- On October 18, 2016
In this highly charged political season here in the U.S., with the 3rd Presidential debate this week, I found this Psychology Today article, Clinton Vs. Trump: Talking to the Reptilian Brain an interesting assessment with broad-range implications for those of us who work in leading organizations.
As neuroscience advances and more research findings are validated, what we know about the brain, its impact, and how to control it evolves. We are finding, for example, that it is more precise to view the brain as organized into ‘networks’ versus separate functions. Prior to the most recent research, Paul McLean popularized these three ‘evolutions’ of the brain in the 1960s:
- The Reptilian brain, which manages our basic bodily functions.
- The Limbic brain, which connects sensory inputs with our emotional response via the Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Hypothalamus.
- The Neo-Cortex, the last of our brain parts to evolve, which supports meaning-making, language, thought, imagination, and consciousness.
In every interaction we have, all three are engaged in some capacity as part of our total neural network. While the author recognized Trump’s “success” engaging the Reptilian brain, I’d say his style actually plays to the Limbic Brain even more and this colors the meaning-making that results. Clinton’s words and persona, in contrast, generally engages the higher-level functioning of the Neo-Cortex parts of our brain, with a tacit assumption that logic, analysis, and positive messaging will moderate the impact of the reptilian and limbic systems processing.
A couple of things come into play as lessons for those of us who lead change in our organizations:
- Fear plays to the Amygdala and triggers protective responses from both our Reptilian and Limbic systems. We are programmed to look for threats, even if the “threat” is just a new process and nothing that will physically harm us. No matter how ‘great’ or necessary the change you are driving should be, it evokes some level of fear.
- Bestselling author Rick Hanson, PhD., says “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” We are hard-wired to be on the lookout for threats and once we find one, it is hard to put it mentally aside. Research has shown it takes at least 5 positive interactions to counter one negative interaction.
- Our brains are wired to look for patterns. The brain has a lot of incoming data to process and wants to find patterns to save its ‘brain power’ for the truly new things. If it finds something to glom onto—like a self-fulfilling thought that the world is out to get us– case solved. It can then ‘dismiss’ whatever alternative idea you are trying to promote. How often have you suggested a change and heard, “well, we tried that 5 years ago and it didn’t work”?
- Images are powerful emotional connectors. Advertisers have known this for years. When a leader can create a compelling story—no matter how true it may be—multiple areas of the brain are engaged in visually “seeing “the picture the story tells. The more parts of the neural network that are involved in processing that verbal picture, the more connected we can feel to the message.
The natural tendency of our brain is to fear change, gravitate towards the negative, remember compelling images, and quickly find patterns (perhaps old and out-dated) to make sense of our world.
How can you use this understanding to create compelling positive support for your idea?