Performance dips. Is it all just statistics?



In the age-old debate about which works best – positively rewarding desired behaviours or punishing non-desired behaviours – we need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of making a causal attribution that does not actually exist. We may be observing nothing more than a mere consequence of statistical distribution known to students of statistics as ‘regression to the mean’.

This is described in the excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (p 175), where he describes an Air Force trainer who objected to Kahneman making the claim that rewarding improved performance was more effective than punishing mistakes. His objection was based on his experience. When he positively praised someone for performing a manoeuvre well, on the next occasion the individual inevitably performed worse. On the other hand, when someone did badly, he would blast a condemnation into their ear which, in the view of the trainer, always caused an improvement in performance.  Ergo, negative reinforcement works more effectively than positive.



And, so it might seem, on first inspection in this example. That is, until you think about these situations as being distributed levels of performance around a mean. It makes sense that one single piece of outstanding performance is very likely to be followed by one that is closer to the mean than before. Likewise, an extremely poorly executed manoeuvre is more than likely an aberration, and (even without the blast in the ear) is likely to result in an improvement, and a performance closer to the mean on the next occasion.

What the trainer had stumbled upon was a rule of statistical distribution, and not a profound principle of psychological reinforcement theory.

What we do know, however, is that the brain is wired in such a way as to be biased toward negativity.  This is a consequence of our evolutionary journey and is one of the reasons that we have survived as a species.  It was critical, and indeed life-saving at times, for our ancestors to be alert to danger, to be primed to detect predators, to see risks everywhere. Neuroscience demonstrates that our emotional centres are biased toward negative emotions, and, for this reason, positivity does face an uphill battle. It is working against the tide of our emotional make-up, and to overcome the bias (or at least redress it) we need to experience at least a 3 to 1 ratio of positive thoughts or experiences over negative ones on a daily basis.  (for a deeper treatment of this area see the previous post Overcoming the Brain’s Negativity Bias).

Negative reinforcements and punishments have their place in a world associated with danger and risk, but in a world where our safety is less of an issue, and the emphasis is on how well we thrive, grow and develop, the powerful effects of positive reinforcement are in the generation of optimism, creativity, empowerment and confidence.


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Overcoming the Brain’s Negativity Bias

We didn’t get where we are today by being positive you know. Oh no.  Survival is a tough, uncompromising business.  Our ancient ancestors needed the negativity bias that is neurally wired into our brains in order to be successful. And successful they were; the fact you are reading this today being proof of that. The paradox is that this very successful survival mechanism – ‘the negativity bias’ – can often get in the way of people being able to experience life positively.

Let’s look at a simple model of how the human brain has been built up over tens of thousands of years of evolution.  (see also Rick Hanson’s article on this subject).          We can think of it as being composed of three (evolutionary) layers:

1. The Lizard Brain            This is the ‘old brain’. It shares many characteristics with the reptilian brain. It tends to fire in a reactive way. It is alert to dangers.  One classic and well-know example that is often quoted is the ’emotional hijack’ – when our emotions take over and we can actually feel like we are at the mercy of another brain. In some ways that is true.  When the ‘red mist’ falls across our eyes in moments of fury or fear, the lizard has taken over the controls.

2.   The Mammalian Brain      The middle layer of the brain, which we share with other mammals (in an evolutionary sense) is much more concerned with seeking rewards. More sophisticated processing takes place at this layer than in the ‘old brain’, although in neuroplastic terms it is still relatively ‘rigid’.

3.  The Primate/Human Brain    The most recently developed, upper layer of the brains of primates and humans is concerned primarily with attachments and relationships.   We see this most clearly in the use of communication, language, social network development and extracted thought concerned with abstract concepts such as philosophy, religion and science.

Some of the most recent advances in the science of neuroplasticity have started to reveal amazing abilities for the brain to change and alter shape (by creating new connections and thickening existing connections) as a result of experiences and repeated use.  While neuroplasticity can, and does, take place at all three levels of the brain, it does appear that it is much more difficult to affect changes in the lizard brain than in the primate/human level (or neocortical region) of the brain.  For a superb in-depth treatment of this area, I refer you to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain.

Why is this important?  Well, it means that, no matter how sophisticated and developed our thinking becomes, no matter how much we believe we have our emotions under control, there is, deep within our 21st Century selves, a part of us which is operating on one simple rule, which is basically “Get Lunch – Don’t Be Lunch!”

Now, even in the wild, most anxious episodes resolve fairly quickly.  The highly attuned Continue reading