59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot
Richard Wiseman

Ended: April 14, 2013

Buy Experiences, Not Goods. Want to buy happiness? Then spend your hard-earned cash on experiences. Go out for a meal. Go to a concert, movie, or the theater. Go on vacation. Go and learn how to pole dance. Go play paintball. Go bungee jumping. In fact, get involved in anything that provides an opportunity to do things with others, and then tell even more people about it afterward. When it comes to happiness, remember, it is experiences that represent really good value for the money. ‘Tis Better to Give Than to Receive. Long-term happiness is not just about gyrating around a pole to raunchy music or plummeting toward the ground while screaming like a baby. Ask people whether they will be happier after spending money on themselves or others, and the vast majority will check the “me” box. The science shows that exactly the opposite is true—people become much happier after providing for others rather than themselves. The good news is that you really do not have to divert a huge proportion of your income to charity, friends, family, and colleagues. In fact, the smallest gifts can quickly result in surprisingly large and long-lasting changes in happiness. A few dollars spent on others may be one of the best investments that you ever make. And if you really can’t afford to donate your hard-earned cash, remember that carrying out five nonfinancial acts of kindness on a single day also provides a significant boost to happiness.
Smile. There are a number of happiness-inducing behaviors that can be quickly incorporated into your everyday life. Most important of all, smile more. This shouldn’t be a brief, unfelt smile that ends in the blink of an eye. Instead, research suggests that you should try to maintain the expression for between fifteen and thirty seconds. To make the grin as convincing as possible, try to imagine a situation that would elicit a genuine smile. Perhaps you have just met a good friend, heard a hilarious joke, or found out that your mother-in-law isn’t coming to visit after all. Also, consider creating a signal to remind you to smile regularly. Set your watch, computer, or PDA to beep on the hour, or use a more random cue, such as your telephone ringing.
Sit Up. Your posture is equally important. In a study conducted by Tomi-Ann Roberts at Colorado College, participants were randomly split into two groups and asked to spend three minutes either sitting up straight or slumping in their chairs.31 Everyone was then given a math test and asked to assess their mood. Those who had sat upright were much happier than those who had slouched, and they even made higher scores on the math test. Interestingly, the result didn’t hold for many of the female participants, causing Roberts to speculate that the act of sitting upright and pushing their chests forward may have made them feel self-conscious. Act Happy. Research by Peter Borkenau from Bielefeld University and others has revealed that happy people move in a very different way than unhappy people do.32 You can use this information to increase your sense of happiness by acting like a happy person. Try walking in a more relaxed way, swinging your arms slightly more and putting more of a spring in your step. Also, try making more expressive hand gestures during conversations, nod your head more when others are speaking, wear more colorful clothing, use positively charged emotional words more (especially “love,” “like,” and “fond”), use fewer self-references (“me,” “myself,” and “I”), have a larger variation in the pitch of your voice, speak slightly faster, and have a significantly firmer handshake. Incorporating these behaviors into your everyday actions will enhance your happiness.
After analyzing the mass of data, the research team exploded some of the myths about why interviewers choose candidates for a job, discovering a surprising reality. Did the likelihood depend on qualifications? Or was it work experience? In fact, it was neither. It was just one important factor—did the candidate appear to be a pleasant person? Those who had managed to ingratiate themselves were very likely to be offered a position, and they charmed their way to success in several different ways. A few had spent time chatting about topics that were not related to the job but that interested the candidate and the interviewer. Some had made a special effort to smile and maintain eye contact. Others had praised the organization. This barrage of positivity had paid dividends, convincing the interviewers that such pleasant and socially skilled applicants would fit well in the workplace and so should be offered a job. Higgins and Judge’s study clearly demonstrates that in order to get your dream job, going out of your way to be pleasant is more important than qualifications and past work experience. However, try explaining away twelve counts of murder and two convictions for major corporate fraud, and you will quickly discover that such ingratiation has its limitations. With respect to your weaknesses, then, what is the best way of dealing with the less-impressive side of your résumé? Should you mention weaknesses toward the start of the interview, or hope to make a good first impression and introduce possible problems only at the end?
