Episode 415: Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There with Tali Sharot

Episode Summary

In this episode, Professor Tali Sharot joins us to reflect on habituation and its impact on daily happiness. Throughout our conversation, Tali shares bits of her research on habituation and adaptation, how they affect our happiness, and what we can do to “make what’s thrilling on Monday, also thrilling on Friday.” We also discuss her first book, “The Optimism Bias,” the impact optimism has on our motivation, and why an optimistic attitude is crucial.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, and welcome to the “Becoming Your Best” podcast show. We have an extraordinary guest with us today. I first met her in London about six or seven years ago, and Tali Sharot is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London and MIT. She is the founder and director of the Affective Brain Lab. She has written for outlets including The New York Times, Time, and The Washington Post, and she has been a repeated guest on CNN, NBC, MSNBC, and a presenter on the BBC, which we love. The BBC is a great broadcast center and station. She served as an advisor for global companies and government projects. Her work has won her prestigious fellowships and prizes from the Wellcome Trust, the American Psychological Society, the British Psychological Society, and others. She is amazing. So welcome, Tali. 

Dr. Tali Sharot: Thanks for having me. Good to see you again. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, yeah, same here. I’d like to just tell you a little bit more about her before we have her come on. Her popular TED Talks have accumulated more than a dozen million views. Before becoming a neuroscientist, Tali worked in the financial industry. She is the author of the award-winning books, The Optimist Bias and The Influential Mind. She lives in Boston and London with her husband and children. She’s going to be launching a book, it’s coming up. So, this podcast will be just about the time the book’s released. It’s called Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There, and that’s co-authored by Cass Sunstein. So, let’s just get into this. It’s Dr. Tali Sharot, here we go. Tell us a little bit about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. 

Dr. Tali Sharot: Sure. So, I have a bachelor’s in psychology and economics. In fact, at the time, I wanted to do brain science, but there wasn’t really a bachelor’s in brain science, so I chose two related categories. I then went on to do my PhD at NYU in cognitive neuroscience, which is kind of a combination of psychology and neuroscience, did some postdocs, and then ended up with a professor position at University College London. I study decision-making and emotion and how we process information and form beliefs, using really a combination of methods from psychology, neuroscience, and also behavioral economics. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s quite a background. So, let’s talk first of all about the Optimist Bias. How was that experience for you? Tell us just a one or two-minute overview of the Optimist Bias. I love that book. Just give us a little feel for what that is, and then we’re gonna jump into your latest book that’s coming out. 

Dr. Tali Sharot: The Optimism Bias — it’s our tendency to overestimate the likelihood of experiencing positive events in our lives—like getting a promotion or having time to children—and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events in our lives, like getting divorced or being in an accident or being ill. For example, a survey that we conducted after the beginning of the pandemic showed that most people believed that they’re less likely to get COVID than other people of the same age and gender. This optimism bias that we have is mostly about our own lives and our own likelihoods. So, we’re not necessarily optimistic about public affairs. We actually call this private optimism but public despair. People tend to be a little bit pessimistic about where the leaders are going and where the country is going. Partially it’s because we feel we have no control over these global issues. But we do have control—or at least we believe we have control, more so than we do, perhaps—over our own life. So we tend to think that we could steer the wheel in the right direction. And so we tend to be more optimistic about those issues. 

Steve Shallenberger: Is being optimistic a good thing, versus being pessimistic? 

Dr. Tali Sharot: So, in general, optimism actually is correlated well with success in different domains — so, success in business, politics, academia, in sports. One reason may be that if we believe our future is bright, then we put more effort into it. It really increases our motivation. If you think, “Well, I’m not going to succeed, my company’s not going to succeed,” you put less effort into it, and then it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While our predictions can be overly optimistic, we tend to need that optimism to move forward. There’s a saying: “You have to expect gold in order to get silver; otherwise, you get nothing at all.” 

Steve Shallenberger: For our listeners, I love that book. It was really helpful for me, and thank you for writing that. So, let’s talk about Look Again. What inspired you to write Look Again? Give us a little thought of what you’re thinking about and what you hope to achieve with it. What’s in the book? 

