Fostering Sustainable Public Procurement

We are what we buy, but what about what our government buys?

In the age of consumerism, our personal values and identity become synonymous with the types of products and services we purchase and consume.1 Individual consumers are purchasing eco-friendly, fair trade, ethically produced goods as a way of expressing their personal values. 

Buying a dishcloth made of recycled fabric from your local farmer’s market has become just as much a way of showing that you care about the environment, labor rights, and supporting small business… as that you needed a new dishcloth. 

Let’s apply this perspective at a governmental level. What do our governments’ procurement processes and choices say about citizens’ values?

Governments buy a lot more than dishcloths. They buy paper, computers, medical supplies, lawnmowers, catering services, and a whole host of other diverse goods and services as part of their normal operations. All this buying adds up and makes public procurement one of the world’s largest business sectors. Public procurement is said to account for approximately 12% of GDP in OECD countries and 30% of GDP in developing countries.2 The bottom line (no pun intended) is that governments around the world wield huge purchasing power, and that power can determine what types of goods and services are on the market and how they are produced. 

Governments and sustainable public procurement (SPP)

Imagine if governments across the world made the commitment to purchase only goods and services that demonstrated the value they placed on the environment, labor rights, and economic development. The positive impact of this commitment would be enormous in terms of advancing these causes. It is this impact that has inspired everyone from environmental and labor rights activists to the United Nations to call for governments to practice sustainable public procurement (SPP).3

What is Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP)?

SPP requires that governments consider and balance the social, environmental, and economic implications of their procurement processes and choices.4 This could mean that governments prioritize contracts where the purchased goods, whether they be paper or printers, are produced in a sustainable way. It could also mean governments give preference to service providers that hire local workers and pay fair wages when contracting out government services. The fundamental feature of SPP, which differentiates it from standard public procurement, is the recognition that social and environmental factors should be considered when deciding what, how, and from whom, the government is purchasing goods and services. 

There are numerous challenges to implementing SPP. Some are legal and political in nature, while others are behavioral. This article focuses on the latter. 

Behavioral factors in SPP

We often think of government as a huge machine in which individual civil servants and bureaucrats are mere cogs. But government workers are not cogs: they are human beings and are prone to the same behavioral biases as the rest of us. This includes government procurement officers (i.e. the people who decide what the government buys, and from whom). 

Procurement officers are influenced by behavioral factors when making decisions about who wins government contracts to provide a certain good or service. Let’s take a look at what this means for SPP. 

The impact of affective commitment to change

Affective commitment to change can be understood as someone’s willingness and desire to change their behavior to demonstrate their personal belief in the benefits of this change or in the underlying goal this change supports.5

Research suggests that individual procurement officers’ affective commitment to SPP matters. A Dutch study of national procurement officers found that when officers believed they could make a positive social and/or environmental difference by implementing SPP, they were more likely to do so, even when SPP was not made mandatory.6 If procurement officers identify with the causes behind SPP (the environment, labor rights, etc.) and believe that their purchasing decisions can tangibly advance these causes, they are more likely to make choices that align with SPP. 

This same study also found that when procurement officers were given information about ways they could show support for sustainable procurement, they were more likely to make purchasing decisions that demonstrated SPP (although this effect was not as strong). This means that SPP can be encouraged simply by sharing information about what SPP looks like with those responsible for the procurement process. 

The impact of cognitive biases

Research also suggests that when procurement officers make purchasing decisions, they are influenced by several behavioral biases. 

A study was done to determine how government procurement officials decide which selection criteria to prioritize when awarding government contracts, with a focus on environmental criteria.7 The authors found that there were four common behavioral biases that influenced their decision-making processes. These were familiarity biasavailability bias, the social proof/bandwagon effect, and satisficing

Let’s take a closer look at how these biases work, using some illustrative examples (warning: do not read on an empty stomach), and how they might influence SPP. 

Familiarity bias

Familiarity bias is a preference for something you are already familiar with. For instance, this bias could lead you to order the same meal at your favorite restaurant without really considering other menu items.

The authors of the study found that the same principle applied to government procurement officers only instead of ordering the same meal, they were more likely to rely on the criteria listed in past procurements to determine current and future procurement criteria. This means that future SPP could depend on whether past procurement contracts outlined sustainable criteria and practices.

Availability bias

Availability bias describes how we make decisions based on information that comes to mind most easily. To go with the same metaphor, this could mean that you base your choice of what to order for take-out on what fast food commercial you saw most recently, rather than searching the internet for new restaurants and their menus.

The study found that procurement officers relied mainly on pre-existing national/multi-national guidelines to guide their decisions. SPP may be hindered if existing guidelines do not consider the social and environmental impact of procurement as procurement officers are less likely to seek out new information beyond these guidelines.

The bandwagon effect

The bandwagon effect, or social proof, is preferring to copy others or adopting a certain behavior simply because it is popular. This could mean ordering the same unicorn cake you see promoted on social media by celebrities and Instagrammers simply because everyone else seems to be doing it. It does not even matter that you don’t even like unicorns; you order a unicorn cake because it’s the cool thing to do.

The study found that procurement officers purposefully modelled their decision-making processes and selection criteria on what they saw other authorities doing. Procurement authorities may hesitate to engage in SPP if other authorities are not doing so. Basically, SPP might have to become the equivalent of unicorn cakes for government procurement officers to be interested in adopting it as part of their procurement processes.


Satisficing refers to searching through your options until you find one that is “good enough” which you will settle for. This is like when you choose from the pre-made snacks in the glass display case at your local café, and when they offer to bring you more choices from the back you refuse because you have already settled on a choice that is “good enough.”

The study found that procurement officers looked through bids until they found one that fit the criteria “well enough” and then stopped looking for a better fit. What this means for SPP is that there may be contract bids which better align with SPP, but are missed by officials because they are presented later in the contract search process. 

The future of SPP

The influence of affective commitment and behavioral biases on the decision-making processes of procurement officials needs to be considered by supporters of SPP. There are both challenges and opportunities that result from the behavioral factors discussed in this article. Acknowledging them is the first step towards addressing the important role that individual government procurement officers play in facilitating SPP.

The decisions civil servants/bureaucrats make about the types of goods and services governments choose to buy, and how they are produced, can make an impact in advancing global social and environmental causes. If citizens want their governments’ buying behavior to reflect values such as concern for the environment, labor rights, and support for local economic development, then they need to start paying attention to this area of research.

Public procurement may not be glamorous…but it can be sustainable (and trust me, that’s even more satisfying then buying that dishcloth made of recycled fabric from your local farmer’s market).

Why COVID-19 Messaging Should Focus on Policy Successes, Not Fear

This article originally appeared on the Global News website, where TDL has a monthly column analyzing current events through the lens of behavioral science. You can find the original here, or listen to Dr. Struck’s interview on Global News Radio here.

Most messaging throughout the pandemic has focused on fear. For almost a year, politicians and senior civil servants the world over have stood next to scary-looking projections and told us how bad things will get if we don’t act.

“We are in a crisis. That is how I can describe it. It is scary and we need to work together,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said earlier in January after seeing the latest modelling for Ontario.

A senior public health official followed up: “We don’t want people dying, we don’t want ICUs overwhelmed, we don’t want morgues overrun.”

These words are recent and clear, but neither Ontario nor Canada is unique in its use of fear-infused messaging over the course of the COVID crisis.

Early in the pandemic (and occasionally since then), that was probably necessary. People needed to realize that we were well outside the realm of “normal,” and that they were being asked for something quite extraordinary.

Fear makes us vigilant; it makes us sit up and pay attention. The research supports that view pretty strongly. Fear is a good short-term strategy.

But fear isn’t sustainable.

Something that terrifies us the first time is much less scary the second time around. Getting the same response — the same level of vigilance from citizens — requires scarier and scarier things. The research shows us that, too. (Sadly, COVID has been up to the task of showing itself again and again to be more scary than we had previously thought. And it isn’t over yet.)

