Category Archives: Kitchen psychology

Lifehack: how to improve your memory

Sorry, I don’t know how to improve your memory.  But I do have one tip:

The best way to improve your memory is to organize your life so that you don’t need to use your memory that often.

I know the world is full of different reminder apps and todo lists and such.  For me, the problem with those is that I always forget to use them.  They don’t become natural part of my life.  My “trick” (which probably is common knowledge) is to inject reminders to my everyday life and tools that I already use.  A couple of examples:

  • It’s evening.  Suddenly it occurs to you that tomorrow you need to take the tax card to work.  Solution: place the tax card in front of the front door so that you cannot leave from home without noticing it.
  • Email is natural part of my life.  I often send email to myself.  For example  when work related idea comes to mind during weekend, I send the idea to my work email and then it’s off my mind.
  • Weekend is coming and you are in the middle of some programming task.  How to remember where to continue on Monday?  Leave a non-compiling line in the code so that compiler will remind you where you were.

You get the point!  I’d appreciate to hear if you, my dear reader, have got tips like these.

About freedom of choice

In Finnish(*) there is a phrase which actually carries plenty of wisdom:

Nothing is mandatory except death and taxes.

Let’s first imagine something you’d rather not do, but someone is insisting you to participate. Take Christmas shopping for example. Your significant other would like you to join her in hours of wandering in crowded department stores, but you’d rather stay home in your pajamas and play Xbox.

Basically you have four different approaches:

  1. You go shopping, but you feel resentful and irritated. “Here I am, in this hullabaloo, even though I don’t want to, I don’t deserve this.. let’s go home already…” 
  2. You stay home playing Xbox, but you feel guilty and perhaps ashamed of yourself. “Here I am, kind of enjoying, but hey, I should be shopping… now I don’t have present for my godson… and my partner is probably angry at me..”
  3. You choose to go shopping, but not out of guilt, but perhaps because you want to spend time with your partner, and to attend to her needs of companionship and doing things together. Maybe you go shopping because you choose that your desire to buy a present to your godson is greater than your desire to relax on the sofa.
  4. You choose to stay home playing Xbox, but just because you chose to be honest to your need to relax. And at this time it was greater than your need to attend to your partner’s needs. Not because you have somehow deserved it or because your partner “doesn’t have the right to insist me to go shopping”.

At this point you probably know where I’m going with this. Whatever you do, choose either approach number 3 or 4. It may seem like a small thing, but the difference in attitude does have a big impact on your mood. And at the same time you’ll be more honest to yourself and the people around you.

The liberty to choose goes to all aspects of life. You don’t need to work for that stupid boss. You may choose to do so, but perhaps because you need the money. You don’t need to give your child a car ride to hobbies every night, but perhaps you choose to do so because you don’t want her to walk alone in the dark. Etc etc.

I know this is easier said than done, but it’s worth a try to change the attitude.

(*) And originally Benjamin Franklin said: “[…] but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”

The reason why you should have picture of a sunset as your desktop background

Back to kitchen psychology!

There was a group of psychologists (*) who conducted an experiment on a group of people. The participants were divided into two groups and they had to play a game (rules irrelevant here). Group A played the game in a room with a briefcase and a fancy business pen. Group B had neutral items in their room, like backpack and a wooden pencil.

Results? Group A played the game in significantly greedier and competitive way. They were merely exposed to “business items”, which affected their thinking unconsciously. When they were asked why did they played the game the way they did, they made up an explanation and believed it was true.

Pretty amazing and also scary. I guess this is why advertising works.

So how does this should affect you? Firstly, I would suggest being exposed to end users as much as possible. I guess it might trick your brain into thinking their needs, even though you would maybe just see them passing by. If you ever have seen those standing real-sized cardboard user personas, they might do the same trick.

Secondly, even though you can’t prime yourself consciously, you might consider surrounding your life with people and items that supposedly create positive rather than negative primings. Soothing desktop background image, clean desktop, being nice to each other… I know that sounds awfully tacky, but hey, I’m allowed to be tacky in my own blog!

Thirdly, when creating presentations, you can slip in slides that contain subliminal messages. For example if you’re presenting something to your boss, you can add words like RAISE, MORE MONEY, PROMOTION there. Just remember to show those slides just like a couple of milliseconds so that your boss doesn’t realize he saw those slides. Profit!

Ok, the last one was a joke. Kinda.

(*) 2003 Kay, Wheeler, Barghand, Ross. Sorry no proper reference.

How to deal with angry people

So we continue with kitchen psychology. This post is a sequel to this post.

brainThat is the human brain. Yes it is. Roughly it can be divided into three areas:

  1. Lizard brain. Handles the most primitive needs, like being angry, hungry and horny.
  2. Limbic system. Emotions and feelings.
  3. Neocortex. High level thinking, speech, logic.

As I said in the previous post, the lower levels of the brain get priority over the higher parts. So if you’re hungry and anxious, you can’t just think straight, let alone solve complex problems.

So lets imagine a situation:  you have a meeting with a client. When he arrives to the meeting, it’s obvious that he’s in a bad mood. He’s clearly upset about something. (You can replace “client” with wife or husband coming to home.) There are a lot of things you can do, but I can tell you what not to do: whatever the problem is, don’t try to solve it for him. Solving problems requires the neocortex of the brain, and because this person is all “limbic”, he can’t think logically. It’s not his fault, that’s just how the brain works.

