DISCLAIMER: I’m in my 50’s, I’m a dad, a CEO, and a nerd. I have a Ph. D. in applied behavior analysis, and I’m fascinated by the inner working of our minds. My writing will be sprinkled with geek references, dad jokes, phrases that were barely cool when introduced 10 to 20 years ago, brain science bits, and CEO business babble.

The dinosaurs were lucky compared to us humans. First, they lived on one super continent called Pangea. Think about it. They could walk to any country on Earth for their vacations. More like Fungea, am I right? (Ugh, that even made me groan). The dinosaurs also had it easy with their extinction level threat. A giant space rock. That’s just a physics problem. Apply enough force and the rock is either blown into smaller, less extinction-causing bits, or it’s pushed off course and becomes some other planet’s problem (I’m looking at you Jupiter.)

Not us humans. Our extinction threat comes from much closer than outer space. It is coming from inside our own skulls. That’s right! It’s our brains! (Cue that video with the chipmunk turning dramatically to the camera with the Dun, Dun, DUUUN! Sound). More specifically, our extinction threat is an aspect of our brains called cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are shortcuts our brains evolved to help us survive. They were valuable when we were hunter/gatherers, and any day was a flip of whether we were the eater or the meal. For example, negativity bias causes us to be more attentive to potentially dangerous situations. Back in the day, a rustling bush may have hidden a cute squirrel, or a hungry bear. All it took was mistaking a squirrel for a bear once. The person’s whose brain noticed the rustling and equated it with danger was more likely to seek out less dangerous bushes and survive to pass on their genes.

This sensitivity to negative information means we are more likely to notice and remember negative events in our environment. This was great back when becoming a buffet entrée was a regular possibility. It’s not so great when it blinds us to the good around us.

And don’t get me started on confirmation bias. This cognitive trap occurs when we give more credence to information that confirms what we want to believe and discount or even ignore information that is opposed to our beliefs. We need not look beyond our highly polarized political and cultural environment to see how this bias is harming our ability to work together.

What do cognitive biases have to do with the purpose of this blog, John? A lot. In behavior analysis we describe behavior as being influenced by contingencies. A contingency describes the likely consequences if I exhibit a specific behavior. Basically, if I do action X, then consequence Y is likely to happen. For example, if I tap the keys on my keyboard, words are going to appear on my screen. This is a direct contingency. The consequences happen in the real world. We experience them directly with our senses. They’re easy to implement. A DSP does something good … their supervisor thanks them with an Amazon gift card … DSP feels appreciated. Mission accomplished, right? Wrong!

Our behavior isn’t influenced by direct contingencies alone. In fact, our behavior is far more influenced by what are called verbal contingencies. This is a fancy way of saying beliefs in our heads. If the DSP above believes that their supervisor is a corporate tool who doesn’t care about them, that belief can impact how they perceive the direct contingency of being given an Amazon gift card. That card may lose some or all its value to the DSP based on nothing more than this belief. Behavior analysts call these beliefs verbal contingencies or rule-governed behavior.

Jumping back, what are cognitive biases? I suspect that they are irrational verbal contingencies, essentially broken beliefs. I suspect that verbal contingencies are a big reason why so many corporate initiatives fall flat on their face. Verbal contingencies that contradict or oppose direct contingencies will weaken or even nullify the effectiveness of a direct contingency.

When we’re developing initiatives to improve employee engagement, morale, or performance, we need to take account of the verbal contingencies currently in place. How do we do this? I’ve found anonymous morale surveys to be decent tools for identifying verbal contingencies that can derail efforts to make organizational change. Questions like “Does your immediate supervisor care about you?”, and “Do you feel that your work is appreciated?” can point us to possible areas for deeper analysis. Providing employees the opportunity to elaborate on their answers can help us determine if the primary issue is broken verbal contingencies or broken/missing direct contingencies. Basically, going with our first survey question, does the supervisor actively exhibit behavior that a reasonable person would see as caring, but the employee isn’t registering it versus the supervisor exhibits behavior associated with not caring? Maybe it’s both. We won’t know if we don’t conduct assessments.

Dinosaurs were creatures of pure direct contingencies. All their problems could have been solved with direct changes to their environment. Well, that and arm lengths proportional to their giant bodies. We humans, on the other hand, are often entangled in webs of faulty verbal contingencies that we must cut through before we can start solving our problems.

Up next, I’ll share what we’re doing to try and identify broken verbal contingencies related to staff feeling appreciated in a piece called Should We Appreciate Appreciation Weeks?