It seems that presenting weaknesses early is seen as a sign of openness. This is a lesson that many politicians, such as Bill Clinton, have yet to learn. Interviewers believe that they are dealing with someone who has the strength of character and integrity to bring up potential difficulties at the outset, and they therefore conclude that the applicant is not attempting to mislead them.
It seems that modesty, rather than honesty, is critical for positive aspects of your past. By delaying mention of such details, you appear to prefer letting your strengths emerge naturally, while playing your cards early is seen as boastful.
This bias, known as the “spotlight” effect, has been found in many different settings. From assessing the effects of a bad-hair day to performing poorly in a group discussion, those who feel embarrassed are convinced that their mistakes are far more noticeable than they actually are. Why? It seems that we focus on our own looks and behavior more than on those of others, and so we are likely to overestimate the impact of our situation. So, if you make a mortifying mistake in an interview, think about the man in the Barry Manilow T-shirt and remember that it probably feels far worse than it is.
Increase your chances of giving a great interview in three easy steps. First Remember that likeability is more important than academic achievements and work experience, so … find something that you truly like about the organization, and let your opinion be known feel free to give a genuine compliment to the interviewer chat about a non-job-related topic that you and the interviewer find interesting show interest in the interviewer. Ask what type of person is being sought and how the position fits into the overall organization be enthusiastic about the position and the organization smile and maintain eye contact with the interviewer Second When you do have weaknesses, don’t wait until late in the interview to reveal them. Instead, give your credibility a boost by getting them into the conversation toward the start of the interview. And remember, for positive aspects, modesty is vital, so retain something strong until the very last minute. Third If you make what seems like a major mistake, don’t overreact. The chances are that it is far more noticeable to you than to others, and your excessive response or apologizing could just draw more attention to it. Instead, acknowledge the mistake, if appropriate, and then continue as if nothing has happened.
Likeability matters. The Gallup organization has examined the public perception of American presidential candidates since 1960, focusing on the impact of issues, party affiliation, and likeability.11 From these factors, only likeability has consistently predicted the winning candidate.
When you gossip about another person, listeners unconsciously associate you with the characteristics you are describing, ultimately leading to those characteristics’ being “transferred” to you. So, say positive and pleasant things about friends and colleagues, and you are seen as a nice person. In contrast, constantly complain about their failings, and people will unconsciously apply the negative traits and incompetence to you.
Self-help gurus have argued that it is possible to increase your likeability by becoming more empathetic, modest, and generous. They are probably right. But there are also three other surprising factors that can promote popularity. The Franklin Effect People like you more when they do a favor for you. The effect has its limits, however, and is more likely to work with small favors rather than more significant requests that make people either respond begrudgingly or, even worse, refuse. The Pratfall Effect The occasional slipup can enhance your likeability. However, remember that the effect really works only when you are in danger of being seen as too perfect. Gossip Know that whatever traits you assign to others are likely to come home to roost, being viewed as part of your own personality.
The message is that people are more likely to agree with you when they have already said something positive.
The rhymes were viewed as significantly more accurate than the non-rhyming statements. The authors suggested that this was the outcome because they were more memorable, likeable, and repeatable. The effect is frequently used in advertising (“The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup”) and has even made its way into the courtroom, as when attorney Johnnie Cochran defended O. J. Simpson by using the phrase “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit.”
The message from the bystander effect is clear—the more people who are around when a person is apparently in need of assistance, the lower the likelihood that any one person will actually help. So, if you are unfortunate enough to require assistance in the street, what can you do to increase your chances of obtaining help? According to persuasion expert Robert Cialdini, the answer is to pick out a friendly face in the crowd and clearly tell them what is happening and what they need to do. It might be a question of saying that you think you are having a heart attack and that they need to call an ambulance, or that you are diabetic and need sugar as soon as possible. Do anything that short-circuits the diffusion of responsibility underlying the problem and helps transform a bystander from a faceless member of the crowd into a fully functioning human being. An understanding of the diffusion of responsibility may also help you to persuade people in other situations. For example, when trying to get people to help you via e-mail, do not send your message to an entire group. When people see that an e-mail has been sent to lots of others, the same diffusion effect can arise, with everyone thinking that it is everyone else’s responsibility to respond.30 To increase the chances of getting people to help, send the message to each person individually.
