In an article published this month in the June 2018 issue of Scientific American, psychologist Peter Salovey posed an intriguing argument. People and the world, his idea went, would be significantly better off if we all learned to think like scientists. Institutions of learning, he insisted, can and should play a role in supporting that goal.

But why should we bother?

What's the benefit to us if we hone the ability to objectively gather, collect and compare data? As, Salovey explains, "For many, knowledge about the natural world is superseded by personal beliefs. Wisdom across disciplinary and political divides is needed to help bridge this gap."

Now, the supersession Salovey is talking about happens simply because specific areas of the brain--namely, the amygdalae--are so good at forming emotional memories that construct implicit biases. The feelings associated with those biases can be so strong, and the neural connections maintaining them so well developed, that it can be hard on the cellular level to accept new, conflicting data.

But if we can distance ourselves from those feelings a bit, if we can learn to treat them simply like another data set, then the scientific way of thinking saves us. We can look at our personal beliefs and compare and analyze them against other information objectively. And we can use scientific methods to gather information about collective beliefs, too (e.g., using a survey to find that x percent of residents think the color purple is icky, rather than just assuming all residents do). This means that we can stay fact-focused and open minded, truly hearing and respecting what others say or do, and that we don't retreat into isolative echo chambers because emotion gets in the way.

In the business environment, these benefits transform into significantly better innovation, not to mention improved agility, better policies and a larger number of stronger, trust-filled relationships. From this standpoint, thinking scientifically isn't just about converting yourself into someone who's less prejudiced (although that's nice). It's honestly about creating an environment and leading in a way that gives stability and growth to your company.

The other side of the coin

As accurate as I think Salovey's conclusion is, I don't believe the scientific way of thinking should be the only tool you have in your leadership box. Much of what successful entrepreneurs do happens on the fly and can't be applied formulaically. For example, two audiences can respond differently as you give a presentation. You might read their cues to quickly decide to change your pace, insert a joke or make a clarification. Or consider that there are times when the pros and cons of multiple options are equal. Because data comparison won't help you here, your final decision likely will come from your gut or instinct, what you feel. These instances depend much more on good emotional intelligence than pure rational thought and scientific process.

And think about time, too. It's probably the biggest hindrance to working more scientifically from an operational standpoint. Gathering data and comparing it well is prudent, but it can take weeks, months or even years to do, depending on what you're researching. Your business isn't always going to be able to consider every fact given that the hectic pace of competition and market change demand short deadlines. In this kind of environment, there's arguably something to be said for moving based on the information you have at a specific point, rather than moving based on the information you ideally would gather.

At the end of the day, we all should know how to think under a scientific lens--the effects can improve both you as an individual and our collective well-being. In fact, it's arguably our current social breakdowns that have made our lack of scientific thought training so obvious to Salovey and others. But like so many other things in life, it's not a black-and-white or either-or issue. Sometimes, it's better to just react or lean on what we're feeling. That's why nature endowed our brains with the two ways of working in the first place. The key is simply being able to distinguish which approach is appropriate for your situation, and to strive for balance.

Published on: Jun 14, 2018