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You: The Science Experiment

You: The Science Experiment
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    I don’t expect you’ll be drinking mystery potions or hooking yourself up to a car battery anytime soon. But conducting personal experiments are probably the best way to find answers. By actually testing (instead of assuming) your habits, beliefs, methods and systems you can make real improvements.

    Stop Theorizing, Look at Results

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, recommends against using complex theories if they can’t predict anything. Humans are theory machines, trying to explain things which might not easily fit into our reduced model of reality. By experimenting, you look at what actually works, not just what you feel should work.

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    If you set up your personal experiment appropriately, the results should speak for themselves. I know many online business owners who use A/B split tests religiously. Instead of assuming they know what will sell, they simply divide web traffic between two different pages and see what drives results.


    Gaps in Knowledge

    Humans have an ability to focus on what we do know, instead of what we don’t. The way we store information neatly conceals our own ignorance. And it is in these gaps that you can often find new opportunities and solutions. But if your own arrogance keeps you from trying, you may miss them entirely.

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    An experiment can fill those gaps. By giving an idea a full test, you get information that wouldn’t be available simply by guessing.

    Reduce Bias

    A personal experiment can never reach the calculated and sterile environment of a double-blind trial. But personal experiments reduce the chances that you’ve been acting on superstition instead of results. How would your life change if you found out:

    • You could do all your e-mail work once a day (or once a week!)
    • Your energy levels doubled after increasing your exercise and improving your diet.
    • Using a different technique you could cut studying time in half while learning more.
    • Using gap time you can read a book per week without cutting time from your schedule.
    • One work activity you regularly engage in has almost no effect.

    You probably already have assumptions about the answers to these questions. Experimentation means you are bold enough to say, “I don’t know.” Being skeptical can let you trust the results of a test, more than superficial theories.

    How to Run a Personal Experiment

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    Achieving objectivity with a sample size of yourself isn’t possible. But simply throwing scientific practice to the whim and “trying things out” is likely to lead to more bias, not less. Maintaining some measure of objectivity when testing ideas will ensure you get accurate results and they aren’t polluted by your own prejudices.

    Here are some steps to running an experiment:

    1. Isolate Measurements. An experiment needs to measure something. Quantitative results (weight, traffic, income) are better than qualitative ones (happiness, service, stress). But more important is to choose measurements that accurately reflect your goal. Picking the wrong measurement will tune your experiment to focus on incorrect results.
    2. Stay Consistent. Testing to see whether a different work routine is better won’t help if you try different routines every day. Outline your experiment on paper and commit to following it for a specified length of time. Shortened trials and inconsistent data make experiments worthless.
    3. Keep Comparison Information. Most scientific experiments have a control group. This ensures that there is a real difference instead of an imagined one. In some areas you can get comparison information through a split test, dividing inputs between your experiment and the control. In other areas you will need to be satisfied with a careful record of pre-experiment results to see if changes have occurred.
    4. Withhold Early Judgement. Ignorance and humility are the keys to running a successful experiment. Pulling the plug too early might not give enough time to show results. I usually spend a month or two testing an experiment before I decide if it is worthwhile.

    Experiments to Try

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    The world isn’t obvious. That statement itself may sound a little obvious, but I believe it is too often missed. We expect the world to behave according to explicit theories inside our head, when in reality, it is far more complex. Experimentation and focusing on actual results, allows you to take advantage of your ignorance.

    Here are some ideas you might want to consider trying:

    • Internet Once a Day – Set an internet time once a day for all e-mail, surfing and contact. I’ve done this before and been amazed at how much my net usage can be compressed.
    • Daily Exercise – A few weeks ago I posted an article on changing habits, where I recommended exercising every day if you plan to start. A few commenters informed me how this would lead to injury. Although I don’t recommend hurting yourself, I haven’t seen this to be the case in myself or many people I know. Poor form from trying to lift too much weight is a more likely culprit.
    • Go Veg – I’m a fan of a vegetarian diet because I believe it works to give more energy. But don’t trust me, trust an experiment for yourself.
    • Morning/Night Work – Try waking up early to get work done. Or try working on projects later in the night. Different rhythms work best for different people and lifestyles. Experiment, don’t judge.
    • Time Usage – Be skeptical of the efficacy of anything you spend time on. Test ruthlessly, because a small test can end up saving thousands of hours in otherwise wasted productivity.

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    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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