A large body of research has shown that doing a favor for someone often results in their giving significantly more in return. So does that mean that all favors will result in especially giving and helpful behavior? Additional research has revealed that there are several subtle factors that influence when favors are most effective. Favors have their strongest effect when they occur between people who don’t know each other very well, and when they are small but thoughtful. When people go to a great deal of effort to help someone else, the recipient can often feel an uncomfortable pressure to reciprocate. In a sense, by giving too much at the beginning, one person places the other in a difficult position because the law of reciprocity states that the recipient has to give even more in return. Motivation is also important, as recipients can often experience a drop in self-esteem if they think they are being helped because they are believed not to have the ability to be successful by themselves35 or if they attribute the favor to an ulterior motive.36 So, for maximum persuasion, remember: save your favors for strangers, it really is the thought that counts, and the favor has to appear to come from the heart, not the head. The degree of reciprocity may depend to some extent on cultural factors. In one study by Michael Morris and his colleagues at Columbia Business School, people from different countries were asked about the factors that influenced whether they would assist a colleague who asked for help.37 Americans were heavily influenced by the reciprocity rule (“Has this person helped me in the past?”), Germans were more concerned about whether their actions would be consistent with company rules, the Spanish were driven more by basic rules of friendship and liking, and the Chinese were swayed by the status of the coworker. Finally, if you want to get maximum return for your investment, ask for the return favor quickly. Francis Flynn from Stanford University surveyed employees in the customer-service department of a major U.S. airline, and found that favors have their greatest power immediately after they have been granted.38 It seems that if you leave it too long, people either forget what happened or convince themselves that they didn’t really need the help in the first place.
Successful participants broke their overall goal into a series of sub-goals and thereby created a step-by-step process that helped remove the fear and hesitation often associated with trying to achieve a major life change. These plans were especially powerful when the sub-goals were concrete, measurable, and time-based. Whereas successful and unsuccessful participants might have stated that their aim was to find a new job, it was the successful people who quickly went on to describe how they intended to rewrite their résumé in week one and then apply for one new job every two weeks for the next six months. Similarly, although many people said that they aimed to enjoy life more, it was the successful ones who explained how they intended to spend two evenings each week with friends and visit one new country each year.
To achieve your aims and ambitions, there are four key techniques that will help you succeed: having the right kind of plan, telling your friends and family, focusing on the benefits, and rewarding yourself each step of the way. To help you incorporate these techniques into your life, I have created a unique motivational journal that can be used when you are attempting any form of change. 1. What is your overall goal? My overall goal is to … 2. Creating a step-by-step plan Break your overall goal into a maximum of five smaller steps. Each step should be associated with a goal that is concrete, measurable, realistic, and time-based. Think about how you will achieve each step and the reward that you will give yourself when you do. The rewards can be anything you like, perhaps ice cream, new shoes or clothes, the latest high-tech gadget, a book, dinner out, or a massage. For each of the five sub-goals, complete the following statements in writing. STEP 1 My first sub-goal is to… I believe that I can achieve this goal because … To achieve this sub-goal, I will … This will be achieved by the following date: My reward for achieving this will be … STEP 2 My second sub-goal is to … I believe that I can achieve this goal because … To achieve this sub-goal, I will … This will be achieved by the following date: My reward for achieving this will be … STEP 3 My third sub-goal is to … I believe that I can achieve this goal because … To achieve this sub-goal, I will … This will be achieved by the following date: My reward for achieving this will be … STEP 4 My fourth sub-goal is to … I believe that I can achieve this goal because … To achieve this sub-goal, I will … This will be achieved by the following date: My reward for achieving this will be … STEP 5 My fifth sub-goal is to … I believe that I can achieve this goal because … To achieve this sub-goal, I will … This will be achieved by the following date: My reward for achieving this will be … 3. What are the benefits of achieving your overall goal? List three important benefits, focusing on how much better life will be for you and those around you. Focus on enjoying the benefits associated with your desired future rather than escaping the negative aspects of your current situation. • • • 4. Going public Whom are you going to tell about your goal and sub-goals? Perhaps your friends, family, or colleagues. Could you describe it on a blog or display it somewhere prominent in your house or at the office?
