The Neuroscience of Strategy: Do You Really Know Your(future)self?

Posted on May 3, 2013. Filed under: Interesting Articles, Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

This week, Geoff Grahl, an associate at NeuroCapability and a leader in change management, looks at the neuroscience of strategy and how learning to align the present with the ‘possible future’ leads to a more realistic and attainable vision that can generate real value for your organisation.


full brain

After a big night out, have you ever thought, ‘Why didn’t I just stick with my plan of having two drinks and then go home?” The answer is that you made a choice to take the short-term gain (fun with mates) and risk the long-term pain (hangover).  What influences this decision is how you view your current and future selves and whether or not they are out of alignment at the time you make the choice.

As leaders at work, the same thing can happen, especially when you’re under pressure around performance review time, for example, which generally coincides with other work deadlines. While you have the best of intentions to get everything ready for a good quality review, when the day arrives there never seems to be enough time to pull it all together. This can make it difficult  to address both great and poor performances in the appropriate depth, something that can come back to haunt you some time in the future. You end up consigning your future self to pay the costs incurred in the present.

How well do you know your future self?

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 11.58.56 AMIn 2007, Daniel Gilbert undertook a study that looked at prospection  something he defines as looking ahead–in other words, the opposite of retrospection, where we analyse the past.  His study examines how we utilise  our memory and our understanding of context in both the present and the ‘possible’ future in order to develop a simulation of what the future might look like.  This also involves an emotional element he calls ‘prefeeling’, where we seek to create a sensory simulation of our future experience in the present to confirm either that the event is a threat we can manage or a reward worth pursuing.

Gilbert’s model shows that our prediction of a future experience is only reliable as long if we align both the feeling and context of the future experience with our ‘present simulation’.  When there are errors in ‘prospection’,  the individual experiences increasing stress as he moves toward the future.  Gilbert identifies four core errors that can cause misalignment between our present and future selves:

  1. Simulations are unrepresentative – Since memories are the building blocks of simulations, when our memories don’t accurately represent the past or we use unrepresentative memories to construct the simulation,  we can tend to over or underestimate the future experience. For example, when people who missed trains in the past were asked to imagine missing a train in the future, they generally remembered their worst train-missing experience, over-estimating how painful missing the next train would be.
  2. Simulations are essentialised – When we create a future simulation we generally just create the essential features and leave out the more mundane aspects.  For example, when we think about our date to attend the theatre next week, we imagine the theatre, the actors, and the story, but not the traffic or parking the car.  The problem with omitting inessential features from simulations is that such features can profoundly influence our subsequent experience.  The challenge is also that the further in the future the event is, the more likely we are to omit the inessential features, which is one of the reasons why people so often make future commitments they regret when the time to fulfill them arrives
  3. Simulations are abbreviated – To create a simulation with the full experience we would have to spend the same amount of time and energy as the actual experience.  To manage this, we abbreviate the future experience and, in so doing, tend to focus only on the early moments.  For example, when we imagine winning the lottery we tend to focus on the first few weeks after the event, not days far down the track.  This focus on the early moments can lead us to over represent the period where there is the most pleasure or pain.
  4. Simulations are decontextualised – Gilbert’s model identifies context as a key element in determining the accuracy in predicting the future.  He found that people ignored contextual factors, such as weather and traffic conditions, that could exert an influence in the future but were not currently present. When such contextual factors were considered in more detail predictions became more accurate.

cardboard bear

Cardboard reality

Gilbert asserts that our simulations of the future essentially represent a ‘cardboard cut-out’ of reality.  As a survival mechanism from our ancestors, this works exceptionally well. It’s far better to simulate a meeting of a bear than it is to actually meet one in the woods. To accurately predict the future, however, we need to expend more energy and time to address the challenges outlined above. This helps us manage our stress levels as well, because the more our current and future selves are aligned, the less regret we feel about making the decision in the first place.

This idea is further supported in a more recent study examining the brain regions we use when making decisions.  In 2010, neuroscientist Jason Mitchell and his colleagues sought to determine whether people who take an up front reward over a bigger long-term gain see their future selves in the same way as those who chose the larger long-term reward.  The experiment involved monitoring the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC), which has been shown in many studies to be engaged when people make decisions about themselves.

Utilising neuroimaging technology coupled with different tasks involving affective forecasting and time-based choice, the study was able to identify that those people who were able to view the future task from the perspective of their current self were more likely to take the long term reward.  Those who took the short-term reward had the perception of their future self as though it was not them at all but someone else . In terms of brain activity, these people exhibited less vMPFC activity when they predicted their future enjoyment of an event.  This meant that those people who were better at self-referencing were able to see themselves in a future with the larger reward, something that held off the desire to seek immediate gratification.

The future organisation

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.56.46 PMSo how does this play out at the organisational level?  Well, imagine that you are part of a strategic planning session in a company where politics and status play a key role and there is constant jostling for resources. The goal is to create a meaningful and profitable future for the company. The challenge is that, due to the uncertain economy, everyone in the room is focussed on the immediate ‘what’s in it for me’.  If the majority of people are unable to align their current and future selves, an unrealistic strategy could be adopted. Most of the participants will have predicted that they will have far more resources later than is realistic given the present circumstances.

The larger the gap in alignment between current and future perceptions, the greater the stress will be as the goal is approached.  The results can be devastating, possibly resulting in down streaming resources with managers and teams being directed to deliver projects, improvements, or budgets that are unachievable.  This scenario leads to a downward spiral of redundancies and cost reduction, perhaps losing the very people who could actually help maintain or grow the business.

So what can we do to improve our ability to align our current and future selves? How do we ensure we can realistically achieve our outcomes?   The research suggests that it’s quite simple: When you’re trying to decide whether you should do something in the future, attempt to think of yourself doing it now. For example, if you promise to help a friend move house next month, imagine it is happening this weekend.  Do you have the resources to be able to do it now?  If not, you need to be more thoughtful about what needs to happen between now and then to reduce your stress as you get closer to the task.

Reverse visioning

shutterstock_9251326At an organisational level this can be more difficult.  Current strategic planning processes tend to favour a structured linear and reductionist approach where everything is broken down into its component parts.  Often these sessions are delivered over a limited and intense time period that does not favour how the brain works. Outside of choosing a new brain-friendly approach to planning, one tool that can assist you in making more realistic forecasts is to undertake a ‘reverse visioning’ exercise at key time intervals. This involves the team looking back over the previous period to determine what has happened to get to that point in time.  This simple exercise can assist those in the team who have a preference for immediate gain improve how they reference themselves in the future and thereby improve the value of their contribution. The result? A realistic strategy that ultimately delivers real value.


Geoff-Grahl_HeadshotGeoff Grahl is an Associate at NeuroCapability.  He helps companies reinvent planning and strategy to unlock future value as part of the NeuroCapability’s NeuLeaders program. NeuLeaders is about creating a new generation of thinking leaders who are able to come to the table with a set of tools that positively contribute to the planning process and build real future value.


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