Nov 192009

rutIn a previous post, I reviewed A Perfect Mess, a fascinating book about how randomness and disorder can actually improve our lives. Before I forget, I wanted to share one of the really exciting applications of this principle.  Here’s how it works. In one study mentioned in the book, managers with people skills problems were coached by management psychologists trying to improve their skills. They had little luck. Like many of us, they knew what they SHOULD do. They just didn’t do it. The people-habits of a lifetime were just too difficult to break.

So the researchers took a different tack. Instead of asking the managers to make a huge change to how they interacted with their employees, the researchers asked the mangers to make  SMALL changes. To ANYTHING. They could change their route to work, or what they ate for lunch, or what they wore to the office. And, strangely enough, once these small, random changes were introduced into their routines, the managers found themselves behaving differently in BIG ways. The small changes had been enough to knock them out of their deep personality ruts onto a whole new track.

Abrahamson and Freedman (the authors of A Perfect Mess) associate this strange effect with something that physicists and electronic engineers call “stochastic resonance”. This is the principle that a weak signal can sometimes be amplified, not by removing noise, but by ADDING random noise to the system. They explain it like this: Imagine someone like Igor, the proverbial mad scientist’s assistant, having to flip a large switch for an experiment. switch Imagine further that he needs to flip the switch rapidly back and forth for the experiment to work.

But alas,the switch is old and rusty and he’s just a tiny bit too weak to move it back and forth. He’s stuck. But suddenly, an earthquake hits the lab, shaking it randomly back and forth and rocking it up and down. As Igor is straining on the switch, suddenly the room lurches and helps him push the switch. The added strength of Igor and the earthquake was enough to move the switch. And soon, another jerk of the room helps him pull it back down. Most of the random movements of the earthquake don’t help him. But enough of them DO help that it is enough to overcome the stickiness of the switch and Igor is able to move it up and down.

This is stochastic resonance. It is being used for such things as aplifying weak signals, and even helping the elderly maintain their balance. It has been found, in the latter case, that a slight vibration (in other words, slight random movement) in the insoles of the shoes of elderly people help them maintain their balance as well as a 20 year old!

So… if you have a habit you need to break, or a rut you need to get out of – enlist the aid of stochastic resonance. Make small, random changes to your routine. Can’t keep on your diet? Randomly change the plates you eat on. Or change your route to work, or the TV shows you watch. Make ANY small random changes, and they may just give you the resonance you need to throw the big switch and make larger changes to your life.

Give it a try and let me know if it works for you.

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