Procrastinators frequently put off starting certain activities because they are overwhelmed by the size of the job in front of them. However, if they can be persuaded, or can persuade themselves, to work on the activity for “just a few minutes,” they often feel an urge to see it through to completion. Research shows that the “just a few minutes” rule is a highly effective way of beating procrastination and could help people finish the most arduous of tasks.9 It is also a perfect application of Zeigarnik’s work—those few minutes of initial activity create an anxious brain that refuses to rest until the job is finished.
According to the researchers, visualizing the process of study proved especially effective at reducing exam-related anxiety and helped students better plan and manage their workload. Subsequent research has shown that the same effect occurs in several different areas, with, for example, tennis players and golfers benefiting far more from imagining themselves training than winning.
One group was told to carry out the visualization exercise from a first-person perspective (seeing the world through their own eyes), while another group was instructed to carry out the same task from a third-person perspective (seeing themselves as someone else would see them). Remarkably, 90 percent of those who imagined themselves from a third-person perspective went on to vote, compared with just more than 70 percent of those who employed first-person visualization. Although the explanation for the effect is uncertain, it could be that adopting a third-person perspective requires more mental effort than a first-person one and so results in more significant behavioral changes.
The following procedure, based on the doublethink procedure, can be used to motivate you to achieve your goals and persevere in the face of difficulties. 1. What is your goal? 2. Potential benefits and setbacks QUESTION A Write down one word that would reflect an important way in which your life would be better if you achieved your goal. QUESTION B Write down one word that would reflect a significant barrier that stands in the way of achieving your goal. QUESTION C Write down one word that would reflect another important way in which your life would be better if you achieved your goal. QUESTION D Write down one word that would reflect another significant barrier that stands in the way of achieving your goal. 3. Elaboration Elaborate your answer to Question A. Imagine all of the benefits that would flow from this achievement and note your ideas in the space below. Elaborate your answer to Question B. Imagine how the obstacle hinders achievement and the steps that you would take to deal with it and note your ideas in the space below. Elaborate your answer to Question C. Imagine all of the benefits that would flow from this achievement and note your ideas in the space below. Elaborate your answer to Question D. Imagine how the obstacle hinders achievement and the steps that you would take to deal with it and note your ideas in the space below.
The Power of Slow Some research suggests that eating more slowly helps people eat less, perhaps because it fools our brains into thinking that we’ve eaten more and allows extra time for the body to digest food.17 In an additional twist on this work, Corby Martin and his colleagues at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center had overweight participants eat a lunchtime meal at three different speeds: (1) their normal rate, (2) half their normal rate, or (3) their normal rate to begin with, followed by half their normal rate.18 Eating at the slower rate resulted in men, but not women, eating less. However, starting the meal at a normal rate of eating and then dropping to the slower rate caused both men and women to experience a large reduction in their appetite. The normal-slow combination was even more effective than eating slowly all the way through the meal, suggesting that the secret to feeling satisfied is to start at your normal speed but then savor each and every mouthful.
To inspire creative thoughts, place plants and flowers in a room and, if possible, ensure that windows look out on trees and grass, not concrete and steel. Don’t try to fake it. Pictures of waterfalls do not aid innovation, and even high-definition screens showing live camera feeds from natural scenes do not make people feel more relaxed.13 So if you really cannot introduce nature into a space, head for the nearest green spot. Also, when decorating rooms to inspire creative and innovative thinking, avoid red and go for green. The same concept applies if you are trying to get creative juices flowing for others—prime them with the color green (green folders, green chairs, or even your green clothing).
Priming To prime your mind for thinking creatively, spend a few moments describing a typical musician or artist. List their typical behaviors, lifestyle, and appearance. Or, following on from Förster’s work in creativity and patterns, use the following designs to help produce original ideas. They can be turned into examples of modern art and used to adorn the walls of boardrooms and meeting spaces. Alternatively, they can be loaded on computers as wallpaper or even used as subtle background designs on the pads that people use to scribble their ideas. Whatever you choose, creating creativity has never been so quick or easy.
