In a research experiment in 2001, two groups of people completed a paper maze that featured a mouse in the middle trying to reach a picture on the outside. One group had a picture of cheese on the outside, the other a predator – an owl. After completing the maze both groups were given creativity tests. Which group do you think performed best, in other words were able to demonstrate the greatest level of creativity?
The group which worked with the mouse heading towards the cheese solved significantly more creative problems than those heading to the owl.
So what’s the big deal? This study by Friedman and Foerster, (2001) replicates to an extent what happens in the workplace so the question is, are your employees perceiving an owl or a piece of cheese as they metaphorically help their mouse through his maze?
The Approach-Avoid Response
It demonstrates one of the key mechanisms in the brain by which we process information in our world: the approach-avoid response. This response tells us that for every stimulus we encounter, our brain either perceives it as being ‘good’ and want to engage with it or ‘bad’ and want to avoid it. So all stimuli associated with positive emotions or rewards will likely lead to an ‘approach’ response, whereas those associated with negative emotions or pain will prompt an ‘avoid’ response. The purpose of this is to ensure that the brain learns efficiently what it needs to ensure survival. The limbic system in the centre of our brain has a key function in central role in detecting, processing and storing in memory whether something should be approached or avoided.
The Impact of Social Threat
We have long been aware of our primal instinct to survive, that we are motivated to run from tigers – avoid potential threats- and be attracted towards potential pleasures or rewards such as food and shelter. However, recent neuroscientific research is pointing to a similar mechanism in operation in our brains in response to social cues or how other people engage and interact with us. So in our workplace, even though there are no tigers to run from and we have basic needs such as shelter and hopefully some food, our brains are trying to survive socially. We are constantly assessing the way others interact with us for its threat or reward potential.
Not only this, but a wide body of research also demonstrates we are pre-disposed to detect threats more easily than rewards. Unfortunately, the avoid response generates far more arousal of the limbic system more quickly and with longer lasting effects than the approach response.
The impact on the brain of a social threat is significant. For example, the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain connected to higher order and rational thinking (prefrontal cortex) undergoes a decrease in the amount of oxygen and glucose available. This inhibits vital brain function such as conscious processing, decision-making, planning and working memory. Our ability to think in a complex, insightful way is diminished and replaced by generalised and pessimistic thinking. Furthermore, we experience social pain such as rejection in the same part of the brain as physical pain.
Clearly, when the brain perceives a social threat, it’s counterproductive to the positive state of mind that fosters engaged and motivated thinking. On the other hand, an approach response fosters positive emotions such as joy, happiness and desire. Dopamine levels are increased which enhance learning. An approach state of mind signals engagement and research demonstrates that this positive mindset will improve problem-solving, collaboration and generally enhance performance overall.
In the working environment, there are significant implications of this for leaders and managers who have the potential to evoke either approach or avoid responses in their staff. Emerging neuroscience research strongly supports the importance of proficiency in people- management skills such as self-awareness and an ability to tune into and promote a positive emotional and mental state in others.
Co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute David Rock points out that the brain perceives the workplace first and foremost as a social system. He posits that leaders who understand this dynamic will be more effective in creating an environment that brings out the best in their staff because they have the ability to “intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance”.
Friedman, R. S., & Förster, J. (2001) The Effects Of Promotion and Prevention Cues On Creativity: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (6), 1001–1013
Rock, D. (2008), Scarf: a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others: NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 44–52
Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.
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