Dr. Tali Sharot: So, the book really started with this puzzle, which is that we all have some great things in our life, maybe we have a wonderful relationship or a good job or a comfortable house. But it seems that those things do not impact our daily happiness as much as they should. At the same time, there are some terrible things around us: racism, sexism, cracks in our personal relationships, and political problems. We also seem to get used to them so they’re really not affecting us as much as you’d expect them to. We even sometimes don’t notice them. And if you don’t notice something, you don’t try to change it. And the question is, why is it? Why is it that we, over time, don’t notice really wonderful things, but also, over time, don’t notice really terrible things? And it’s not because humans are lazy or stupid. It’s because of a fundamental feature of our brain that’s called habituation. Habituation is our tendency to respond less and less to things that are constant or change very slowly. So, for example, you enter a room full of smoke, you really smell the tobacco at first, but after about 20 minutes, studies show you can’t smell it anymore. Or you jump into a pool; it’s really cold, but after a while, you get used to it. So, just as we get used to tobacco and don’t smell it anymore, we also get used to a new love, and to a divorce, to getting a promotion, and to losing our job, to the smell of the ocean. So, our question with this book is beyond the ‘why is it happening’ and the biological explanation, what can we do about it? How can we ‘dis-habituate’ in order to make what’s thrilling on Monday, also thrilling on Friday? What is devastating on Tuesday, not just become another thing on Friday, but something that we can actually notice and be more likely to change. 

Steve Shallenberger: As you think about this habituation, is it cousins with complacency a little bit? 

Dr. Tali Sharot: Yeah, it is. I think what’s interesting to us is that it is such a fundamental biological feature of our brain. We could really look at the neurons and see how we stop responding to things if they just don’t change. And then, going from this very basic feature, which you can actually even see in unicells, you can see it even in bacteria, and then saying, “Well, that thing,” the same principle that you can see in all these animals, we then see how it affects all aspects of our society — as you say, complacency. We have different chapters in the book about how it relates to risk adaptation, how it relates to lying escalation, how it relates to our ability to perceive climate change, and how it relates to our ability to perceive misinformation. So, this kind of fundamental aspect of our brain is affecting all parts of our life, our relationships, and the way that we work. So, that’s, I think, what we found so interesting, and how knowing about it can help us figure out ways to address these problems. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a great overview. Thank you for responding to that. I love the way you put that: “How do we make what is thrilling on Monday also thrilling on Friday?” In other words, how do we combat habituation so that we can stay on top of things, be excited, and see the things we should be seeing, and life can be all that it’s meant to be? 

Dr. Tali Sharot: So, to answer this question, maybe I’ll tell you a little story. So, I was advising a big tourism company. And they wanted to know what makes people happy on vacation. So, we went to the resorts, and we surveyed people. And the first thing we wanted to know is when are they happiest on vacation. And what we found is that people were happiest 43 hours into the vacation. So, they arrive at the resort within 43 hours is the peak of their happiness, and then it starts dwindling down. It seems like it takes them about 43 hours to get settled and really enjoy the fun, but then it starts going down. It’s not that they’re not happy on day three, four, five, or eight, but they’re less happy on day three, four, five, and eight than on hour 43. And the second thing that we found is when we ask people, “What were the happiest bits? What are the bits that you remember and enjoy the most?” The word that they used more often than any other word was ‘first.’ “The first view of the ocean, the first cocktail, the first dip in the pool.” Firsts are new and exciting, and that’s what made people the happiest. The second dip in the pool was nice, but it wasn’t as nice as the first. So, one thing that this suggests is that what we want to do is create more ‘firsts.’ And how can we create more ‘firsts’? We can break up experiences into bits; chop up your experiences. So, for example, instead of taking one long vacation, you might take a few short vacations of two or three days, a long weekend if possible. Sometimes it’s not possible because you’re flying far away. But if possible, you want to chop up the bits.  

Dr. Tali Sharot: For example, there’s a really interesting study that shows exactly that. They asked people to listen to a piece of music. So, think about a song that you really like. And then they said, “Okay, would you rather listen to the song from beginning to end continuously? Or would you rather have interruptions in the song?” And everyone, 99% of people said, “I want to listen continuously. I don’t want any interruptions.” But what they found is when they actually interrupted the song and broke it into sections, people enjoyed it more, and they were willing to pay double to listen to this music in concert. Why is that? If you listen to a song that you really enjoy, you enjoy it. But that enjoyment goes down with time; you habituate to it. But if I stop you, and then start again, your joy goes up back, you ‘dis-habituate.’ And then chop, goes again, and then the joy goes back again. So, it turns out that cutting experiences into bits, overall, people enjoy the most, although they don’t anticipate this, people are not aware of it. They did it with songs, they did it with massages. People enjoyed massages more when they were chopped up into bits than one continuous one. Again, people did not predict this to be true. It’s very counterintuitive, but yet, that’s what they found. So, I think one way to ‘dis-habituate’ so that we could feel the joy of things that are constant around us is to try to break them into bits. Now, you can also try to break up your own life. 