Bodywork The next time you are trying to be creative in a meeting, gently lean forward and pull against the table. When the going gets tough, cross your arms to help perseverance in the face of failure. If that doesn’t work, lie down. If anyone accuses you of being lazy, quietly explain that you are employing your locus coeruleus in the war against rigid thinking.
If you want to get someone to help you out, try the briefest of touches on the upper arm. The same behavior also increases the likelihood that one person will find another person attractive, providing that the touch is short, confined to the upper arm, and delivered at the same time as a compliment or request. Do be careful, however, because it is easy to get this terribly wrong. Touching is a strong social signal, and even a few inches can make all the difference between the recipient inviting you in for coffee or calling the police.
In speed dating you have only moments to impress. So to make best use of the short time available, think of lines that get the other person to talk about themselves in a creative, fun, and unusual way. Mimic (within reason) the way they sit, how they use their hands, their speech patterns, their facial expressions. Avoid spread betting. Rather than check the “yes, I would like to see you again” box for lots of people in the hope of obtaining the maximum number of dates, focus on the one or two people who appear to generate genuine chemistry. Finally, some advice specifically for men from Simon Chu’s research: if you are good-looking and highly successful, remember that for many your looks and status might make you fall into the “too good to be true” category. Assuming that adding a prosthetic scar or two is out of the question, be prepared to downplay your successes. Of course, for everyone else, the theory represents a great way of coping with rejection—if one person after another turns you down, convince yourself that you are too damn attractive and successful for your own good.
Prior to their research, several experiments had already confirmed what poets had long suspected: when people find someone attractive, their hearts beat faster. Dutton and Aron thought that the opposite could also be true. In other words, people whose hearts are beating faster might be more likely to find someone attractive. To find out if this was the case, they arranged for a female experimenter to approach men on one of two very different bridges across the Capilano River in British Columbia. One bridge was swaying precariously in the wind about two hundred feet above the rocks, while the other was much lower and far more solid. After asking a few simple survey questions, the experimenter offered the men her telephone number in case they would like to find out more about her work. Those crossing the precarious bridge had higher heart rates than those on the lower bridge. When approached by the young woman, they unconsciously attributed their increased heart rate to her rather than to the bridge, fooled themselves into thinking that they found her particularly attractive, and were far more likely to make a special effort to call her.
Beat Fast, My Still Heart To help promote the chances of a successful date, choose an activity that is likely to get the heart racing. Avoid slow-moving classical music concerts, countryside walks, and wind chimes. Instead, look toward suspense-filled films, theme parks, and cycle rides. The theory is that your date will attribute a racing heart to you rather than to the activity, and so convince themselves that you have that special something. The Sharing Game When it comes to playing the sharing game, it is a case of taking one step at a time. However, providing that each stage seems appropriate, research suggests that disclosing personal information about yourself and encouraging your date to do the same can significantly speed up those all-important feelings of intimacy. Here are ten questions based on items from Aron’s sharing game to help the process: 1. Imagine hosting the perfect dinner party. You can invite anyone who has ever lived. Whom would you ask? 2. When did you last talk to yourself? 3. Name two ways in which you consider yourself lucky. 4. Name something that you have always wanted to do and explain why you haven’t done it yet. 5. Imagine that your house or apartment catches fire. You can save only one object. What would it be? 6. Describe one of the happiest days of your life. 7. Imagine that you are going to become a close friend with your date. What is the most important thing for him or her to know about you? 8. Tell your date two things that you really like about him or her. 9. Describe one of the most embarrassing moments in your life. 10. Describe a personal problem, and ask your date’s advice on how best to handle it.    SIX QUICK TIPS FOR DATING Reflected Glory. Research shows that women rate a man as more attractive after they’ve seen another woman smiling at him or having a good time in his company.23 So if you want to impress women in a bar or at a party, ask a good female friend to come along and openly laugh at your jokes, then have her quietly slip away. And swear her to secrecy.
the couples decided it was about the joys of love, the tape showed they leaned toward each other, nodded, and smiled. But when they thought about lust, they were more likely to stick out their tongues and lick their lips. So if you want to know what your date has on his or her mind, look for these key signals. Whereas nodding and smiling might signal liking and possible love, the occasional licking of the lips suggests that it might be your lucky night.
