What Makes You Tick?

“Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been” – Einstein

We are surrounded by things that engineers have created through the application of science. A few years back it occurred to me that as an electronic engineer I had a really useful insight into pretty much everything around me. What do I mean by that? We all use cars, computers, trains, bridges, tunnels, telephones, CD and DVD players, Sat Navs and microwave ovens. As an engineer I know to a reasonable level how all of these things work, I have an appreciation of the engineering behind them all and could give a good description of how they work to a lay person. Now several revelations stem from this:

  1. Where does that leave the people that are not technically minded and haven’t a clue or perhaps a care how these things work as long as they do?
  2. The application of systems engineering and some basic principles meant I could construct a model or explanation to someone who does not understand.
  3. The one thing that seems to be hard to understand model and hence predict is human behaviour.

It might as well have been produced by aliens

How do people just use things accepting that they work without having a clue as to what makes it work? Its a hard place for an engineer to imagine themselves or is it? There is one area that the enquiring mind of the engineer has left alone and that is what makes people act in a particular way, what gives some manual dexterity and some mental agility. Engineers have left this alone because it is the realm of those who study and research such matters, the psychologists and psychiatrists and after all, it is the study of that ‘that is’, not that ‘that an engineer has created’. But despite this field having had so much attention over the years there still exists a multitude of theories proven by a myriad of experiments that still do not provide a universally accepted systemised overview of what goes on in the mind and as an engineer that both intrigues and frustrates me. See my post on The Evolution of Complexity.

System Engineering Models

Engineers have produced some incredibly complex artefacts, so complex that no one person can understand the entirety. So engineers have broken down requirements into areas and designed systems of systems to meet those requirements. There is the concept of the “black box” in systems engineering, you define its inputs and outputs and what function is performed inside it but you don’t need to describe the sub-systems it contains. They are described at a lower level again in terms of transformational functions, inputs and outputs. Through this mechanism it is possible to produce a block diagram of an entire nuclear submarine and to describe how it works at a high level, and then to drop into how the supporting sub-systems work as and when the additional description is necessary.

Modelling the Mind

You will have read on this site and others about motivation, team building, personal success, and decision making. A lot of what we know comes from observation and experience of what works well and what doesn’t. There has always been an apparent desire to map behaviours to physical parts of the brain. Fine if your goal is brain surgery but do we need to know where the CPU is on the motherboard to get the best out of a computer? The things that really intrigue me are:

  • Where is the user manual for a person?
  • How can we get the best out of people in our team?
  • How can we get people behind our ideas?
  • What makes some people successful?
  • What is a good decision and can you make them consistently?
  • What causes accidents or things to go wrong?
  • Does your mind deceive you?
  • What motivates us and demotivates us?
  • What really makes us tick?
Does your mind deceive you?

Does your mind deceive you?

Take a look at this graphic, are the lines level and parallel? Is it your eyes or your mind deceiving you?

A Simple Black Box MindModel

What are the characteristics of the human mind. We are essentially taking in visual, sensory and auditory inputs every moment of our lives. We process a vast amount of information. Some of it we connect with associative relationships. We have categories for people, friends, family, work colleagues and loved ones. We have categories for things we have learnt, riding a bike, driving a car, playing a musical instrument. How is it we say some people have a natural gift for music, ball games, numbers or drawing? For these people there is no perceptible effort, the output just flows.

Driving a Formula 1 car around a circuit for 2 hours requires the driver to stay alert but the great drivers such as Ayrton Senna have said that everything becomes automatic, they become one with the car, everything flows.

Watch a concert pianist at work, you will see the same thing, it seems inconceivable to the majority of us that every placement of a finger is calculated and deliberate but we  know that one badly placed finger will ruin the entire performance.

Have you ever driven your car and wondered how you got to a particular stage of the journey? You suddenly realise you were not really conscious of every turning. Were you driving intuitively? Where you unsafe or perhaps safer in this “enlightened” mode?

When you look at an optical illusion we say our eyes are deceiving us. I would argue that it is our intuition that deceives us. We are all familiar with those party math puzzles where the first answer that comes to mind is in fact wrong but we fall for it anyway because we trust our intuition more than we think. Sometimes we don’t trust our intuition and it turns out to be right, remember the times playing Trivial Pursuit when the right answer seems to come into our head but we think about it and choose another which turns out to be wrong. Our intuition was right but we wouldn’t bet our lives on it, or would we?

