This week’s cover story in The New York Times Magazine was a profile of Adam Grant, a Wharton professor who specializes in workplace dynamics. The author of the article was pleased by the way Grant revamped offices to use positive, warm-hearted means of motivation. In one example:
[A]t the call center, Grant proposed a simple, low-cost experiment: given that one of the center’s primary purposes was funding scholarships, Grant brought in a student who had benefited from that fund-raising. The callers took a 10-minute break as the young man told them how much the scholarship had changed his life and how excited he now was to work as a teacher with Teach for America.
The results were surprising even to Grant. A month after the testimonial, the workers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone and bringing in 171 percent more revenue, even though they were using the same script. In a subsequent study, the revenues soared by more than 400 percent. Even simply showing the callers letters from grateful recipients was found to increase their fund-raising draws.
When Grant went back and talked to the callers about their improvement, many actively discounted the possibility that the brief encounter with a scholarship student helped. “Several of them were stunned,” Grant said. “Their response was, ‘Yeah, I knew I was more effective, but that was because I had more practice,’ or, ‘That was because I had a better alumni pool in that period — I got lucky.’ ” Eventually, having replicated the test five times, Grant was confident that he had eliminated other explanations.
The call center people were confused that the personal encounter with the scholarship recipient could make such a difference. After all, they already knew what they did – they didn’t get any new data out of the talk, nor did they make any deliberate changes.
It’s easy to imagine that a perfect rationalist would have learned nothing from the meeting that Grant set up. After all, a good rationalist wouldn’t need an emotional prod to internalize information. This sounds a lot like the trope of the Straw Vulcan who distrusts emotional cues as illogical.
Sometimes, people are surprised to look over our sample schedule and see that CFAR offers some ‘soft’ classes about emotional awareness and social dynamics. But we see those domains as just as relevant as decision theory and Bayes theorem. It’s all about understanding the world you live in (which includes you-as-you-are!) and how to act effectively with the tools you’ve got.
Most of us have experience with some finicky piece of equipment (I spent much too long wedging thin books under a power cord that need to be at just the right angle to make contact with my laptop). It would be absurd for me to glare at the cord and refuse to make adjustments because it ought to work without any adjustments. And the quirks that Grant is making use of aren’t idiosyncrasies; they look like they’re factory standard for Homo sapiens.
Our rationality workshops start by understanding the world as it is – how do you make sense of new data (both when you have a lot of time for analysis and when you need to use a quick and dirty approximations)? And then we can move on to expanding our tool kit (e.g., in our Installing Habits, Overcoming Aversions, and Propagating Urges classes) so we can take action and make change in ourselves and the world around us.