Messaging often focuses on the terrible things that will happen if we don’t sustain vigilance. And governments have often shown themselves reticent to celebrate success, worrying that citizens will ease up and the virus will rage like wildfire.

But the same research showing how effective fear is in the short-term shows how important it is for public officials to make it clear that our actions can make a difference. Without that validation, we don’t feel that our efforts accomplish anything, which over time leads us from fear to despair. And at that point, effort feels wasted. If our actions don’t have an impact, there really is no reason to keep struggling so damn hard all the time.

How do we avoid despair? By telling stories of our communal success. Looking at recent case counts, what we see is that, over the holiday period, there was a strong alignment between the right policy choices by governments and the right day-to-day decisions from citizens. As a result, we’ve seen daily caseloads come down substantially. Quebec was consistently registering over 2,500 new cases a day earlier in the month, and now it’s getting down closer to 1,500. Ontario was over 3,500, now coming down closer to 2,500. There are similar stories in other provinces (though Saskatchewan and New Brunswick are still struggling. They need our support right now from all across the country; we need to hang together.)

We put in the hard work, and now we’re seeing the fruits of our labour. We can have an impact on this pandemic. We do have a say in our own fate.

In times of bad news, there’s been little hesitation to tell us how dire things are. Now there’s some good news but the responses have been a bit lukewarm.

Quebec Premier François Legault said, “Things are going in the right direction over the past 10 days but we need to reduce the number of hospitalizations.”

There’s little acknowledgment that things are getting better because of what we all did (including his own government’s actions, I would add) and immediately after acknowledging progress the focus is brought right back to what isn’t going well.

Throughout this pandemic, there have been many efforts to help people “see past the numbers,” to feel the stories of hardship and tragedy that these statistics pave over. Research on motivation shows us that there are more stories to tell in order to get through this crisis. Those dropping case counts aren’t just statistics. They’re stories too, stories about good decisions and follow-through, from both governments and citizens.  These are stories about all of us.

TDL Brief: Post-COVID Innovation

With crises and change, our behavioral patterns evolve. Grabbing a mask as we walk out the door is now instinctual. Zoom meetings have become cemented into many of our daily routines. The COVID-era ushers in a unique set of needs posed by our major changes in lifestyle, and brings to light prominent cracks within existing systems. By taking a closer look at how our human tendencies intersect with the current behavioral trends, we can use behavioral science insights to point us in the direction of effective innovations. 

1. Using change to bolster climate action

By: American Psychological Association, “Could COVID-19 change our environmental behaviors?” (July 2020)

Changing our habits and behaviors can be incredibly difficult. Yet, in cases of significant change, we are often forced out of our cemented ways, finding ourselves more likely to adopt new behaviors. We saw this in quarantine, as people learned to bake sourdough bread at a skyrocketing rate around the world. However, if we can work climate-conscious actions into our altered lifestyles, it could have a major impact.

Amidst COVID-19, the shift in collective behavior away from long-distance travel has had the unintended consequence of decreasing our carbon emissions by a projected 8%, but these strides are not expected to last. Environmental psychologists are hoping to find ways to seize our departure from routine to steer us towards more long-term sustainable behaviors. 

There are definite parallels between the logic we use to rationalize staying isolated in COVID and reducing our carbon footprints. For example in both scenarios, we ourselves might not always be in imminent danger, but by acting consciously we are protecting those vulnerable and working towards a bigger picture decrease in harm. Scientists are working to find ways to use these parallels to get people to think and act green. 

Often, scientists and activists are urged to use individual human stories to prove their point with the hope that evoking an emotional response will impact their audience’s actions. This may be true in many cases, but our ability to intake the science behind COVID has given environmentalists new ideas on how to communicate information on climate change. On a group level, we saw the unending statistics, absorbed terms like “flattening the curve” and the science behind “social distancing”, and ultimately changed our behaviors. Although we have a lot on our plate right now, it is important to think of ways we can use what we have learned about collective action and crisis communication to work towards a greener future.

2. Re-defining the workplace

By: ArchDaily, “A Brief History of Workplace Design and Where it Might be Headed Next” (May 2020)

The design of our built environments can directly influence our mood and behavior, as it dictates how we move through space and sets an aesthetic tone to our experiences.

Embedded within a blueprint are values, priorities, and norms. 

Our return to the workplace will mark a new age of office environments. Disruption of the organizational status quo has allowed us to question existing practices and re-imagine what “going to work” can look like. During COVID, some organizations have relinquished their physical office spaces due to lack of use amidst distancing. However, over time many organizations will likely adopt a hybrid model of at-home work and in-person collaboration, or consider new approaches to office design. 

Workplace designs of the near future have to accommodate anxieties surrounding high densities of people in one space. It is expected that conference areas and “work cafes” that facilitate collaboration at a distance will become a greater design priority. Some suggest integrating signage that indicates how many people should be in certain spaces through subtle cues, or floor patterns that show people what direction to walk in. However, even past COVID-related design constraints, we have the opportunity to reflect on the purpose of office space, and how it can evolve to help us thrive.

3. Providing health care at a distance

By: HealthTech magazine, “How COVID-19 Is Advancing Healthcare Innovation and Interoperability” (September 2020)

The impact of COVID-19 on our healthcare system is expected to reverberate far past the disease’s spread. Our existing systems have been put to the test within the crisis response, as healthcare workers find themselves working overtime amidst major infrastructural shortages, and patients struggle to receive care. This shock to the system has resulted in a re-thinking of how healthcare is provided and organized.

With the current limitations on interpersonal contact and hospital entry, remote alternatives to in-person care have allowed individuals to receive medical attention from the comfort of their homes. Telehealth platforms (electronic communications and telecommunications enabling medical care) spurred by the COVID response have demonstrated benefits that withstand the pandemic. Looking towards the future, telehealth offers solutions to issues of healthcare access in remote areas. Proponents of telehealth also suggest virtual screening appointments and flexibility in digital appointments on a per case basis. Public health experts also state that enriching the digital realm of health care pushes the field towards establishing unified standards of digital information storage could enable collaboration and improve emergency response.  

Preceding the pandemic, behavioral health has been increasingly intertwined with digital engagement. We use mobile apps to track our habits in hopes of making changes and reaching goals, through self-monitoring (i.e. productivity logs) or background tracking (i.e. smartphone generated step counter). Behavior health specialists have begun to acknowledge the potential for integration of mHealth (mobile health) platforms in behavioral interventions, and are looking to telehealth as another potential tool to create treatment options to best-fit patients. 

4. Reimagining the possibilities of public spaces

By: The New York Times, “Building Public Places for a Covid World” (September 2020)

Public spaces have already visibly changed since the beginning of COVID. Sidewalk spaces have become used for outdoor dining, and streets once busy with cars have been turned into pedestrian walkways. Some cities enforced social distancing in parks through circles spraypainted on the grass, safely distanced apart, for groups to occupy. Pleasant outdoor spaces have become more important than ever, to give people places to unwind and to create convivial spaces that can be occupied safely. Thus, designers and urban planners are looking for innovative ways to expand the possibilities of public spaces.

In the recent re-design of a Brooklyn charter school, urban designers have shown the ways in which public spaces can aid in school re-openings. WXY, a New York-based urban design firm, was forced to get creative in their task of creating a way of getting students into the school in a distanced, methodical manner. They created a “provisional outdoor classroom” with pictures on the sidewalk to show the kids where to stand. They built a tree-like structure with a translucent ceiling, so the area was protected and covered while maintaining airflow. Their design enables teachers to greet and instruct the students outside in an orderly fashion, while they file inwards.

As we develop unconventional uses of public space as solutions to our public health crises, we challenge the previous norms and further erode the barrier between indoor and outdoor environments.

Move Over Product Manager, Introducing the Behavioral Product Manager

This article originally appeared on Medium and belongs to the creators.

A traditional product manager generally has a keen instinct for human behavior. However, a behavioral product manager has learned how to incorporate the science of human behavior in a more rigorous way than just relying on instinct.