Let us assume that there are always two ways for a human being to make a decision, the first way is based on gut, or intuition or perception, the second way is based on structured evaluation, logical judgement and analysis. If the latter was the only way then the human race would have died out long ago because people would have taken too long to avert themselves from danger. If the former was the only way and everything was done by intuition then would humans be any different to animals? Animals have fine tuned intuition through evolution and survival, try surprising a wild animal by sneaking up on them, their capacity for rational thought however is small. What was it in evolution that matured rational thought in humans?

Two Decision Modes

We could term these modes something esoteric or just X and Y but what about simply calling the intuitive mode ‘Heart’ and the rational mode ‘Head’. This plays well into the human dilemma,  the heart says do one thing and the head says do another. Hence the expression, ‘she lets her heart rule her head’ or vice versa. All I am looking for is a simple label that you will remember.

Many of you will have done personality tests which are designed to highlight your preferences in dealing with people or problems. Essentially these all give you an insight into the balance between your two decision modes, ‘Heart’ and ‘Head’.

Personality Preferences

Think about Myers Briggs MBTI, the four letter groupings are, Introvert/Extrovert, Sensors/Intuitive, Thinkers/Feelers, Judgers/Perceivers. If we sort these attributes to ‘Heart’ or ‘Head’.

Under Heart we would have perhaps; Extrovert, Intuitive, Feeler, Perceivers and under Head; Introvert, Sensor, Thinker, Judger.

Now of course MBTI uses 16 different personality types and people turn out to have preferences and these change under stress situations.

There are other personality preference tests which use 4 colours, RED for direct action oriented people, BLUE for detailed highly analytical people, YELLOW for people who are enthusiastic and creative and GREEN for people who avoid conflict and think about people getting along. Again we could classify these preferences under Head and Heart.

Keep it Simple – 2 Decision Modes

I am not suggesting any of these long researched and world renown systems are not useful, all I am saying is that what differentiates human beings from animals is that we have a balance of two decision modes.

  1. A highly specialised ‘Heart’ mode, which is a bit like a graphics processor in a computer, its very fast but it considers only the information from the immediate environment presented to us, or information stored in a ‘dexterity’ cache memory that applies to a particular situation like playing the piano or driving a car.
  2. A highly refined processor able to draw on everything we have every seen or read, every technique or process we have ever learned to produce a well thought out and structured decision which takes time, and some people take longer than others.

What we have then is the ability to listen to each of these two “voices” and adjust the bias between the two in making a decision, sometimes its clear cut however sometimes we are in the human dilemma because our ‘Heart’ says one thing and our rational ‘Head’ says do another or it needs more information and time to really perform a structured option evaluation.

Each process draws on our ‘life experience’ database or memory but the fast ‘Heart’ process only looks at headlines. When we learn to play an instrument or drive a racing car well, the Heart process adds a speciality which takes practice, repetition and time like a cache memory.

The diagram below shows the simplest representation I can think of, the ‘Heart’ and ‘Mind’ processes are made distinct by separation, they don’t communicate with each other, just to you, however each is able to access your life experience. The two processes vary in weighting or the loudness of their voice depending on the person and the situation/environment. In an emergency situation your ‘Autopilot’ kicks in. You can adjust the gain/weight of how much notice you take of each decision process apart from those things deferred to ‘Autopilot”. When the weight of the two processes is balanced we get into a dilemma not because of the number of options but because of the two competing and contrasting decision types, this causes stress and anxiety so it is important to learn that you can control the relative weighting of the two processes.

IPC Heart-Head MindModel

IPC Heart-Head MindModel

So you can control how much bias you attribute to ‘Heart’ and ‘Head’ and you will be predisposed to levels that work for you from your life experience as a starting point. If we represent total control by ‘Heart’ with the colour RED, i.e. hot headed, passionate, charged and total control by “Head with the colour BLUE, i.e. rational, cool, dispassionate, logical then our preference will be somewhere on the continuum between the two. We can use the visible spectrum as a yardstick here, just to classify where you are likely to default to on the bias.

