Friday, 28 March 2014

Obesity! Friends!

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

In my adopted home country, England, you send your children either to public school or private school. Those who can afford private education will shop around. Parents usually visit nearby schools, look at the facilities, talk to headmasters, listen to their ‘spiel’ of “children are very happy here, this is what makes us different”, check the fees and make a decision. All those bits of information get to your brain together with “Mary takes her children here. You know Mary? The lawyer you met at that party?” And the combination of all this, allows you to decide ‘freely’ where to send your children. 

So, Mary and you meet in the car park for years to come. When somebody has just been hired and goes to the office on his first day, he is given a tour of the place and perhaps an induction plan. There are Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to follow, training courses to join and detailed instructions on how to fill in an expense sheet. In other words, lots of formal ‘onboarding’ stuff. But the SOP does not contain all the rules or the hundreds of things that occupy 90% of your time in daily life. They are not written down. Is it better to bump into each other in the corridor as a way to meet people or to request formal meetings through Outlook instead? Is it better to desert the floor en masse at lunchtime or to unpack plastic containers and free your cucumber sandwiches in solitude instead? Is it better to wear a tie or to avoid embarrassment for being the only one who does?

Is it better to chat across the dividing screens or to enjoy monastic silence behind closed office doors? Is it better to have meetings in the cafeteria or in meeting rooms? Is it better to put everything into PowerPoints or to have a dialog without visuals?

By day three the new recruit has unconsciously adopted hundreds of unwritten rules which truly define ‘the culture’.

We are influenced by others in an incredible way. This statement is silly. It is obvious. However, many people spend a lot of time fighting against the fact that this is actually the case. We all want to be unique, different and not part of the crowd. But we are definitely influenced by others. What’s more, friends and friends of friends seem to have a particularly strong power over us. It is not entirely clear why, but many studies, some of them quoted in this book, show that this is the case. In a very important American study where more than 12,000 people were followed over three decades, it was shown that people were at a greater risk of becoming obese when a close friend became obese. We’ll talk more about this later. Obesity! Friends! Interestingly, in this large study, friends were statistically well above the influence from spouse or siblings.

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Monday, 24 March 2014

The Beauty of Two Brains

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

Don’t despair. Yes, we are Homo Sapiens. Very Sapiens indeed. Our brain has evolved and has a brand new neocortex, which is responsible for all those noble things like judgement, morals and apparently free will. Descartes told us: “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am). Sure. The problem is that when we developed the neocortex, we did not get rid of the old layers of brain (paleocortex) which control pretty much everything else, such as emotions and any other primal animal behaviours. 

We really have two brains. That’s not bad! What makes us human is the coexistence of both and the subtle dynamics between them. Homo Sapiens shows off in the eloquence of your speech, the complexity of your thoughts, the elegance of the scientific rationale, the richness of introspection, the beauty of poetic writing and even in the elaborate, perhaps contradictory, mysterious and baffling intricacy of your religious thoughts.

Homo Sapiens takes his children to school, reads the newspapers, goes to work, fills in spreadsheets, uses machines, plays tennis, gives lectures, texts home, creates art and has drinks with friends. But inside this Homo Sapiens there is also a more primal Homo Imitans. The threads of the rich tapestry of behaviours of Homo Sapiens are made of imitation and influence. We copy others or are influenced by others, or they copy us or are influenced by us. And this happens much more than we care to admit. Most of this copying (some good, some bad) is unconscious, but it’s there.

We are intellectually complex, rationally stylish, highly enlightened, unsophisticated copying machines. Most people who buy newspapers buy the ones which have ‘close-to-home’ views of their world. Perhaps, simply put, you can’t stomach that left/right wing, so you buy X which you will continue to buy forever. By doing so, you join the club of people who think like you and make similar choices. You are now de facto linked to a social network of individuals who read the same newspaper and see the same adverts. The belonging to the invisible club is self-reinforcing. 

Exposing yourself to more of the same (view of the world) will make you continue buying that newspaper. It has an influence on you. You think you make a daily rational choice (after all, you don’t have to do this), but the habit and social self-reinforcement are in the driver’s seat. This is a caricature example, but we are composed of hundreds of these daily caricatures.

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Thursday, 20 March 2014

“Not me! I’m not part of a herd!”

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

My book, Homo Imitans, is about bundling and un-bundling all the ingredients of social infection with behaviours at the core. I use the term of social infection to refer to social changes both inside the organization (i.e. the world of public and private business, as well as non-profit) and in the macro-social world. I will share with you the logic behind this and I will use the premise that there is a continuum between both worlds. We need to unbundle the components to understand and master them. Then we need to re-bundle them, put it all together again to orchestrate that change.

As you can already see, I have a passion for infections. I think there’s nothing better than a good epidemic. Blame it on my previous career as a practicing physician. If you are a manager or a leader in either of these worlds, you are also in the infection business. You may not know it yet, but this book is going to help you realize that this is the only hope you have of managing and leading successfully.

I want you to start thinking either like a good ‘patient zero’ (the term used in epidemiology to describe the first patient infecting others) or a social master of other ‘patients zero’. Yes, I do love epidemics.
In fact, I want to create epidemics of success inside and outside organizations. 

OK, so we will need to define success, I agree. And I, like you, have my own ethical filters for picking my epidemics. ‘Epidemic’ usually has a negative connotation, I know, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.

Look around. We are bound to each other by the things we do, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the mobile phones we use and a million other things that are a copy of what others do. You thought you made completely independent, deliberate and rational choices, but in reality you were infected by the social norms around you. And when these norms are not manifested physically around you, they are still in your head. Call it whatever you like. Social scientists use terms such as social contagion, social copying or social infections. Sometimes also more prosaic ones such as ‘herd behaviour’. I know what you are thinking: “Not me! I’m not part of a herd!” Yep, we don’t like it. Because accepting this reality feels like saying that we have surrendered our will, that one aspect of our being that makes us human. Herds are for
cattle, we have free will.

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Monday, 10 March 2014

I am on two missions...

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

I am on two missions. One: I want to create epidemics of goodness and counter-epidemics to evil by applying the powers of social influence and social contagion. Two: I want to enlist you in my first mission. Grandiose language, I know. OK, I’ll come down to earth. Let me translate. I want to create real change in organizations by applying the principles that create change in the macro-social world and vice versa. And I want to recruit you as a follower of these ideas:
  1. The only change is behavioural change. Pick any organization, health programme or societal change project. No matter how much you reorganize processes in the company, or how many health awareness campaigns are in place, or how many appeals to community cohesion your government funds; nothing changes until and unless behaviours change. If you are leading change in organizations or society, behaviours must be the focus of your attention. So we’d better know how to do this and, believe me, above all, how not to do it.
  2. Behaviours don’t like classrooms, PowerPoint presentations, posters or billboards. Behaviours travel through imitation and copying. So this is the second clue. We’d better know how this works and ‘what’ or ‘who’ has the power to spread behaviours. We must get this right or we will be wasting our time, money and hope.
  3. Organizational change and macro-social change are large scale changes. How large will vary case by case, but we are not talking about changes that occur at the atomic level of management teams or in the intimacy of the one-to-one executive coaching sessions. These are important and may in some cases indeed be crucial to the organization, but the social infections I am talking about go beyond the scope of these situations.
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