This post (with a nod from Ben Horowitz’s seminal post) introduces the idea of a behavioral product manager (BPM) — a product manager who integrates the science and methods of behavioral science into product design — and discusses the traits of BPMs and traditional PMs.

A Behavioral Product Manager

  • A BPM understands that humans have systematic irrationalities. They seek to understand these irrationalities and build for them.
  • A BPM knows that their users do not have fixed preferences. They know their users make different decisions depending on the design and context of an experience.
  • A BPM is not afraid to be paternalistic. They understand that giving users all the choices and information can be burdensome rather than welcome. They believe it’s their job to make decisions easier and this sometimes means making decisions in the best interests of the user. (See last point on good vs evil: a good BPM has reason to believe the behavior they are encouraging improves the welfare of their customers)
  • A BPM knows users make different decisions if they are deciding for today’s self (now) or tomorrow’s self (future me).
  • A BPM understands that habit formation is extremely tough. They know that it’s much easier to have the user make a one-time decision that automates their usage and value extraction than to insert their product into the user’s life on a daily basis and ask them to log in/perform a new action every day.
  • A BPM is able effectively to communicate, educate, and translate behavioral science insights for the engineering and design team. They ensure every person on the team is tuned into the small details of an experience and asks each other for the behavioral insights to justify small and large product and design decisions. There is a shared language, focused on details.

A traditional PM builds for a persona or the ideal customer behavior rather than the actual user behavior.

A traditional PM inundates the user with information or features, without any assistance or help, because they believe the user has enough time and expertise and also wants to make most decisions by themselves. They assume the user prioritizes their product as much as they do.

A traditional PM does not appreciate the power of framing and context to drive behavior change. They do not acknowledge that people have difficulty making choices that benefit their long-term self-interest.

A traditional PM does not fully internalize the power they have over the user and sees them as an engine to drive product metrics.

  • A BPM is ruthless about identifying and prioritizing a key behavior — what uncomfortably specific action they want the user to do (rather than a generic action like ‘log in’*). For example, if they are building an online education platform, they may define the ideal key behavior in concrete terms like, “Add online course schedule to their calendar, right after signing up for the course” or “Get to min 30 or 40 in their first online course.”
  • A BPM ensures that all team members have input and agree with this specific key behavior. They work to ensure all team members are actively using it to drive their priorities. A BPM formulates a research plan around this key behavior, has appropriate data tracking metrics for this key behavior and is open to change the key behavior when it stops driving business growth as expected.

A traditional PM focuses on generic and short-term product measures over behaviors. They value the act of logging in or time spent and not what someone does when they log in. For example, it is common to hear a traditional PMsay they want users to view their dashboard. This traditional PM values exposing their user to information vs. having the user act on that information.

A traditional PM articulates a key behavior that is broad and general vs. uncomfortably specific. They may say something like, “Help the user finish the online course” or “We want them to try out different courses”. You can quickly figure out if the behavior is too broad by asking everyone on the team what they think the key behavior is. If everyone says different things, the behavioral product manager has failed.

*I’ve shot down “logging in” multiple times and will continue to in this post. Why? “Logging in” to your product does not inherently mean anything. It does not mean the user has succeeded in obtaining value. It does not mean they will pay you. In fact, it may be a signal that your product is NOT providing positive customer value. If a user has to come back daily, have you helped them to save time? Have you helped them worry less? Imagine you are Quickbooks Online or Mint. You are not helping people if someone has to log in every day to check their business accounting system or their personal finances. But if Quickbooks Online measures active use (which it did) it will be incentivized to build features that get you to log in vs do actions to improve your business finances. This is why it’s critical to measure and thus incentivize an actual behavior that represents positive value for the user. For more on this refer to the time-well spent movement.

  • A BPM will assume they are not the first person to identify a customer insight or product opportunity.When investigating a new problem, they will not start with original research or new features. They will seek out existing academic literature/case studies to not reinvent the wheel.
  • A BPM will question their own intuition on the problem and solution — and their team’s intuition. When someone says “we tried that before and it didn’t work” they will ask to see the data as proof. They will not reference their personal experiences as justification for a feature request.
  • A BPM will listen to customer interviews and focus groups but remain skeptical that people’s attitudes, beliefs and perceptions will translate into actual behavior. The good product manager is constantly thinking about the “say/do” dilemma.

A traditional PM does not use data-driven insights to drive their research agenda or product prioritization.

A traditional PM does not conduct a literature review prior to writing product requirements. They consistently let original qualitative research drive prioritization on the roadmap.

  • A BPM will prioritize logging and testing infrastructure — the tools for understanding — over new product features. In fact, they will likely choose to delay a launch in order to put in a testing system.
  • A BPM promotes a team culture that is unforgivingly meticulous about data integrity, test methodology and tracking actions the user takes in the product.
  • A BPM will have a data / logging QA process they follow rigorously. They never launch a feature without first testing that the data collection works as specced.

A traditional PM puts off building testing frameworks and capabilities into the core functionality. They reference their own or their network’s experience as proof that a feature or idea is worth prioritizing. They get surprised when the logging didn’t work or the key outcome can’t be measured without more engineering work.

  • A BPM understands that behavior is hard to change. Because of this, they seek proof that a feature/change will produce the intended results. A BPM is religious about experimentation.
  • A BPM uses experimentation to understand why something works or doesn’t work, which gives them confidence to build a long-term roadmap and strategy from the results.
  • A BPM is ruthless about the experimental control condition. Once they decide to invest valuable resources to conduct an experiment, they do not compromise on the experimental design. They insist that the control must isolate the key variable, even if it degrades the customer experience. They understand they are trading off a small number of current customers for an improved experience for future customers.
  • A BPM ensures random assignment and avoids self selection. Everyone in the experiment should be equally likely to end up in the control. When relevant, they ask their data team to double and triple check the randomization to ensure it’s truly random.
  • A BPM documents the experimental conditions such that design and engineering understands the key question and hypothesis.
  • A BPM publishes the team’s hypothesis on which version will win, their assumptions on sample size, conversion, effect size and how long the experiment will run. They ask the data team to publish their data analysis plan prior to launching.
  • A BPM packages and promotes both successful and failed experiments so the rest of the company (or public) can learn from the investment. They believe in systematic results reporting and are unafraid to loudly communicate lessons learned from “failures”.

A traditional PM does not think about the difference between correlation and causation. They frequently and confidently misattribute feature changes to causation (the new feature worked because of our design) when there was no controlled experiment to show this.

A traditional PM compromises on the experimental control in favor of short term business results. They keep a test running until it gets to statistical significance vs. declaring a target sample size.

A traditional PM does not articulate the experimental conditions and detailed hypothesis to the design and engineering team. This results in multiple revisions and meetings (and possibly future resentment of experimentation given how much time it takes).

A traditional PM doesn’t celebrate a null result and the fact that they saved the company money by not over-investing in an ineffective feature.

  • A BPM creates a behavioral map of all the decisions that a potential and current user must do to reach the key behavior. The map zooms into each step and every detail of the whole process. They use their detailed map to gain a shared vision of the problem and prioritize product and feature opportunities.
  • A BPM meticulously documents the barriers that a user currently experiences. They do this with a combination of observation, the behavioral map and data. They constantly ask the team what barriers can they remove and what benefits can they amplify. They are deeply worried about small frictions within the process and ruthlessly remove them.
  • A BPM instills in their designers an unwavering aesthetic for simplicity and ease. They ask designers to justify every additional step, choice and decision a user must make.
  • A BPM builds and articulates powerful benefits that increase a user’s motivation to overcome hurdles. They prioritize features that add immediate, concrete and hedonic benefits to using their product, so long as these also align with positive long-term value for the customer.
  • A BPM does not leave copy to the end. They understand the role of copy in driving mindset and framing. The product must work hand-in-hand with the copy.

A traditional PM creates arbitrary personas like “soccer mom” and
segments by demographic rather than mindset. A bad product manager does not facilitate a behavioral mapping process with the team. They think about
changing attitudes and beliefs over changing the details of an environment in which someone makes a decision.

