Selfish Innovation

Selfish InnovationCould we deliver better innovation results from our workshops by appealing to the inherent selfishness of our participants? This question comes to mind for the innovator reviewing the results of new research in neuroscience concerning human behavior in the activity of self-expression. The research concludes that there is a strong human drive towards selfishness, with a powerful reward mechanism, that could provide an interesting motivational approach for innovation workshop leaders.

In a recent article in The Atlantic titled The Selfish Meme,” Frank Rose delves into the fascinating implications of neuroscience investigations into the fundamental human behavior of selfishness. In functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) scans of 212 research subjects, Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell from Harvard observed activity in the brain’s reward mechanism (the mesolimbic dopamine system) that was triggered more intensively when the subject spoke about his or her own opinions as opposed to speaking about the opinions of others. Tamir and Mitchell likened this act of “self-disclosure” to other, more familiar, brain reward-triggering events, such as food, reproduction, and money.

From a survival standpoint, this attribute does not seem to make sense. As Rose notes, “[i]f all we did was prattle on about ourselves, we’d soon bore one another to extinction.” However, Rose does observe potential benefits from selfish storytelling that may confer evolutionary advantages on loquaciousness:

“[B]y telling stories effectively, we gain status, obtain social feedback, and strengthen our bonds with other people. And on the flip side, all of this nattering—­or tweeting—by our fellow humans ensures that we don’t have to discover everything on our own. We have no end of people competing to tell us what’s what. Hence the real paradox of sharing: what feels good for me probably ends up benefiting us all.”

Rose continues by stating that this rewards mechanism explains human storytelling behavior ranging from the talkative neighborhood gossip to the power of new social media. People love to talk about themselves, he concludes, and social media makes this even more prevalent because it lacks the real-time feedback mechanism (rolled eyes or turning away from the speaker) that permeates face-to-face interactions.

For the practitioner of innovation, the “Selfish Meme” offers an alternative approach to innovation brainstorming sessions or workshops. Typically the facilitator will propose a theme or pose a problem and solicit feedback from the participants. A workshop participant could trigger the brain reward mechanism by offering his or her opinion on the items posed by the facilitator, but the workshop will inevitably trend towards more detailed definition of a particular concept, and if that idea was generated by one of the participants, the others may be less engaged than they would with a deep dive on their own idea. The facilitator should think about the importance of a participant expressing an opinion as opposed to just engaging in an ongoing dialog on the ideas expressed by others. The facilitator may want to pose questions in a way that ensures that he or she is looking for the opinion of the participant as opposed to just asking for factual details in a deep dive on a particular concept.

What often happens in workshops is that a team will latch on to a promising idea and spend a great deal of time on it, which engages the person or people most closely tied to that idea but this focus comes at the expense of the inattention of other, less-involved participants. The facilitator should be cognizant of this potential issue and try to make sure that he or she maintains proper engagement with all of the participants, and leveraging the “Selfish Meme” may be a great way to do this. It should be noted that not all participants will have opinions of equal value in the workshop. For instance, a marketing expert may not have much to say in a discussion of engineering concerns, but this is something the facilitator should consider beforehand when setting up the participant list for the workshop. However, it is important to have a cross-section of the company represented in a brainstorming workshop so we are not limited to narrow thinking in trying to solve a problem. Nonetheless, we do need to be aware of the “Selfish Meme” when we set up these types of sessions with diverse participants.

Another technique could be for the facilitator to start the workshop with opinion-expressing exercises that trigger the reward mechanism in the brain and acclimate the participant to the type of behavior that the innovation practitioner is seeking for his or her workshop. We want participants to feel comfortable with expressing their opinions and ideas in the workshop setting and the one great way to do that is to use the brain reward mechanism to drive behavior. This type of behavior can vary by different kinds of personalities (shy individuals may not be willing to express opinions as frequently as more outgoing individuals), but Tamir and Mitchell’s research points to the possibility that this may be a powerful motivator that we should not ignore in our innovation work.

Source: Frank Rose, “The Selfish Meme: Twitter, dopamine, and the evolutionary advantages of talking about oneself,” The Atlantic (October 2012). image credit: tog of war image from bigstock

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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