Aron’s work suggests that long-term couples will feel more attracted to each other when they regularly engage in novel and exciting joint activities that involve working together to achieve a goal. This finding is supported by the results of several surveys showing that long-term couples who are happy in their relationships are more likely to take part in leisure activities that involve both partners and are relatively unpredictable, exciting, and active rather than passive. So regardless of whether it is playing a sport, amateur dramatics, rock climbing, visiting new places, learning a new dance, or traveling to novel vacation destinations, couples who face life’s foam obstacles together stick together.
For a relationship to succeed, the frequency of positive comments has to outweigh negative remarks by about five to one. In other words, it takes five instances of agreement and support to undo the harm caused by a single criticism.
Surrounding yourself with objects that remind you of your partner is good for your relationship. It could be something that you wear, such as a ring, pendant, or necklace. Or perhaps keep a gift from your partner on display in the home or office. Or maybe place a photograph of the two of you in a prominent location, or in a wallet or purse. Either way, remember that these objects are more than mere tokens of love; they also serve an important psychological function. Not only do they usually evoke happy memories and positive thoughts, but they also activate a deep-seated evolutionary mechanism that helps make temptation far less tempting.
When you experience an event that has the potential to make you feel angry, try the following exercise to ease the pain and help you move on. Spend a few moments thinking about the positive aspects of the event that you found hurtful. For example, did the event help you … grow stronger or become aware of personal strengths that you didn’t realize you had? appreciate certain aspects of your life more than before? become a wiser person? enhance important relationships or end bad ones? become more skilled at communicating your feelings? bolster your confidence? develop into a more compassionate or forgiving person? repair and strengthen your relationship with a person who hurt you? identify any of your own shortcomings that may stand in the way of your happiness? Write down how you have benefited from the experience and how your life is better as a result of what happened. Do not withhold anything and be as honest as possible.
Blood pressure readings revealed that listening to pop or jazz music had the same restorative effect as total silence. In contrast, those who listened to Pachelbel and Vivaldi relaxed much more quickly, and so their blood pressure dropped back to the normal level in far less time.
There are two key messages from this research. First, owning a dog helps to relieve the stresses and strains of everyday life, in part because it promotes social contact. Second, to maximize the chances of such meetings, choose a Labrador rather than a Rottweiler, teddy bear, yucca plant, television set, or bubble mixture.
In addition to examining these frequently used principles of persuasion, psychologists have also explored other more unusual, but nevertheless still highly effective, techniques. There is, for example, the so-called pique technique, in which a strange request makes people pay more attention and increases the likelihood of compliance. In one study, by Michael Santos at the University of California and his colleagues, a beggar (actually a researcher) asked passersby if they could spare a quarter or 37 cents.7 Significantly more people gave away their money when confronted with the unusual request.
Related to this is the “disrupt, then reframe” technique, in which you momentarily surprise a person to shake them out of autopilot and then present a normal request. In a series of studies, experimenters went from door to door selling pads of paper for charity.8 In one condition they stated, “They sell for $3. It’s a bargain.” In the “disrupt and then reframe” condition they said, “They sell for 300 pennies—that’s $3. It’s a bargain.” This strange, and surprising, change almost doubled sales.
These experiments demonstrate the power of the “foot in the door” technique. People are far more likely to agree to a big request if they have already agreed to a small one.