As an engineer is tempting to try to solve the problem, but chances are that you make things even worse.  The same goes when you’re self upset about something. For example, you’re trying to solve a problem that should be easy. But you just can’t figure it out and you get frustrated. At this point there are two primal reactions that are natural to us:

  • Fuck this! Why can’t I solve this stupid thing?! I just try harder graaaaah! (Fight)
  • Ah nevermind fuck this I quit I’m bad at everything screw this why did they ever hire me.. (Flee)

Either way you probably can’t solve the problem at hand. Your neocortex is shut down because you’re having an extreme limbic reaction. So what to do then? The main idea is to get away of the limbic reaction. Here are a couple of things to try:

  • If you notice that you self are frustrated/angry/upset: don’t fight it. Take a break, have a snack, go to a walk. Say aloud “I’m frustrated”. Even that helps.
  • Angry client/wife/child: don’t try to solve their problems. Help them to express their feelings. “Are you upset because XX?” and then just listen them ranting. Don’t say “What’s the matter with you?” because that’s an open invitation to a fight.
  • You get pissed at someone because he jumped the queue / almost crashed you in the traffic / any other reason:  try to think yourself in the other person’s position. Maybe he’s in a hurry because his child got to a hospital? In reality he might just be an asshole, but thinking the best of him helps you to calm down.

Here’s the tricky part: At first remembering all this requires the neocortex, and by now you know what happens to the neocortex when you get upset. I personally suck at this, but I guess what can be done is to practice and practice, so that little by little these behaviors become natural to you, so that even in “limbic crisis” you can act by them.

Don’t step on my scarf

Imagine yourself trying to remove a CD from its plastic wrapper. You just cut your nails and there are no scissors nearby. So almost a mission impossible. Then someone comes to you, blurts “let me”, takes the CD away from your hands and opens it. Problem solved, CD removed from its evil wrapping,  everything is fine, right? If you are like most people, probably not. You feel irritated.

I’m going to tell you why.

To put it short, in addition to scanning the environment for physical dangers, our brain is also constantly observing the social environment around us. A “social threat” creates same kind of fight-or-flee response as a physical threat. I guess this is because our ancestors had not only to dodge the attacking mammoths but also to get along with the tribe. And getting along with the tribe requires reacting to social threats.

These social threats (and rewards), can be divided into the following domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness. SCARF. This stuff is being handled by the limbic system, a.k.a. the lizard brain, so we can’t turn this off.

Status is our relative importance in a group. Pecking order, if you like. Our brain is constantly figuring out what is our status in any human interaction. Status can be threatened easily when giving instructions or advice too easily, or hinting that someone is ineffective in his task.

Most arguments start when someone hurts one’s status, which creates a fight or flee response. Especially in internet forums it’s so easy to fight that the result will nearly always be a battle for status.

Our brain likes to know what happens next. It hates uncertainty. We don’t like going to a meeting without an agenda, not just because it might be waste of time, but because we don’t know what is going to happen.

One of the good sides of Scrum is that it brings a lot of certainty to developers’ heads. There are clear roles, meetings have a clear purpose and sprints are protected from sudden functional requirements. (Sidenote: not going into detailed analysis of school book Scrum and its problems here.)

We like to be in control, or at least have an illusion of it. Classic example of threatening autonomy is micro-managing — telling people what to do instead of letting them decide themselves what to do.

If you’re helping a co-worker, try not to threat his autonomy. Instead of intruding by saying “let me help”, ask “do you need help?” or “You seem frustrated, do you want to talk?”. This way your co-worker gets to choose if he wants help or not, and his autonomy isn’t hurt.

This is our perceived feeling of whether we’re “out” or “in” the group — sense of belonging. I think this is why we feel so bad if someone doesn’t get our joke. Or just doesn’t understand what you’re saying.  In a way you feel that you’re out of that mini-group, and this causes threat to relatedness.

Our brain likes fairness. Sense of unfairness activates the same part in brain as when we feel physically disgusted. If your co-worker gets “unfair” promotion, you feel like you’ve eaten spoiled food. Yuck.

Being aware of this stuff helps you understand the situations where you get irritated and upset. And more importantly, you can do your best to avoid stepping on someone else’s scarf. And if you happen to be a Scrum Master, you should look after your team scarf.

And here’s perhaps the most important part: if any one of those five areas is threatened, your capability to think reduces significantly. Your prefrontal cortex gets second priority because the limbic system is handling with primitive threats.  There was a study where two groups had to solve a labyrinth, group A had just the labyrinth in their papers, group B had the same labyrinth, but in addition a picture of a spider in the corner of the paper. Group B solved the labyrinth slower, because just the picture of a spider triggered a threat in their limbic system, which hindered their thinking.

If you’re interested, here’s the scientific article about SCARF.  For example I didn’t cover any of the reward side of the SCARF. And I have to mention that this post was greatly inspired by this great two day course. It’s worth the money.

PS. If you read this far, you probably can guess what irritated you when opening the CD wrapper —  most likely your autonomy was hurt, maybe even status as well.