A traditional PM does not print out designs when they are reviewing them. They scan them for the aesthetic but don’t ask the designer to defend the copy, visual elements or benefit framing of their designs. A bad BPM does not care if their team is worried about the details.

  • This is simple but will be controversial when practiced. A BPM uses their powers to bring positive value to their customers lives.
  • A BPM works to change the behavior of their users in order to deliver on the company’s mission for customer wellbeing (assuming the mission is positive … tobacco companies need not apply)
  • A BPM resists manipulating the irrationality of the human psyche to extract more money from customers for less value.
  • A BPM differentiate between short-term and long-term value. For example, if Zynga succeeded in getting me to play games for five hours a day, they may have provided me short-term value (otherwise I wouldn’t keep playing). But they may not be delivering long-term value. Humans act differently when making decisions for short term/today’s self and long term/tomorrow’s self. Because of this, a good BPM would measure the long-term impact of heavy game play and whether it corresponds to positive wellbeing for their users.

A traditional PM consistently prioritizes short-term growth metrics. A bad BPM uses powers to take money and time from their users, without concern or prioritization of positive user value. A bad BPM uses their powers for evil.

How Reciprocity Can Fuel Innovation

When you think of robots, what do you picture? Probably something large and clunky, a machine only capable of stilted movements and basic preprogrammed actions. I thought so, too, until I recently came across this video:1

The frenetic pace of technological advancement is transforming society in distinct ways, faster than any of us imagined. The Japanese government, for instance, is preparing for what they call “Society 5.0”: an idealistic, data-driven society where cyberspace and physical space are merged and existing social problems are transcended through innovation.2 Although technology is central to Society 5.0, it is still a human-centric movement: individuals will play a critical role in mobilizing technology to develop solutions for human problems. Creativity, though, requires specific conditions to flourish—an emotionally safe environment, full transparency, and trust, to name just a few.

Fostering creativity in the workplace

Contrary to what some may believe, the research shows that creativity is not just an innate or special gift possessed by select individuals; everybody can be creative.3 But how can organizations and leaders boost this ability within their teams?

The tortoise and the hare, revisited

In his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Guy Claxton delves into the subject of problem-solving. Contrary to the common assumption that quick thinking, rigor, and certainty pose an advantage to creative responses, his studies on cognitive psychology demonstrate that a patient, intuitive, and sometimes apprehensive mindset often represent the very foundation of wisdom and innovation.

Additionally, he states that “The hare brain loves clarity; it wants everything to be expressed in a very simple, straightforward, clear way. Tortoise mind does not expect clarity; it does not know where the illumination is going to come from. The language of the unconscious is images. That also means a lot of times when you are being very creative you can feel very confused. You do not know where you are or where you are going. And you can tolerate that and continue to defer the decision. Because you are taking your time in tortoise mind, if you have a question, you’re much more likely to get interested in the question.”4

This idea emphasizes the importance of creating incentives for individuals to schedule contemplative blocks of time into their routines, to reflect on interactions, readings, and ideas they have been exposed to. Doing so helps develop new associations in the brain, which may lead to creativity.

However, this process depends on a conjunction of factors, several of them related to the employer itself: how much freedom they offer their employees, and the kind of relationship they have with them.

Social norms and building trust

We are all part of social groups: students enrolled in a class together, co-workers in the same department, supporters of a given soccer team, Russian literature aficionados, and so on. For each group, there are unspoken rules that represent desired behaviors. And even though there may not exist any explicit punishment for those who do not comply with them, voluntary adherence makes you part of that group.

These rules are called social norms, and they can influence people by indicating expected attitudes and behaviors in different contexts. Moreover, they “also constitute perhaps one of the most important elements of what recently has been termed ‘social capital’—the informal cooperative infrastructure of our societies.”5

One of the most powerful norms is dictated by reciprocity, meaning that “in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model.”5 Examples are abundant and widely investigated in behavioral sciences:

  • Waiters and waitresses who smile get tipped much more than ones who don’t6
  • It is difficult for people to accept free samples without buying the product7
  • Solicitation letters from charities are often followed with small gifts8
  • Hospitals often ask former patients for donations9
  • Adults readily agree when a co-worker who helped them move last month asks for some assistance with his or her own move this coming weekend10
  • People typically make a point to send birthday presents to those who remembered their birthday10

It’s clear that the norm of reciprocity can have a powerful effect on our behavior. But it may still come as a surprise that reciprocity could also play an important role in boosting creativity.

Here we turn to an unorthodox method to stimulate innovation, created within the walls of Adobe.

Reciprocity as an incentive to innovation

Back in 2013, Mark Randall, then-Chief Strategist and VP of Creativity at Adobe, developed an enterprise framework to support the experimentation journey and involve employees in the company’s innovation process.

The idea was represented by a toolkit named “Kickbox.”11 The kit, which was distributed to any employee who asked for it (managers could not veto the request), came in the form of a red cardboard box that featured a picture of a fire alarm, reading “Pull in case of idea.” It contained:

  • Instruction cards;
  • A pen;
  • A timer;
  • Two sets of Post-it notes;
  • Two notebooks;
  • A Starbucks gift card;
  • A bar of chocolate; and
  • A US$ 1,000 prepaid card.

Yes, you read it right: $1,000 that employees could spend on whatever they wanted to develop their project. No expense reports, no justification required.

Creativity is built on trust

Adobe describes the Kickbox as an initiative “designed to increase innovator effectiveness, accelerate innovation velocity, and measurably improve innovation outcomes.”11 Its instruction manual guides employees from the ideation stage all the way through testing sessions, encouraging them to beat all 6 levels of the exercise and come up with something that could be readily launched.

At the heart of this clever strategy: trust. By offering everyone the opportunity to engage in and design the future of the business, Adobe executives demonstrate a high level of trust in people’s engagement and commitment to their experimentation.

From a behavioral perspective, it creates the perfect scenario for reciprocity, where collaborators find themselves “in debt” to the organization, while still feeling comfortable enough to explore unorthodox ways to solve problems or create products and services. It is also a process where employees are expected to take initiative without needing any prior management approval.12

The whole idea for Kickbox came from Randall’s desire to mix Silicon Valley-style iterations with more tangible and scalable processes and incorporate both into Adobe’s innovation programs. It offered an alternative to a problem many other companies faced: the fact that most ideas are left unspoken because convincing management represents a huge source of friction for employees.13 Furthermore, it transformed the innovation budget by splitting resources into hundreds of “little bets,” instead of just a few (therefore riskier) big ones.


Because the Kickbox method is open source and available for any company to emulate,5 I wanted to highlight the potential of relationships that are founded on reciprocity. As business leaders, we must develop an environment where people not only trust their colleagues at different organizational levels, but feel psychologically safe to take risks. If we can achieve this, many unique and valuable proposals might be unboxed, too.

Too Much of a Good Thing: Reciprocity and Corruption

In the spring of 2019, over 50 wealthy parents in the United States were charged in a shocking college admissions scandal, with many of them currently facing jail time and hefty fines.1 The parents, who included famous actresses such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, were accused of bribing college officials to admit their children into elite universities; Felicity Huffman, for instance, gave SAT invigilators $15,000 USD to give her daughter extra time on the exam, while another parent offered the women’s soccer coach at Yale received $400,000 to recruit their unqualified daughter to the team.2 This scandal not only painted a grim image of corruption in the U.S. education system, but also provides us with an interesting behavioral question: Why were these college officials willing to risk it all when presented with an illegal bribe?

Of course, this scandal was just one specific and well-known example of corruption. It is not uncommon these days to hear news of corruption in sectors such as government, business, and sport. The willingness to accept bribes and engage in corrupt behavior is something that has occurred throughout history worldwide, with clear detrimental effects on economic growth, inequality, the environment, and more.3 In fact, across the globe an estimated $1.75 trillion USD is exchanged in the form of bribes each year.4 That is an extraordinary amount. To put this number into perspective, this sum is equivalent to the entire nominal GDP of Canada, the tenth-largest economy in the world.5 Clearly, corruption is a topic of global importance and we must try to better understand why people are willing to engage in it in order to reduce it.