Dr. Tali Sharot: So, we live our lives, and we have some good things, but we get used to them, and we don’t notice them anymore. But if we then take a break, go away for a weekend, or a business trip, and then we come back, what tends to happen is things seem like they’re re-sparkling. Suddenly, when you get back home, things that you were just bored with or didn’t even think about, suddenly, you are aware of them, and suddenly, you appreciate them more. So, taking breaks from our own life is another way to go. And then, there’s a related strategy, which is to diversify our lives. There’s research showing that all else being equal, making changes actually increases your happiness. So, there’s a nice study by Steven Levitt that asked people to think about something that they want to change in their lives. They wrote down what they wanted to change. It could be big or small. Maybe you want to change a relationship, job, or maybe it could just be the color of your kitchen. Then he said, “Okay, flip a coin—” it was a virtual coin online— “If you get heads, you take the change. If it’s tails, you don’t change.” And he went back to these people two weeks later, six months later. First of all, he found that people did, to some extent, go along with what the coin said. So, if the coin said heads, they did change 25% more than if it says tails. And he found that all else being equal, those that did change were indeed happier. Now, of course, this is on average. It doesn’t mean that everybody who changed was happier than not changing. But on average, what he found from that is that yes, change in and of itself makes you happier. And I think one of the reasons is that a change causes us to pay attention again. Now things are different, so now we need to pay attention. Change is really the opposite of habituation. We habituate when things are the same, but if things are changing, we can’t habituate. It’s the opposite of it. So, diversify your life. Now, I’m not suggesting that we leave our partner and go with someone else. But things like even taking a new course and adopting a new skill. There are many studies showing that learning makes people the happiest. So, in one study, people could gain money, and also learn about the rules of the game. What they found is yes, people are happy when they gain money, but they were happiest when they learned something. So, learning something new makes people happier than just gaining material goods. 

Steve Shallenberger: There’s so much I want to ask you about this, Tali. So, for example, I would imagine from what you’ve been talking about, that habituation can be devastating in a relationship unless you break the cycle, and it can become stale. So, what have you found there, in any recommendations of how to avoid that in a relationship? And then, I have one more follow-up to that one. 

Dr. Tali Sharot: So, I am definitely not an expert in that. But to answer that question, we relied on the research of Esther Perel, who’s a well-known relationship expert. Esther says that she found something really interesting; she found that people were most attracted to their partners in two instances: one, when they were away from the partner, and then came back; took a break, and then came back. And number two, when they saw their partner in a situation that they’ve never seen them before; for example, in a party talking to strangers, or on stage doing something. I think that fits well with everything that I’ve talked about so far: that to dis-habituate, what you need to do is take a break. And that’s true. Again, we don’t mean a break as in actual breaking up a relationship but just going away, perhaps it’s an evening, perhaps it’s a day, perhaps it’s a weekend. Also, just doing things a little bit differently. Her second conclusion was, when things are different, that you’ve never seen your partner in that exact environment, doing that exact thing, that’s when people felt most attracted to the other person. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you for that perspective. That is excellent because it ties in perfectly, really, with what you just talked about and learning together. In other words, some of the very best relationships—now that we’re talking about it—that I’ve seen, and one of them happened to be with us in our Harvard group in London, when we met with you, they were there. They studied together, they’ve been married 67 years, and they’re just getting ready to turn 90, both of them. They are on the go, they love to do things, they’re changing up what they do, they’ve taken pottery classes, and I love that perspective. So, go to a dance, have a good variety in the relationship, and that’s changing things out. I’ve got a tough one for you; you may or may not know the answer to this one. Let’s say that someone has a traumatic experience. Maybe they’ve been divorced once or twice, or maybe they’ve lost a spouse, maybe because they’ve been divorced once or twice. They might have habituation in not being able to go forward. I don’t know if that fits, in other words, are stuck. Does that make sense? What are your thoughts on that? And how do they get out of that? 