The continuum of RED through to BLUE

The continuum of RED through to BLUE

Under stress you will experience excursions to the left, toward infra red, and when you are relaxed you will experience excursions to the right towards ultra violet. Remember this is just a useful visual cue as to the relative bias between the two decision making processes. Remember the mnemonic rhyme you learnt at school, “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” the order of the colours RED, ORANGE, YELLOW,GREEN, BLUE, INDIGO, VIOLET. So you can use this visual cue to place your nominal balance and to track your excursions left and right in different situations, effectively this correlates to your mood.

Human Interaction – Mood Assessment

One thing we are generally very good at from the age of about 8 is assessing mood. We assess the mood of our parents at a young age, we test their patience and we learn the boundaries. We also assess their mood before we ask for something.  As we go through life we become adept at assessing mood quickly through body language, written language and tone of voice. This stems from the hard wired ‘fight or flight’ survival criteria.

So we assess the default mood and decision biases of friend and colleagues automatically. Imagine for a minute that you have lost this ability, pretty scary huh, you would go into interactions with people blind. How many of you have had a ‘conversation’ that has gone horribly wrong on email? Quite a few I would expect. How about text messaging? Considerably more because the messages are limited in length, the subtlety of language is lost and often we get things very wrong, very heated exchanges result in  friends actually falling out.

So the ability to assess mood is very important in human interaction, practice being consciously aware of how you rate other people’s mood on the spectrum.

Control  Requires you first Measure/Assess

To control or improve anything you must first measure the current state. Only then is it possible to target a different state. The spectral assessment of your mood or decision mode is a simple but effective way for you to understand where you are nominally on the scale and to understand the excursions over the spectrum that you and those you people you interact with make.

7 Stages in your life that make YOU Tick

  1. When you were a child most of your actions were based on intuition or ‘heart’ you were either hungry, playing or sleeping, you were kept safe and didn’t have any tough decisions to make, life was simple and stress free. 
  2. When you were in school you experienced the stress of tests and exams, your ‘head’ said you must do well but your ‘heart’ wanted to play games or read books, you ended up with a balance.
  3. When you graduated from college your ‘head’, and probably your parents, said “get a job” but your ‘heart’ wanted to get away from the stress and go on a holiday or even go back to college.
  4. When you started working you were learning, you weren’t paid to make decisions, you were paid to be productive so your ‘head’ ruled in work time but your ‘heart’ partied at the weekends.
  5. When you became a manager, you had to balance ‘heart’ with rational ‘head’ thoughts. You chose a balance which dictated your subsequent career.
    • If you preferred the rational, ‘head’, route you progressed steadily until finally you were overlooked for a promotion and hit a ceiling, a true ‘Company Man’.
    • If you preferred the intuitive, ‘heart’, route you were irritating but enthusiastic, people remembered you and moving from job to job was easier than you thought, life was full of peaks and troughs.
  6. Outside of work you found that most of your decisions are based on ‘heart’ you fell in love, you tend not run a spreadsheet for this! You buy a house, car, clothes based on ‘heart’ not ‘head’, remember the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’.
  7. You evaluate your life and where it is going, you realise that there has to be a balance/bias between rationality ‘head’ and intuition ‘heart’ and that you have been doing it pretty well all of your life, there is no reason to change, this is who you are. You know others with a different bias, maybe you partner or friends, they have a different perspective to you but thats what you love about being around them.

What really makes you tick is the ‘bias’ or weighting that you apply to the inputs from ‘head’ and ‘heart’, your position on the spectrum, tempered by everything you have ever experienced, this effectively defines ‘YOU’, your personality . You have also learnt certain skills to enhance your rapid decision making ability (dexterity), these might include:

  • Playing a sport
  • Painting and drawing
  • Writing computer code
  • Designing things
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Making things

You don’t need to think about these things, they come naturally and give you a feeling which is the opposite of stress and is unique to humans, ‘contentment’ or ‘fulfilment’.

Your past decisions are heavily influential in your future not only as they have dictated your ‘position’ on the ‘playing board of life’ but also because you have learnt the ‘heart’/’head’ balance, position on the spectrum, that works best for you in most decision making situations and you will apply this balance or bias in the first instance to every decision you have to make and through every human interaction you have for the rest of your life!

And Finally

I am an engineer and business manager not a neuroscientist, psychiatrist or psychologist so I make no claim that this model is correct with respect to the aggregate body of knowledge of these learned professions. I do however hope that reading this simple model gives you reason to reflect and understand your own and others nominal decision modes and mood swings because only when you are aware can you hope to take control.

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