However, studying corruption is incredibly difficult for one clear and obvious reason: corruption is illegal. Officials who engage in corruption do so in secret, and as a result, it’s difficult to get accurate data on this phenomenon.

Corruption in the lab

The typical approach that researchers have used to study corruption is through observational studies, which use cross-country data and subjective indexes of corruption.6 Although these studies are important for understanding the economic, social, and cultural factors which determine corruption, they do not provide us with much insight on the behavioral reasons for why officials engage in corruption. 

One relatively new approach that behavioral scientists have taken to study corruption is through controlled laboratory experiments. Experiments allow researchers to simulate the environment in which corrupt decisions are made, in order to directly observe participants’ responses to various anti-corruption interventions. This is effective if we wish to, for example, test the effects of a potential anti-corruption policy on specific behavioral responses, as experiments generate hard data that can answer very specific questions. This can all be done in a relatively cost-effective manner too, as compensating participants is usually the only significant financial investment required to run an experiment. All of this makes experiments a cheap, preliminary diagnostic tool for anti-corruption policies before they are implemented in the real world.

The behavioral causes of corruption

The power of reciprocity

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one obvious reason why officials would act unethically is because of money. If offered a substantial bribe, officials would be willing to face all the risks and the costs involved with the illicit activity in order to receive a sizeable reward.

But corruption does not just revolve around money. There are also psychological factors at play in the typical corrupt transaction. Think about it: A briber undertakes a substantial amount of risk when they approach an official for an illegal favor. The official could refuse to take the bribe, they could notify the authorities, or they could even accept the bribe and not go through with the favor. But why is it that in real life, plenty of officials are willing to not only accept bribes, but also follow through with the favor?

The answer lies in our innate desire to reciprocate the kindness of others. Reciprocity is a social norm that explains why we feel inclined to be kind to those who are kind to us (and cruel to those who are cruel to us).7 It can explain many phenomena that are difficult to account for using standard economic theory, which assumes people are selfish and rational—for example, why waitresses who smile more earn higher tips, or why we are willing to buy something from the salesperson who gave us a free sample.8,9

When reciprocity fuels corruption

Reciprocity is something that is typically considered prosocial: when we reciprocate the kindness of others, we are abiding by the social norm. But our desire to reciprocate is actually a major reason behind corruption, something that is obviously not pro-social. This is because an official may perceive a bribe as a kind gesture, and by reciprocating, they would simply be behaving in a way that is deemed socially acceptable. After all, the briber was generous enough to go through the trouble of not only approaching the official, but also offering them money. 

Of course, by following through with the favor, the official is neglecting societal interest, since this favor generally has great benefits to the briber but detrimental consequences to the public. This therefore depicts a fascinating behavioral component of corruption: our desire to reciprocate seemingly overrides our greater sense of morality and causes officials to engage in corruption.

A 2002 study by Abbink, Irlenbusch, and Renner tested this idea through a pioneering experimental bribery game that simulated a typical corruption scenario, in which participants acted as either a potential briber or a public sector official.10 They found that a large proportion of officials routinely reciprocated the trust of bribers by choosing the corrupt course of action, despite having no contractual obligations to do so. Officials could have been better off materially had they simply accepted the bribe and not gone through with the corrupt action, but it was precisely because of reciprocity motivations that they chose the corrupt option instead. 

In addition, when the authors introduced negative externalities to the experiment, even though bribers and officials fully understood that their participation in a transaction had adverse effects on other participants in the experiment, corruption persisted.11 Apparently, the knowledge that your actions would harm others was not enough to curb the urge to reciprocate. 

We value reciprocity over collective good

These findings capture a disheartening picture of human nature, but it is also quite unsurprising given that people act corruptly in real life despite often having knowledge of the consequences. But why do people continue to engage in corruption even though they know full well that their behavior harms many innocent people? Are people really that selfish?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the effects of corruption are often felt by an unobservable group of people. Behavioral biases such as the identifiable victim effect demonstrate that people feel less empathy for large, vaguely-defined groups of people than for a specific, identifiable individual.12,13 For example, you are likely to feel a greater sense of empathy when you hear the story of Jimmy, a 12-year-old boy in Africa who is dying of starvation, than when you hear the statistic that over 26 million children are starving in Africa. 

This could be a potential explanation for why officials are undeterred by the negative externalities of corruption. Even though officials know their actions have harmful consequences, the effects are felt by a large, unobservable group of people, while the officials are unlikely to feel the burden themselves. This behavior can be likened to other harmful actions such as littering: we all know that littering has negative effects on the environment, but because we do not feel the burden ourselves or see the impacts directly, we do not feel the necessity to stop.

Behavioral solutions to corruption

So far, we have discussed how lab experiments can simulate the corruption decision environment to uncover certain aspects of corrupt behavior, but experiments can also effectively test anti-corruption interventions. 

We can classify the potential solutions for corruption into two broad categories: extrinsic motivations and intrinsic motivations. Behavior that is extrinsically motivated is driven by external incentives, such as money or power; meanwhile, intrinsically motivated behavior is done for its own sake.14 

Extrinsic motivation: A different kind of bribe

Most experiments to date have investigated the extrinsic motivations behind corruption, and have focused on altering external incentives to reduce it. These studies have proposed solutions such as introducing harsher penalties for those caught in corruption,15 increasing monitoring (for example, through increased audits),16 raising the wages that officials earn,17,18 rotating staff more frequently, and requiring that multiple officials be involved when making important decisions.20

Reframing corruption

One fundamental drawback to these extrinsic motivation solutions is that they are often costly to implement. This may make them relatively unattractive for policymakers. On the other hand, focusing on intrinsic motivation as an anti-corruption strategy could be a more cost-effective solution. Since corruption is generally considered morally unacceptable, researchers have also examined ways in which we can induce feelings of guilt or shame in order to reduce corrupt behavior from occurring.

 These studies primarily involve framing corruption in an immoral light (for example, by using the loaded phrase “private payment” in experiments instead of the neutral “transfer”) and/or making the negative externalities of corruption more salient (or noticeable) to try and generate an emotional response nudge people away from corruption.21,22,23

By changing the language around corruption, participants may become more aware of their own dishonesty and subsequently refrain from behaving fraudulently. Although this approach is still in its infancy, these studies can provide insights into how policymakers should frame their messages, and what information they should emphasize, when designing anti-corruption awareness campaigns.

Using reciprocity: Building trust

Other approaches that have been suggested in this domain include promoting trust between employers and public officials. Companies and governments often force workers to sign compliance forms and sit through anti-corruption workshops, all of which can create a spirit of distrust. As we know, people have an innate desire to reciprocate, so perhaps the solution may be for leaders to have more faith in their workers and treat them better.24 This way, workers may feel intrinsically obliged to reciprocate the employer’s kindness and always act honestly.

How useful are corruption experiments?

You may argue that lab experiments cannot capture real-world corruption accurately, since the fact that participants know they are being watched may bias their decision-making (see the observer expectancy effect).25 The external validity of economic laboratory experiments is a common critique of experimental economics in general, where critics often argue that lab experiments may not be reflective of real-world decisions which typically depend on many unobservable factors.26 For the topic of corruption, however, there has been evidence to suggest the results from the lab experiments do have real-world validity. For example, one group of researchers managed to replicate their lab experiment findings in a field experiment where participants were unaware that they were participating in an experiment.27 This research provided evidence that lab experiments can capture some of the key motives behind real-life corruption behavior and have external validity.

Takeaways: Leveraging reciprocity

Behavioral science has grown to become extremely influential in the development of policies in recent years, and these experimental corruption studies provide another example of their usefulness. Through the innovative methods researchers have developed, we are now able to study a complex, unobservable phenomenon in a powerful and cost-effective way. And despite this being a relatively new field of study, several effective solutions have already appeared in the literature (with many of which not mentioned in this article). Of course, behavioral approaches are not, and should not, be the only approach we should use to analyze corruption, but they are another tool that we can utilize to understand this phenomenon better.