Dr. Tali Sharot: So, it’s actually been shown that on average—of course, there’ll be exceptions—but on average, while divorce does reduce your satisfaction from life and happiness at the time of divorce, from that moment on, on average, people start going slowly back to their baseline happiness and well-being. And on average, within two years, people will get back to their baseline level of happiness. In fact, if you think about the whole thing, it looks like a U-shape. So, two years before the divorce, the happiness starts going down, probably because things are getting bad. It gets to the lowest point at the time of divorce. And then it actually goes back up because people adapt. It’s amazing what humans can adapt to. Divorce is just one example, but people adapt and get over much more traumatic experiences. We’ve seen this again and again. Think about the pandemic. The world has changed within a second. The world as we knew it at the time changed. And yes, stress went up, depression went up. But what we’ve seen is that, according to some studies, within two months, it went almost back to what it was before, because people just adapt. They get used to the new environment, and they find new ways. Now, this is from a bird’s eye view. What is important to know is that it’s true on average, but you have individuals who have lots of problems adapting. And these are often people who have a mental health history.  

Dr. Tali Sharot: So, one example is people with depression or a history of depression; they tend to adapt but much slower. It takes much longer, and sometimes they never get back to the level that they experienced before trauma. There’s a great study by a professor called Aaron Heller at the University of Florida, where he had students in the university who got grades for their final exams. And what he did is he asked them how they felt every 45 minutes for the rest of the day. And what he found is when people got bad grades, they felt bad. And that was true both for people with mental health history and those without. And after they got bad grades, slowly, within long hours, they started feeling better and better. That was true both for people who are healthy and those with either depression or a history of depression. But what he found was that for those with depression, while they did feel better over time, it happened way slower. So, really, one of the signatures of many different conditions that are related to mental health is actually a problem in adaptation or habituation. It has different flavors. In depression, it tends to be an emotional adaptation, it’s slower. But in other conditions, for example, in schizophrenia, it’s been shown that they tend to habituate to sound slower. So, if you have an AC in the background, usually, after a while, you won’t hear it. Only when I turn it off, you suddenly like, “I feel better and I didn’t even realize it.” It turns out that people with schizophrenia don’t do that that well. They don’t filter out the noise like we do, and it’s harder for them to adapt and habituate. 

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you for that answer. Now, you said something that’s fascinating to me, in referring to habituation and dishonesty. Can you go into that a little bit and the impact that has? Because that is really quite a revelation and something that people need to be aware of. 

Dr. Tali Sharot: Yeah, and in fact, that was one of the major triggers for the book, because it’s a study that I conducted with my colleagues, that was published back in 2016. The title of the paper is “The Brain Adapts to Dishonesty.” Anecdotally, when you think about the great fraud stories of our time, usually, the narrative is it started small and it became bigger and bigger. Even we have a quote by Bernie Madoff: “At the beginning, you take just a little bit, then you take more and more and more, and the more you take, the more comfortable you feel about it.” So, anecdotally, this feels true. We did actual experiments to see what’s going on. And what we did is we brought people into our lab in twos. They played a game, and in that game, they could cheat. We didn’t tell them to cheat, but if they wanted to, they probably realized they could. And if they did, they could benefit their own income at the expense of the other person. What we found was at the beginning, they just lied by a little bit, by a few cents. And then, after a few minutes, by more, and more, and then a few dollars, and more. So lying really escalated over time. And not only did they play the game, but we also recorded their brain activity while they did this. And what we found was at the beginning, when they lied, there was a strong activity in the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. So, at the beginning, when they lied, even if it was by a little bit, they felt bad about it. But the activity of the amygdala went down over time — it habituated. And that’s normal. We know that the amygdala activity response to anything will just go down over time if it’s constant and if it’s frequent. So, now there was less of an emotional response to your own lying so nothing stopped you from doing so. Because normally, what stops us from lying, it’s the bad feeling, the guilt. But if we take away the bad feeling from you, there will be not much stopping you from lying, so you lie more and more and more. And basically, we showed that we could predict by looking at the amygdala activity going down, we could predict how much more you would lie on the next trial. That really was the first study. And in fact, funnily enough, the paper was published in October 2016. So just a few months before the presidential election of 2016, at which time, it was all about lying, and so on. So, you can imagine that was really taken up by all the journals. It became quite well known because it happened to be published at that time. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, really, the answer to combat habituation in being dishonest is to nip it in the bud and not even tolerate small dishonesties? In other words, draw a line and say, “I’m not tolerating this at all.” 

