Business psychology

Four key ways neuroscience can help your business

- November 28, 2015 4 MIN READ

With so many using neuroscience as the evidence for their methods, franchises and sales techniques, how much can we believe?

The YouTube ad for the Porsche 911GTS pitted against an Albatross jet-fighter is rather impressive. But the presence of an EEG helmet and the claim that dopamine levels were measured just makes me mad.

The helmet is right, but the measuring equipment just wouldn’t fit in the car or fighter and could not be analysed in three dimensions in real time. All the facial movements and laughter would wreck the readings and, um, who’s taking blood samples? I’m grateful the fiction writers left out the white coats, at least they’re didn’t treat us like complete idiots.

Avoiding neuro-nonsense

Cause and effect is a killer. In Buyology, Martin Lindstrom uses brain imaging as evidence for:

  • Why anti-smoking ads cause more smoking;
  • How Nokia ringtones killed off the brand; and
  • How brain scans forecast elections.

Martin, I think, makes a fundamental error in his thinking. He sees a splotch on a brain scan, then a behaviour and says ‘ah, this cigarette packet causes that increased sale’. Brain imaging can help us with finding tumours, watching the blood flow and seeing emotional reactions, but it cannot tell us why those things are occurring. In the case of cigarettes, his targets were already all heavy smokers. It is often possible that several other factors are at play.

Neuroscience is learning a lot about how we work, but not a lot about what it means to be human. Next time someone points to a brain scan telling you this does that which causes that, just remember, knowing ‘what’ is not the same thing as knowing ‘why’.

So what, if anything, can be taken from the neuroscience field with integrity?

1. Managing state

We are very complex beings, with multiple interrelated systems. Sometimes those systems come into harmony and work beautifully together to help us achieve peak states. One of these is called ‘Flow State’.

Steven Kotler at the Flow Genome Project is exploring this place we call being ‘in the zone’ where productivity increases by up to 600% (you read that right) with insight, discovery and the integration of disparate information. We can learn from companies like Patagonia and Facebook, who have recognised the power of flow state and made allowances for staff to find it. At Patagonia, if the surf’s up, you’re free to go enjoy it. At Facebook, if you’re tired, they’ve installed sleep pods so you can take an afternoon nap!

Flow state actions: integrate downtime into your workday. Go for a lunchtime walk, watch a ‘People are Awesome’ clip, take a twenty-minute nap when you’re tired, kick a football around, call a loved one. And watch this.

2. Learning to play

Notice some of the activities that kick us into flow: rest, sport and play. Herbert Benson discovered that if you relax at the very highest point of stress your performance climbs higher (see his 1975 work The Relaxation Response). Just like flow state, it turns out that play creates a powerful state for work as well. Emotional neuroscience researcher JaakPanksepp extols the amazing benefits of play. I cannot do the thirty years of work justice here, but it is suffice to say that at a fundamental, brain circuit level the actions of learning sit directly upon the circuits of play – linked in one direction to physical movement and in the other to emotions. Play more, learn better, think clearer.

Psychiatrist Stuart Brown says, “Without play, optimal learning, normal social functioning, self-control and other executive functions do not mature,”. Play neuroscience has demonstrated that we need music, art and downtime to develop the creativity needed in the workplace.

Play actions: in your next peak stress time do something completely different like listen to some modern classical like Philip Glass, or jump onto Words with Friends, watch a TED talk or visit an online Art Gallery.

3. Building better sales

Neuroscience is telling us things about sales that are frankly just common sense and old-fashioned warmth and friendliness. But now we can say we saw it in a PET-scanner!

Neuro psychotherapist Pieter Rossow has shown that the most effective counsellors and coaches by far are those who build rapport with their clients and pace them. Neuromarketer Oren Klaff (author of Pitch Anything) helps sales people to get better at building rapport by being aware of the ‘croc brain’ safety response. In a retail environment “can I help you” is a terrible first question. It says, “my store, my time, you’re a target”– that equals danger! A better question is “are you looking for anything in particular?”. This says, “your quest, your time, I’m here to help”– and that equals safety! The keyword is to kiss ‘cold’ calling goodbye and warm up to their wavelength.

Neuromarketing actions: Watch your body language and what it is communicating to your customer’s limbic system; tune into how they’re feeling (flee/fight/flight); watch verbal cues like reactions to ‘special’ and exclusive language (acronyms are a killer). Use their words instead.

4. Environmental cues

Talking about threat responses, the brain is incredible at scanning the environment, and it is doing so subconsciously all the time. Large organisations have paid a lot of money to get advice about decor, design, colouring, textures and environmental cues like room temperature and smell. Stand in front of a Beechworth Bakery or a Pie Face (if you can find one) and feel, smell and look. Everything they do is researched and on purpose.

The fragrance of bread, sugar or strawberries has been shown to increase sales by 50-300% (Hirsch, 1995, IJA). I came across a great little book recently about neuroscience and decor called Drunk Tank Pink, which brings us research behind why Olympic Games have uniforms (red gives unfair advantage), why pink is used in the police lock down to calm aggressors and how awarding smiley faces helps bring electricity usage down. As soloists I think we are in a great position to leverage off their research because we have to make similar decisions about our website, front room, couch, wallpaper and storefront.

Environmental actions: Do an audit of your office space for how it looks, feels and smells. Consider improvements. Walk slowly into Coles or Woolies and see, smell and experience what they are doing – because it all has a purpose: nudging you to their sale items.