Much Ado About Nothing: Remote Work and Burnout

Based on data from labor surveys, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 7.9% of the world’s workforce were permanently working from home prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which accounts for roughly 260 million people.1 But this number may rise to something between 25–30% by the end of 2021, according to Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics.2

The huge shift from offices to homes, especially among those who had previously never teleworked, has caused innumerable changes both to the ways we work and how we perceive work. And as working hours continue to plummet—by 18.3% in the Americas, 13.9% in Europe and Central Asia, 13.5% in Asia and the Pacific, and 12.1% in Africa3—with the equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs estimated to have been lost worldwide, many employees feel increasingly apprehensive about their own permanence.

The paradox of remote work

This uncertainty, and the anxiety it produces, causes many of us to think about work during moments where we should be dedicating our full attention to something (or someone) else. What appeared, at first glance, to be a rare opportunity to work from anywhere, anytime, has become a stressful situation. As Barry Schwartz states: “Once people are in the position to be able to work at any time from any place, they face decisions every minute of every day about whether or not to be working.”4

“Thinking about work often means stressing about work,” declares Rebecca Zucker, an Executive Coach.5 As we spend our days dividing our attention between whatever we are doing in the moment, such as playing with our kids—they, too, locked down at home and away from school—and worrying about pending tasks in our professional context, we end up unable to fully accomplish either of these two goals.

Effects vary from negative impacts on cognitive functions (such as critical thinking, problem-solving, planning, and organization) to an unproductive routine: for example, we give up precious hours participating in our children’s development because we are occupied with work-related thoughts, or else become frustrated that we can’t resume work right away and address the issues we are thinking about.

working from home

Burnout Society: Our idleness aversion

In his essay, “The burnout society,” German philosopher Byung-Chul Han warns about a state of “hyperattention,”6 where we seek productivity all the time and busyness itself symbolizes the greatest achievement of the 21st century. Because of that, we remain trapped in the multitasking myth, shifting focus from one activity to another, but not dedicating ourselves entirely to any one of them in particular. He calls this “imaginary freedom.”

In a study published in the journal Nature, Laura Giurge and colleagues corroborate this view, writing: “Today, time poverty and ‘busyness’ are often seen as signals of productivity, success, and high status. Yet, recent scientific research provides compelling evidence that feeling time-poor can adversely affect subjective well-being (e.g., life satisfaction, positive affect), mental health, work performance, creativity, and relationship quality.”7

Being connected offers an infinite number of possibilities, which may lead us to feel we are “missing something” by passing up professional opportunities. However, this can lead people to place an undue sense of responsibility for their career success on their own shoulders. Consequently, they keep on seeking more stimuli, more information, and more jobs to be done. This comes at the expense of other important and necessary activities, such as being with family, self-reflection, and even sleep: A Korn Ferry study found that 66% of American workers face sleep deprivation due to stress. The impact of the pandemic on these numbers has yet to be calculated, but we are living in a potentially more complex situation with the emergence of “24/7 economies,” as Giurge describes current macroeconomic changes: task-oriented jobs are proliferating together with the archetype of the “ideal worker figure,” i.e., someone who “can only signal loyalty, devotion, and productivity through long work hours.”7

Time poverty and burnout

Defined as the chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them, time poverty is increasing in our society.7 Data from the Gallup U.S. Daily Poll—a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents—show that, in 2011, 70% of employed Americans reported that they “never had enough time.” In 2018, this proportion increased to 80%. 10

In a recent TED Talk, Ashley Whillans, an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, shared the story of some leisure occasions in her life when, instead of enjoying the moment, she was busy working: a vacation trip to Europe, a summer beach escape in Cancun, and even inside a locker room… during a spa session!11

As she delves into the subject, she emphasizes we should prioritize time over money. After all, time is our most valuable resource. Although we have heard this many times before, we still fail to change our habits: we are so used to being busy that an idle moment may seem awkward, even uncomfortable. We are so used to constant stimulation that in our downtime, many of us are quick to reach for our smartphones, pulled into trivial engagements on social media when we would be better off taking a break. Why?

Basically, our brains find it difficult to establish temporal relations: we always think we will have more time in the future, and hence fail to see that our micro-attention spans are both insufficient to enhance productivity and damaging to our satisfaction. Moreover, we normally take free time for granted, resulting in what Whillans calls “time confetti”—that is, a misuse of time for trivial actions. And as the future becomes the present, filled up with an overwhelming number of tasks we have previously agreed to, we wish we could take back all the moment we said “yes” to yet another project.

remote work

Organizing our mental closets with behavioral design

There are several behaviorally-oriented steps we can take to improve our remote work routines. Here are just a few:

  • To-do lists: These are a good starting point for taking back our free time, but they are useless if they are not prioritized. They should be organized according to a project’s relevance, deadline, and the impact its completion will have. Otherwise, working hard will only make us feel stressed and frustrated, no matter how many hours we spend on the laptop.
  • Time distribution: It may be tempting, but we should avoid allocating tasks to fill all of the 8 working hours in our day. This is because unanticipated work not only can appear—it will appear. And if we have no margin to deal with the unexpected tasks that pop up—the urgent ones, at least—chances are they will make us stressed and irritated.
  • Write down your appointments and ideas: make sure to take pending jobs off your mind. As Michael Scullin, a psychological scientist and sleep researcher at Baylor University, has written, “unfinished tasks cycling through your mind stay at a heightened level of cognitive activation” and require constant review—the “remember-not-to-forget loop.” He continues: “The act of writing down these uncompleted tasks decreases cognitive arousal, rumination, and worry.”12 This is also valid for appointments and ideas: generally, we are not available to execute them right away. By transferring them from our heads to a notebook (or your favorite app, such as Evernote or Google Keep), we free up cognitive space to deal with other things.
  • Turn off all but essential notifications on every electronic device you have. Notifications cause distractions, a trigger for our brain’s natural curiosity. As companies have drastically improved their digital marketing strategies, they use various techniques to have us constantly checking for updates—even the unnecessary ones. Unless you are dealing with an emergency, you do not need to know whether an e-mail will be delivered to your inbox imminently, or in three hours. Besides, neuroscience researchers have pointed out that it takes us up to 25 minutes to re-focus on our work once interrupted, depending on the complexity of the task.13 Multiply those minutes by all the interruptions you face in a day, and there you have it: a KPI for wasted time.
  • Focus on the experience. Whillans advises savoring your experiences (in the spirit of the ancient Roman poet Horace’s famous phrase carpe diem, “seize the day”) rather than spending time choosing—in this case, whether to answer another e-mail, resume a business document, or finish any other pending task. In her book, Time Smart, she invites us to calculate several trade-offs in order to realize that a lot of the choices we make are suboptimal, actually preventing us from using our time to its fullest potential.14

Despite the challenges that working from home brought us, it is possible to regain control of our routine. Once we understand how we are allocating time, and what matters the most, we will be able to repurpose habits and build a happier, more fulfilling life.

Mistruth Can Set You Free: The Power of (False) Belief

You may have noticed that a lot of people around you believe things that are patently untrue. In fact, you are almost definitely subject to your fair share of false beliefs as well (of course, far less so than your acquaintances). This has been true throughout history, but in the current information ecosystem of cat videos and conspiracy theories, it can seem especially evident. The question I’d like to explore is this: are false beliefs always bad to endorse? In other words—do false beliefs always lead to negative consequences or do they sometimes result in positive outcomes?

Now, it would be easy at this point for the discussion to descend into a mind-numbing philosophical treatise on the definition of truth. But I’d prefer to spare both of us this painful route. Instead, for the sake of this discussion (and maintaining our sanity), let’s assume that the truth is something that corresponds with facts in the world. So the statement sugar cures major depression is false because there is no evidence to back such a statement in the real world (as unfortunate as that is). Of course, if trials were conducted, and it were shown that sugar does exhibit such effects, the statement would be considered true. Assuming you’re on board with this definition of truth, we’re still left with the thorny question I introduced above: Is the incorrect belief (in this case, that sugar cures major depression) always damaging, or can it sometimes be beneficial?

