsic rewards can help you deliver fast results. However, in the long run, it can actually be detrimental to your desired outcome.

Experiment: Two Swedish economists wanted to see if paying citizens to donate blood would reduce the country’s blood supply. What did they do? The found 153 women interested in donating blood. They divided the women into 3 groups. They told the first group that blood donation was voluntary. Second group would receive about US $7. The third group had two choices: either a 50-kronor payment with an option to donate the amount to a children’s cancer charity. Of the first group, 52% of the women went ahead and donated. In the second group, only 30 percent gave blood. In the third group, rates were about as high as the first group at 53% who opted to donate blood.

It might be counterintuitive, but providing extrinsic rewards in this case of an altruistic act was counterproductive. Of course,  not all extrinsic rewards are equal. Pink notes that in other studies, when donors were given the option of paid time off, this actually increased the number of blood donors.

Some other problems with providing an extrinsic reward as a strong motivating factor include encouraging people to take shortcuts or be corrupt or engage in other types of undesirable behavior.

By the same token, using extrinsic motivating factors to discourage certain types of behavior did not always lead to a desired outcome. In another experiment in Israel at a  daycare center, economists recorded the number of parents who picked up their child late. When a punishment was unleashed on parents who were late, such as a monetary fine, there was actually a steady increase of parents coming late. Existing literature did not account for the possibility of an increase in the behavior being punished.

This discovery extends to individuals who want a short fix, to companies that only invest in short-term goals, and to addicts who hone in on short-term gain. The problem, as Pink concludes, is manifold. It can extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, crowd out good behavior, encourage short cuts, cheating, unethical behavior, encourage addicts, and foster short-term thinking.

If you are going to offer extrinsic rewards, Pink suggests that you offer it only after the task is complete and in a surprising way. Some of the highest levels of creativity were produced by people who received a reward as a bonus.

If you’re a manager, teacher or anyone looking to elicit desired behavior from a group of people, Pink makes the following  recommendations:

a) Consider nontangible rewards such as praise and positive feedback

b) Provide useful information. While controlling extrinsic motivators can slow down creativity, informational motivators can foster it. Give people meaningful information about their work. I have often found that in my own work, the most valuable feedback was precise and detailed and included positive and constructive advice.

c) Offer a rationale for why the task is necessary.

d) Acknowledge that the task may be boring and show your empathy for others.

e) Allow people to complete the task their own way. Although good work can be produced from micromanaging behavior, I have found through observations and my own experience, that excellent work is the product of an environment conducive to creativity and autonomy. That’s why the Google model works and Silicon Valley is one of the global hubs of innovation. This was not the result of overbearing bosses.

2) Pink breaks down behavior into two groups. It goes back to Meyer Friedman, a cardiologist, who ran an office in San Francisco. Among his heart patients, he distinguished between groups. He found that there were those who had excessive competition drive, aggressiveness and impatience. These people were likely to develop heart disease ore than other patients. He called this behavior Type A. Type B people were less harried by life or hostile when life did not go their way. Friedman and Roseman found that Type B people were just as intelligent, but they wore their ambition differently. Type B people, they found, had a lower risk of heart disease.

In the meantime, a management professor Douglas McGregor at MIT, who earned his degree from Harvard in psychology, began conducting research on faulty assumptions about human behavior. The prevailing view at corporations was that people disliked work and they had to be coerced and punished to do adequate work. He came with a theory about two different approaches to management. In Theory X, one’s managerial technique would produce mediocrity. This was focused on extrinsic rewards. By contrast, Theory Y, which Pink revises as his own and dubs “Type I” is driven by intrinsic desires, which is more concerned with inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.

Pink argues that if we want to strengthen our organizations, we must shift to Type I behavior. Type I’s are driven by freedom, challenge and purpose. Other gains, including extrinsic rewards, are just icing on the cake.

Pink concludes that Type I’s almost always outperform Type X in the long run. Focusing on short term gain is not sustainable in the long run.

On the other hand, Type I’s are in it for the long haul because of their internal desires to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplishing lasting change.

Here’s the key to fostering more Type I behavior. It is not born, but made.

Just as the next Einstein can only innovate within a conducive environment, greater Type I behavior depends on environments and leadership which encourage this type of behavior.

What are some practical tips to encourage this type of behavior?

I’m especially interested in how to create these conditions at the organizational level.

3a) Create the conditions for greater autonomy.

Great quote: “The idea of management of people rather than management of, say, supply chains is built on certain assumptions about the basic natures of those being managed. It presumes that to take action or move forward…we need a prod….But is that really our fundamental nature? When we enter the world, are we wired to be passive and inert? Or are we wried to be active and engaged?”

Thus, a whole body of literature and research is built around this self-determination theory (SDT) — that autonomy is a basic human need and that people are naturally drawn to it. As Pink writes, mediocrity is expensive and autonomy can be the antidote. Autonomy, whether it hinges on flexible hours or leading projects or being encouraged to give feedback that shape company policy, contribute to greater job satisfaction.

b) Encourage Mastery Mindset

This involves changing the view that intelligence is something that is inborn. Pink writes that in fact, mastering any subject or task involves what Angela Duckworth has popularized as “grit” — the perseverance and passion for long term goals and practice, practice practice. You have to put in effort on days even when you don’t feel like it.

c) Maximize on Purpose

Pink uses the example of TOMS as an organization that operates on this principle. The aims are not to chase profit, which relies on short-term thinking, but on purposeful values. Profit is a catalyst rather than primary objective.