We are not the rational creatures that we like to think we are. We can easily be influenced by a variety of quick and effective techniques. Beware of people using the “that’s not all” principle, offering unprompted discounts and bargains to get you to part with your money. Likewise, be wary of those who start small and build up or start big and quickly back down to a more “reasonable” offer. Of course, it is also possible to use exactly the same techniques to influence others yourself. That’s fine, but as Obi-Wan Kenobi famously noted, your newfound Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded, so do be careful to use it only for good.
again.14 Whether it is deciding which apartment to rent, which car to buy, or which stocks to invest in, people who are shown the options but then kept busy working on a difficult mental activity make better decisions than others do. Why should this be the case? Dijksterhuis believes that just as the power of the unconscious mind can be harnessed to help people become more creative (see the “Creativity” chapter), it can also be used to encourage better decisions. When having to decide between options that differ in only one or two ways, your conscious mind is very good at studying the situation in a rational, levelheaded way and deciding the best course of action. However, when the going gets complex, the mind has only a limited ability to juggle a small number of facts and figures at any one time, and so the result is not so good. Instead of looking at the situation as a whole, the conscious mind tends to focus on the most obvious elements and, in doing so, can miss the bigger picture. In contrast, your unconscious mind is much better at dealing with the complex decisions that pervade many aspects of our lives. Given time, it slowly works through all of the factors and eventually reaches a more balanced decision. Dijksterhuis and Van Olden’s explanation for the effect, referred to as the “unconscious thought theory,” argues for a kind of middle ground when making complex decisions. Thinking too hard about an issue is in many ways as bad as making an instant choice. Instead, it is all a question of knowing what needs to be decided, then distracting your conscious mind and allowing your unconscious to work away on the issue. And how do you get your unconscious mind to work on a problem? Well, just as we saw in the section on boosting creativity, one technique involves keeping the conscious mind busy with a distracting but difficult task, such as solving anagrams or counting backward by threes.
Anagrams and the Unconscious Mind When making straightforward decisions, stick with the conscious mind by thinking about the pros and cons and assessing the situation in a rational, levelheaded way. However, for more complex choices, try giving your conscious mind a rest and letting your unconscious work. The following exercise, based on the research of Dijksterhuis and Van Olden, is designed to aid the decision-making process. A. What decisions do you have to make? B. Work through as many of these anagrams as possible in five minutes. If you get stuck, don’t struggle for too long. Instead, move on to the next one.
C. Now, without thinking too much about the problem, write down your decision here.
Containing Regret Research shows that when most people look back on their lives, they tend to regret things that they didn’t do. Once you understand this, there are quick and effective techniques that you can use to avoid feelings of regret. First, to prevent regret in the first place, adopt a “will do” attitude toward opportunity. As writer Max Lucado once suggested, “Go to the effort. Invest the time. Write the letter. Make the apology. Take the trip. Purchase the gift. Do it. The seized opportunity renders joy. The neglected brings regret.” Second, if you do regret not doing something, see if there is anything you can do to remedy the situation. Write the letter, make that telephone call, spend more time with the family, mend broken relationships, go back to college and get the grades. Use the regret as a wake-up call, a way of motivating yourself Finally, if it really isn’t possible to do anything to make things better, make a mental picture of a fence around the imaginary “what might have been” benefits that might otherwise occupy your thoughts. Instead of dwelling on the positive things that might have happened, spend time thinking about three benefits of your current situation and three negative consequences that could have occurred had you made the decision that’s causing the regret.
Research suggests that people often approach many aspects of their lives using one of two fundamental strategies—maximizing or satisficing. “Maximizers” tend to obtain high scores on the questionnaire, and “satisficers” tend to obtain low scores. Extreme maximizers constantly check all available options to make sure that they have picked the best one. In contrast, extreme satisficers look only until they have found something that fulfills their needs. As a result, maximizers objectively achieve more but take longer to find what they want and may be less happy because of a tendency to dwell on how things could have been.
For example, in one study of job hunting, researchers categorized more than five hundred students from eleven universities as maximizers or satisficers and then tracked them as they tried to find employment.17 The maximizers ended up with salaries that were, on average, 20 percent higher than those of the satisficers, but they were also less satisfied with their job search and more prone to regret, pessimism, anxiety, and depression. If you are a maximizer and find yourself wasting too much time searching for the perfect product, you might find it helpful to limit the resources that you put into some activities (e.g., give yourself only thirty minutes to find your friend a birthday card) or make certain decisions irreversible (for example, by throwing away receipts).18 There is an old adage that happiness is about wanting what you have, not having what you want. It seems that when maximizers get what they want, they may not always want what they get.