Dr. Tali Sharot: Right. So, we really need to call out the small lies, because what our studies show is that the small lies can become bigger and bigger. So, whether it is in the work environment with your employees, even if it’s sometimes just small things like someone, it seems like they cheated on their expenses by a few bucks. But if we let that slide, they get comfortable with it, and it can become bigger and bigger. And the same thing with, I think, children. You do want to call out these small ones so that there will be an emotional reaction. One thing that happened in our study is there was no punishment, they just lied. But if you punish, then you’re resetting the emotional reaction. You’re causing people to dis-habituate because you’re saying, “No, no, no, this is not okay.” 

Steve Shallenberger: Wow, I’m so glad you covered that. Thank you. Well, I’m always amazed how fast these podcasts go. We’re at the end of our show. It’s been a delight to have you with us. So, before we sign off today, what tips would you like to leave with our listeners? Any final tips that would really be helpful for them as they think about this? 

Dr. Tali Sharot: The big message is trying something new. It’s kind of a well-known thing to say. But I think we talk a lot about why that’s true. Why variety and diversity of experiences is really beneficial for your happiness, and also for your creativity. We didn’t have time to talk about that, but if someone gets the book, there’s a whole chapter about creativity. And it also shows that trying new things and diversifying your life also enhances the likelihood of coming up with creative solutions. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, what do you talk about in creativity? 

Dr. Tali Sharot: So, what has been shown is that people who tend to habituate slower, tend to be more creative. You can measure how fast people habituate. For example, I can have a repeated sound go boom, boom, boom, and I can measure your response physiologically, using something called [27:56 inaudible], for example. So, it’s been shown that people who habituate slower, meaning they continue responding to things that are constant, tend to be more creative. There’s a study conducted by a professor at Harvard, where she showed that people who are very creative, meaning they had a patent under their name, they had an exhibition of their art show, and they wrote a book; those are people who habituate slower. And the question is why. And we think the reason is when you are not habituating fast, that means there’s less of a filter. Information comes in, and you notice the sound, you notice the visuals, thoughts — all the information is not filtered as much. And this can be distracting—and I’m sure it is—but at the same time, it creates this mishmash of information in your mind, lots of things going on. And sometimes, and mostly it’s not important information, mundane, boring information. But sometimes, one piece of boring, mundane information collides with this other piece of boring, mundane information in your mind, because there’s less filter, and it can create this novel idea. In fact, we know that a lot of novel ideas come because you took a piece of information from one domain that’s really not interesting, and another piece of information from another domain, on its own, really not interesting, but they happen to mish-mash together and create this kind of new solution. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, I love it, and I love the name of your book, Look Again, because it really plays right into what you were just talking about, which is really being alert and hungry and curious and not just lulling into inactivity, and not being interested in things. Love your comment about learning and seeing new things and changing things up. That’s a great strategy. So, with that, it’s been a delight to have you. How can people find out about this and what you’re doing? 

Dr. Tali Sharot: By the time this is out, I think Look Again would probably be available everywhere, Amazon, stores, and so on. My research can be found on the Affective Brain Lab website. So, there you can find all our academic papers, but also articles for laypeople, videos, podcasts, audio, and so on. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you, Dr. Tali Sharot, for joining us today. It is so fun to see you again. You keep coming out with these dynamite subjects and research that you’re doing that’s so helpful as we are working, all of us, on becoming our best, and what you’re talking about now really helps people become the very best that they can be. So, thank you so much for joining us. 

Dr. Tali Sharot: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure. 

Steve Shallenberger: Wishing you all the best in your work. To all of our listeners, wherever you may be in the world, thank you for joining us today. It’s such a privilege to have you with us. You are a total inspiration. You’re here because you want to be, you’re trying to better yourself and do exactly what Dr. Sharot was talking about today. So, thank you for joining us. We wish you the best today and always. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Dr. Tali Sharot

Director of the Affective Brain Lab

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, a sought-after Speaker, Award-winning Author

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