Beliefs and psychology: It’s all in the head

The placebo effect is the most obvious example of a false belief that can be therapeutic. It is not uncommon to find that a sugar pill—under the guise of a real drug—delivers a 20-40% reduction in depression symptoms.1 Would it then be accurate to claim that sugar pills can be 20-40% effective at treating depression? No. But it would be true to say that the belief that sugar pills are real drugs can sometimes be startlingly effective. Now, of course, many drugs are effective beyond the placebo—in fact, they have to be, or else they wouldn’t be approved by the FDA. We wouldn’t want psychiatrists handing out placebos rather than Prozac in order to prove the power of belief. But that shouldn’t diminish the remarkable fact that false belief in a given treatment can sometimes make people feel better.    

Beliefs also play a pivotal role in many psychotherapies. Cognitive therapy, for instance, is based on the idea that depressed people hold negative self-beliefs (also called negative self-schemas).2 Martin Seligman’s famous research into the learned helplessness model of depression purported to show that these negative self-beliefs cause depressed people to attribute failure to internal and unchangeable forces.3 So a depressed person who fails his driving test may ascribe his failure to his innate lack of intelligence and inability to perform under pressure (internal and unchangeable), whereas a non-depressed person may blame his lack of sleep the night before (external and changeable). 

This theory of attributional (or explanatory) styles has made waves in the worlds of clinical and popular psychology. Surprisingly though, some have argued that depressed people’s attributions are actually more realistic than that of non-depressed people.4 In other words, non-depressed people are biased toward optimism, while depressed people see the world as it truly is. Now, while optimism bias has been well-documented (think dropping out of school to become an entrepreneur or refraining from drawing up a prenuptial agreement despite high rates of divorce), the idea of depressive realism—that depressed people see the world realistically rather than with undue pessimism—has not garnered much support.5,6 Still, it does raise an interesting question: are people happy, in part, because they operate on false notions of their own agency and talent?   

The study of willpower has also been impacted by the unexpected implications of belief. In a series of fascinating studies involving emotional films, tempting chocolate, and repellent radishes, Roy Baumeister and colleagues showed that we have a limited reserve of willpower that can be exhausted.7 To put it another way—willpower is like a muscle that fatigues with heavy use. The more you regulate yourself and restrain your impulses, the harder it becomes to do so later on in the day (in the absence of some sort of restorative activity). 

While this research is fascinating in its own right, it gets even more intriguing. It turns out that if people believe that they have an infinite supply of willpower, they will not exhibit the same depletion effect (although severe chronic depletion still leads to long-term burnout).8 The belief in unlimited willpower seemingly allows people to access energy that would have otherwise been shut off from them.

Beliefs on a larger scale  

What about the role of belief in spheres like politics and religion? We are all familiar with one particularly controversial example. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans were told that masks were ineffective at limiting the spread of the virus.9 It could be argued that the belief in the futility of mask-wearing led Americans to refrain from buying masks en masse, which in turn improved the odds that frontline health workers could get their hands on the PPE they sorely needed. It is very possible that masks could have gone the way of toilet paper (irrationally hoarded) if it wasn’t for the false messaging around their efficacy.

In the case of religion, many would claim that the belief in heaven and hell go a long way in incentivizing good behavior. Similarly, the belief that everything happens for a reason, and that an omniscient and merciful force will always have your back, can provide comfort in times of tragedy and stress. Even if these beliefs are not literally true, a pretty decent case could be made that they have many positive effects: religious people are known to be more charitable and happier than secular people.10 In fact, much of positive psychology stresses the same concepts that religions have emphasized for centuries (gratitude, meditation, community), but in a secular rather than sacred context.11,12 Perhaps the conception of a personal God who dictates commandments and prohibitions encourages a continued emphasis on these adaptive practices, even if no such “man in the sky” exists.

Tallying the consequences of true and false beliefs

So far I’ve made the case that false beliefs can sometimes be beneficial. But the keyword there is sometimes. It is not difficult to anticipate the consequentialist counterargument: while false beliefs may have some positive consequences, they are, in many cases, outweighed by the negative consequences. As Sam Harris puts it when citing the international aid of Christian organizations: “[The problem is that] religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally, where good reasons are actually available.”13 

Whether or not you agree with Harris’s opinion on religion, his point is a valid one: if the same positive outcomes can arise from both accurate and inaccurate beliefs, wouldn’t it be better for them to result from the accurate ones? Well, for one, this implicitly assumes that the same outcomes will result from truth and falsity. Harris would have to supply a compelling reason for why secular people, who are supposedly in possession of the truth, do not give as much to charity as religious people.

Interestingly, when it comes to the placebo effect, Harris’s intuition is flipped. It would actually be preferable for people to get better due to their misplaced faith in the placebo than to deal with the side effects, dependency, and withdrawal that go along with a real drug. Of course, the placebo is not a reliable enough treatment for this to be a valid option, but psychotherapy can be a pretty good substitute. As I mentioned earlier, cognitive therapy may, amongst other things, teach depressed people to share the optimism bias of their non-depressed neighbors, and in doing so, help them cope with life’s inevitable failures and setbacks. Of course, the line between false and true beliefs begins to blur here. The false belief will hopefully operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which case it will eventually transform into a self-reinforcing truth. Optimism ends up becoming realism because it motivates long-term perseverance.  

I think Harris’s point is most obviously true in the case of the false messaging around masks. We may have avoided mass hoarding of masks, but the harm done to the public’s trust in public health advisors and scientific institutions was almost certainly enormous. Every conspiracy theorist was handed their opportunity to say “I told you so” after recommendations were retracted and amended. A much better option would have been to honestly communicate the importance of masks while leveraging concepts from behavioral economics surrounding norms and compliance, in order to nudge the public toward behavior that benefited the collective good. 

False negatives vs. false positives

All in all, the jury is still out on our original question. It seems likely that false beliefs can sometimes be beneficial, but it is next to impossible to account for all of the benefits and drawbacks of specific beliefs. Perhaps the best way to approach this riddle is by examining the potential effects of false negatives (which I’ll also be calling false optimism) versus false positives (which I’ll also be calling false pessimism).

For obvious reasons, in medicine, false negatives (when someone is incorrectly told they do not have a condition) are usually seen as far more serious than false positives (when someone is incorrectly diagnosed with a condition). Public policy follows the same logic as medicine. False pessimism may lead to wasted resources, but it doesn’t usually carry the doomsday potential of false optimism. We would rather dedicate an excess of resources to the fight against global warming than render the planet uninhabitable. Similarly, we would rather spend heavily on defense than get caught off guard in a war we aren’t prepared for.

The reverse seems to be true with regard to human psychology: false optimism seems—for the most part—to be beneficial, whereas false pessimism seems to be detrimental. This may have not always been the case. Martin Seligman argues that some of us are geared toward pessimism because our brains evolved in times when pessimism offered a clear survival advantage. Our ancestors were the ones who predicted the worst-case scenario—whether it be a war, a virus, or an avalanche—and managed to escape with their lives. However, in the 21st century, when a threat to our survival is no longer lurking around every corner, pessimism mostly leads to unnecessary misery.

Try employing this false optimism vs. false pessimism test when you examine your own psychological and political beliefs. In each instance, ask yourself whether a false negative or false positive would be more damaging. And next time you attempt to change someone’s mind, consider whether they are better off than you because of their beliefs.

Supporting Female Mentorship at Work

In our last article, we reviewed a curious dynamic that plays out between professional women, in which a history of inequality has created pressures that can drive a rift between female leaders and subordinates at work. We believe a renewed emphasis on a mentorship mindset can improve the relationship between female professionals. In this article, we go over a few steps that can be taken to achieve this.