Finally, Pink urges us to follow science. He argues that there is often a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Scientists, he writes, “offer us a sharper and more accurate account of both human performance and the human condition.” The truths they’ve discovered, that “if-then” rewards are not only ineffective, but detrimental in the long run, need to be taken seriously in the corporate world. Science shows that high performance is the result of the third drive – our intrinsic desire to “direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities and to make a contribution.” Humans are designed to be active and engaged. “Repairing the mismatch and bringing our understanding of motivation in the 21st century is more than an essential move for business. It’s an affirmation of our humanity.” 

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis

These are some of the quotes from this book that resonated with me:

1) “As we have seen, the most important messages of life come from the primary relationships with mother, father and siblings and then, in ever widening circles, the culture as a whole. These messages are internalized and we accede to them, seek to evade them, or unconsciously solicit treatment for them. These messages, or complexes, are splinter mythologies, embodied in daily life as fractal personalities, and to ether they enact the ego’s daily dance. Most of the time the ego is in service to these scripts even when it thinks otherwise….Thus, we marry, go to college, join the army, produce children and careers, and only from tim ego time question why or to what end.”

2) “But the question why continues to be asked in the unconscious.”

3) As Jung reminds, “It is not I who created myself, rather I happen to myself.”

4) “Perhaps the highest achievement of consciousness is not the self-serving reiteration of its own glories, its agenda of regressive reinforcement in the face of the late, intimidating cosmos that is our home, but rather its capacity to acknowledge that it has been called to witness, and to serve, to serve something larger.”

Quite consistent with the ideas of Buddhism, the way to a larger life is to become more conscious. Hollis provides a list of questions to reflect upon and answer.  The questions force us to contemplate the areas in which we are living out of habit, rather than intention. This leads to fear, rigidity and resistance to change. Rather, Hollis asks us to consider:

  • 1) Where has life blessed you?
  • 2) Where are you blocked by fear, stuck, rigid, resistant to change?
  • 3) What is the fear beneath the fear?
  • 4) Where were your parents stuck and where has that manifested in your own life? Are you repeating their lives, their patterns or trying to overcome them by compensation?
  • 5) What ideas, habits, and behavioral patterns are holding you back?
  • 6) Where are you still looking for permission to live your life?

Even if you do not believe in a “soul” or are indifferent towards Jungian or Buddhist thought, these are excellent questions to ponder on. This type of reflection can be the difference between living a deeper and “larger life” and feeling stuck and out of control.

I’m back – 2015


Towards the end of last year, I was exhausted. I was teaching a couple of university classes, trying to turn my PhD dissertation into a book, and working 60% percent time for an international nonprofit, while also serving as a Board member for another nonprofit with which I have been involved since 2004.

Although I enjoyed my work, I was relieved when it was time to take a break. I spent time with family, read books for fun (yes, what a novel idea!), and traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Capetown, South Africa for pleasure and for work.

Since then, 2015 has been relentlessly speeding ahead.

My plate continues to be full. I’ve decided that I need to incorporate more yoga in my life and continue my journey of spiritual and self-help exploration. I thought to myself, what have I been rather passionate about for most of my life and how can I use this passion to provide a service to others?

I’ve always been a kind of junkie for self-improvement and spiritual articles/books. Perhaps due to my training in practical/applied research, I’ve also been a strong proponent of applying theory to everyday life. I want to see if theories in the abstract hold up in concrete settings. In what ways can knowledge make our lives better?

More than ever, as my life gets busier, and my work continues to be meaningful, I crave a deeper knowledge of what makes others tick, what it means to be “vulnerable” a la Brene Brown, and how to make our lives more meaningful a la Viktor Frankl and reflective.

That’s why I want to make 2015 the year in which I explore this topic using this blog by examining, condensing, cogitating (how I love that word!), and applying some of the profound ideas to our modern and fast-paced lives.

Here’s to new beginnings and the understanding of knowledge as they apply to our lives. I leave you with an inspiring quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson. Enjoy!



Walter Evans-Wentz nomad-anthropologist

I’ve been reading about Walter Evans-Wentz, an American anthropologist who was the first to publish an early translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927.

He was called a “gypsy-scholar” by his professors at Oxford, not without some truth, since he spent an enormous amount of time in Mexico, Europe and the Far East. This predates contemporary pioneers of Western Buddhism such as Bob Thurman, Uma Thurman’s father and Leonard van der Kujp with whom I had the pleasure of taking Tibetan Buddhism back in my Boston days. We are talking about the year 1919 when Evans-Wentz arrived at Darjeeling and began translating the text.

He was a practicing Buddhist and a yogi. Like some anthropologist who “go native,” Evans-Wentz wanted to permanently stay in India, but was compelled to return to the US during World War II.

According to Harry Oldmeadow in Journeys East, he was a “puritanical and isolated man,” who spent the last 25 years of his life in a motel in Sam Diego, following a strict vegetarian diet, and becoming rather involved with Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship in California. Oldmeadow writes: “He spurned public life and never took on the role of spiritual teacher…of his life he wrote…he had ‘striven to love all mankind of all nations and races and faiths…dwelt in the solitude of the deserts, of the jungles, of the mountaintops….” The underpinnings of his theosophical views are evident in his description of himself.

In the Foreword to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is stated that Evans-Wentz was more of a practitioner of Hindu yoga than Tibetan Buddhism. He never did learn Tibetan, but did claim that he was the recognized disciple of a Tibetan lama, maybe even the first Western one.

It is also noted that the Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral in the way that it was originally intended to be read.