So what really gives away a liar? Although lying does not always make people stressed, it usually taxes their minds. Lying involves having to think about what other people already know or could find out, what is plausible, and what fits in with what you have said before. Because of this, liars tend to do the things that correspond to thinking hard about a problem or issue. They tend not to move their arms and legs so much, cut down on gesturing, repeat the same phrases, give shorter and less detailed answers, take longer before they start to answer, and pause and hesitate more. In addition, there is also evidence that they distance themselves from the lie, causing their language to become more impersonal. As a result, liars often reduce the number of times that they say words such as “I,” “me,” and “mine,” and use “him” and “her” rather than people’s names. Finally, there is increased evasiveness, as liars tend to avoid answering the question completely, perhaps by switching topics or by asking a question of their own. To detect deception, forget about looking for signs of tension, nervousness, and anxiety. Instead, a liar is likely to look as though they are thinking hard for no good reason, conversing in a strangely impersonal tone, and incorporating an evasiveness that would make even a politician or a used-car salesman blush.
Body Language For successful lie detection, jettison the behavioral myths surrounding the Anxiety Hypothesis and look for signs more commonly associated with having to think hard. Forget the idea that liars have sweaty palms, fidget, and avoid eye contact. Instead, look for a person suddenly becoming more static and cutting down on their gestures. Also, learn to listen. Be on guard for a sudden decrease in detail, an increase in pauses and hesitations, and an avoidance of the words “me,” “mine,” and “I” but an increase in “her” and “him.” If someone suddenly becomes very evasive, press for a straight answer.24 To spot possible shifts, try to establish what researchers have referred to as an “honest baseline.” Before asking questions that are likely to elicit deceptive answers, start with those that are far more likely to make the person respond in an honest way. During these initial answers, develop an understanding of how they behave when they are telling the truth by looking at their body language and listening to the words they say. Then, during the answers to the trickier questions, watch for the behavioral shifts outlined above. Also, remember that even if you do see these signals, they are not an absolute guarantee of a lie. Unlike taxes and death, nothing is that certain when it comes to lying. Instead, such clues are simply an indication that all is perhaps not as it should be—a good reason to dig deeper.
E-mail Me Communication expert Jeff Hancock and his colleagues at Cornell University asked students to spend a week making notes of all of their significant face-to-face conversations, telephone chats, texts, and e-mails, and then work through the list, indicating which ones contained lies.25 The results revealed that people lied in 14 percent of e-mails, 21 percent of texts, 27 percent of face-to-face conversations, and 37 percent of telephone calls. According to Hancock, people are reluctant to lie in e-mails because their…
In an insightful study of time management, Roger Buehler at Wilfrid Laurier University asked students to indicate when they expected to finish an important term paper.26 The students believed that they would hand in their work, on average, ten days before the deadline. They were, however, being far too optimistic; in reality, they tended to finish the papers just one day before the deadline. This effect, known as the “planning fallacy,” is not limited to students trying to finish their term papers on time. Research shows that people have a strong tendency to underestimate how long a project will take and that people working in groups are especially likely to have unrealistic expectations.27 Even when they are trying to be realistic, people tend to imagine that everything will go according to plan, and they do not consider the inevitable unexpected delays and unforeseen problems. However, Buehler’s work has also suggested a quick and effective way of overcoming the problem. When his students were told to think about when they had managed to finish similar tasks in the past, their answers for meeting future deadlines proved much more accurate. It seems that to get an accurate estimate of the time needed to complete a project, you can look at how long it took to finish broadly similar projects in the past. If that doesn’t work, you could always try a technique investigated by Justin Kruger and Matt Evans at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.28 In their studies, participants estimated how long it would take to carry out a relatively complicated activity, such as getting ready for a date. One group was asked simply to make their estimates, while another group was encouraged to “unpack” the activity into its constituent parts (showering, changing clothes, panicking) before deciding on a time frame. Those who did the mental unpacking exercise produced estimates that proved far more accurate than those of other participants. So to find out how long it really will take you to do something, isolate all of the steps involved and then make your time estimate.