Gaining awareness of our own bias

The first step towards changing our attitudes is becoming aware of our own thoughts and beliefs. Leaders can set an example by engaging in a self-account of their own implicit biases. A senior manager at a major defense contractor admitted she previously preferred female subordinates who dressed more modestly and did not wear a lot of makeup. Why? She made an assumption that the more time one spent on their appearance, the more likely they were to leverage their looks to overcome shortcomings in performance. This leader now recognizes that bias and makes a point to not let it overcome her ability to make fair and accurate evaluations. Being able to recognize one’s own biases will allow the leader to better manage their expectations for their subordinates. 

Following their leaders’ examples, subordinates need to recognize how their own implicit biases may affect the way they view the workplace and their co-workers, which can produce a change in learned behaviors that may otherwise be harmful to organizational relations.1 For example, I (Yasmine) know that I tend to find deeper voices more authoritative, and given my past experience with female leaders, often gravitate to male leadership. I (Kim) have falsely assumed that a person who was tall with an athletic build was a stronger leader than someone without those qualities. 

Understanding that we, as women, hold these types of biases can allow us to uncover unfair expectations we may hold for our female leaders. For example, just because someone is a female, does not mean she will immediately empathize with my (Yasmine’s) childcare situation. Perhaps my memory of that first encounter is colored by my expectation that a former mother would certainly understand my struggle the same way I did. In fact, I can’t discount that my memory might not even have been an accurate account! And perhaps I (Kim) had unfair expectations that women who were exposed to the same hyper-masculine working environment would all experience it the same way.

If female subordinates can become more mindful of their biases, then they can better recognize how unfair expectations can potentially lead to disappointments. 

Building mentor-mentee relationships

To build stronger mentor-mentee relationships, subordinates should explicitly ask for mentoring and honestly convey their goals and challenges. Leaders can then give more focused advice and tailor their leadership approach to better suit a subordinate’s needs. Additionally, as it is understood that some women may be reluctant to self-advocate (and therefore, ask for mentorship), leaders should not sit idly by and wait for mentorship opportunities to present themselves.

Acknowledge that your experiences in the workplace may be different

An understanding of generational differences can improve the dynamic between women of different ages. For those subordinates younger than their leaders, they must value the journey walked by the female leaders a generation ahead of them. Subordinates should recognize that their leaders may have had to jump through hoops that no longer exist. Understanding how their predecessors paved the way to female leadership can increase the respect that women hold for their seasoned colleagues, as well as increase their patience with perspectives that may be different.

Likewise, challenges facing today’s subordinates may not be the same as what leaders have had to face in the past. In fact, they may no longer exist. However, these subordinates will not be without their own personal and professional challenges, and these proteges will benefit greatly from a leader’s active and positive mentorship. 

Embrace a new vision of leadership

Female leaders may draw inspiration from a changed understanding of effective leadership. In the past century, leadership has shifted from being control-oriented to results-oriented. Traits considered more “feminine,” such as empathy and collaboration, are now considered 21st-century leadership skills. As such, traits that reflect higher emotional intelligence are in high demand.2 As opposed to power-driven leadership that neglects input from subordinates, this human-centered approach is more likely to ensure the success of an organization.3 

If this is the case, then it is imperative that leaders know their people. What drives them, motivates them, and gives them purpose? Asking these questions (which happen to be derived from the Army’s definition of leadership) will demonstrate care and foster trust. Leaders with this mindset can then customize their mentorship to address the unique needs and goals of their subordinates.

Be an enthusiastic mentor (or mentee)

Lastly, a leader should be explicitly cognizant they can influence the next generation of working women. They are not competition—rather, they are proteges. Developing the next great leaders will positively steward the organization and create a more harmonious environment where subordinates can thrive.

A mentoring relationship can be mutually beneficial. Active mentorship shows a subordinate that she has enough value and potential for a leader to care about her progression. The leader also shows that she cares about people. Every action that demonstrates an employee’s value is an investment in the organization, and a leader will build a reputation where people will want to work for them—regardless of gender.

Interestingly, women, as mentors, do not show the same inhibition when it comes to promoting or advocating for others as they do when it comes to themselves, suggesting that women can call attention to other women’s skills and efforts (both mentor and mentee) more easily.4 Leaders can thus benefit if the successes of a subordinate are viewed, by themselves and others, as their successes as well. 

Organizational structures can support mentorship

At one institution, I (Yasmine) remember a college president describing that part of his job was to incubate future talent. Truth be told, I don’t think that was in his job description. However, by seeing that as part of his role, he was advancing the future of the organization by identifying who had leadership potential and helping them. He wasn’t competing with his subordinates, but rather seeing it as his job to help them rise. Another colleague recently mentioned to me that he tells his mentees that as soon as they receive their first promotion, they should immediately begin searching for and grooming their successor. He tells them, “If there is no one to fill your current role, you can’t possibly move up, can you?”

Likewise, in the U.S. Army there is a heavy emphasis placed on mentorship. Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 states that it is the “individual professional responsibility of all leaders to develop their subordinates as leaders … to prepare subordinates for responsibilities at the next level.”5

While inherent to the Army’s culture, there is also an extrinsic organizational expectation to mentor subordinates. The ability to develop the next generation of soldiers is incentivized through a leader’s evaluations. Army leaders can be evaluated on what growth opportunities they present to their subordinates. Such examples include subordinates attending specialized schools, winning awards, or getting promoted. This results in a common Army mantra that leaders develop subordinates “to take their job one day.”

Incentivizing mentorship

Defining the workplace culture to be one that encourages the incubation of talent and support of others improves the climate for everybody, including reducing potential barriers to mentorship. Other organizations can mimic the Army by evaluating leaders on their subordinates’ performance.

Authors of a recent article published in Psychological Science recommended implementing similar practices in the world of academia. They explain that, while research shows that women who have role models are more likely to succeed, placing full responsibility on women to mentor other women also creates a burden. In particular, the authors recommend that “departments formalize and document expectations for mentorship for all faculty from and for both women and men. Mentorship should be rewarded in promotion and salary decisions and in awards for research contributions; the influence of contributions to the field from one’s students and mentees should be considered an indication of successful scholarship as well.”6

Pat Mitchell, first female president of CNN Productions and PBS, wrote in 2020 that mentoring is one of the strategies that can close the gender gap in leadership, in this country and around the world. She wrote, “I believe that one of the responsibilities of being a woman who is committed to working toward a more just world is being willing to be a mentor when and where needed.”7 

Closing thoughts

We close this essay with two anecdotes of leaders who did just this for us: they saw nurturing others’ talent as an integral part of their professional identity.

I (Yasmine) approached Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz as a young professor with ambitions to work with her on a sabbatical year. I felt I had little to offer—I was still developing my research. But for some reason, she said yes, and a few years later, I was in Israel for my first sabbatical as a Fulbright Scholar.

Talya was a great match for me as a mentor. She intellectually challenged me, questioning my assumptions with rigor, but also handled my personal challenges with empathy, and imbued in me a confidence that I, too, could be a successful academic while also raising kids. Her devotion to her own family and to work-life balance is unparalleled and yet, she is a thriving professional. She was the first person I called when I was offered an administrative position, and the first person I called when I was offered the job I currently hold. Had I not met her, I know I might have given up on myself in certain ways. What was it that worked for me? She challenged me, role modeled, believed in me, and literally, as I write this paragraph, sent me a text message to see how I’m doing. 

– –

I (Kim) found myself at another professional crossroads. Having spent a decade of my career in a combat-related field, I wanted to explore the world of academia and took a job at the United States Military Academy. I felt like a fish out of water, lacking any confidence that I could offer anything to my esteemed and educated colleagues. Then I met Lauren, a senior academic and colleague in my department. She saw value in my military experiences, and as a result, I felt confident enough to express to her my scholarly ambitions. I waited for her judgment, but instead she empowered me to actively pursue it. She presented research to me in the hopes of collaborating on scholarly publications. She spoke to me like a true peer, and when I downplayed my own contributions, she constantly encouraged me and referred to me as an academic.

Humble, caring, passionate, and innovative, Lauren was a spark to the flame. I have gained enough confidence to collaborate with other departments on research projects, and am now actively pursuing PhD programs. I no longer feel like an impostor trying to fit in. That is the power a positive mentor can have.