Practical Wisdom

New York Times columnist David Brooks is on to something. He believes you can find the answer to just about any question you have about human behavior. He is probably right. Today, if you know where to look, there is no reason to be flummoxed by all the seemingly irrational things your kids, co-workers, and customers do. You can gain lots of insight in your own surprising behavior, too

Brooks suggests you visit Kevin Lewis’ blog, where you will find a “Lollapalooza” of useful social science research. Spend a few minutes browsing the studies summarized there, and you may gain some clarity on handling that difficult management or family situation you have been dreading. If this site fails to offer the guidance you seek, there are plenty of other easily accessible sources you can consult for help. Whether you are a parent, a spouse, a supervisor, or an entrepreneur, this kind of research contributes to success in the real world. Better deals, better relationships, and better organizations.

Here are a few examples of the practical insights waiting for you in the research world. This admittedly biased sample concentrates on scientific findings relevant to leading or working with other people:

  • Chances are that you suffer from an “empathy gap” in relating to others. Loran Nordgren and Kasia Banas, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that people often underestimate the pain that others feel when they are excluded or shamed. Given this general tendency, you might take a few moments before your next encounter with a colleague or family member to imagine how your words and actions will affect them. There is a strong probability that you are not in touch with the full impact of your deeds.


  • The more power you have, the less sensitive you are to others’ reactions. Joris Lammers and Diederik Stapel conclude, in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, that people in positions of power are inclined to deny “humanness” in others who are affected by their decisions. This insight has relevance for executives, physicians, and parents, who are all in positions of power. Especially when they are under pressure, they tend to objectify the very people for whom they are responsible: employees, patients, and kids. To be fair, this is partly a survival mechanism: it is hard to be responsible for others and can be overwhelming. Still, as with the “empathy gap,” it helps to remind yourself that your actions often have dramatic effects on others.


  • Your writing style influences how people react to the content of your emails. Francis McAndrew and Chelsea Re De Jonge, in Social Psychological and Personality Science, demonstrate that your emails seem angrier if you write impersonally (in the “third person”) than if you inject a personal tone into your messages. In a rush to get things done, you might dash off a note to colleagues, giving little thought to its tone. Think twice! Style matters.


  • You are less ethical than you think you are. Max Bazerman, in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, finds that most people see themselves as good people. But in negotiations they stretch the truth, make biased decisions, and favor insiders over outsiders. If everybody remembered that they are not as ethical as they think are, there would probably be fewer overheated disputes at work and at home.

Bottom line: As difficult as it is to get outside your own skin, it has a big pay-off. When you do, you will make better decisions, be a better leader and friend, and ultimately a better person too.