Can teddy bears make you more ethical?

Want people to play nice and not cheat each other? Bring toys.

Via Harvard Business Review:

The finding: Adults are less likely to cheat and more likely to engage in “pro-social” behaviors when reminders of children, such as teddy bears and crayons, are present.

The research: Sreedhari Desai and her research partner Francesca Gino had people play classic psychology games in which the subjects controlled how much money other people earned and could earn more themselves if they lied. Half the participants were either in a room with children’s toys or engaged in children’s activities. Across the board, those participants lied less and were more generous than the control subjects.

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Something’s rotten in the state of Belgium—it’s the budget

News just broke that Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme kept secret an alarming report by the Federal Planning Bureau on the subject of government finances. The document dates back to November 2010.

On page 7 of the report, it says:

If the Federal Government wants to solve its sustainability problem, then it should either cut expenses by 36%, or it should raise its revenues by an amount that equals 36% of its expenses, or it should implement a combination of both measures.

In other words: the Belgian Federal government is completely broke. And this particular one (out of six in total) isn’t very small either: every year, it gobbles up around 10% of the country’s BBP.

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Success Gets into Your Head—and Changes It

Neuroscientists have long understood that the brain can rewire itself in response to experience—a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. But until recently, they didn’t know what causes gray matter to become plastic, to begin changing. Breakthrough research by a team at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory has documented one type of environmental feedback that triggers plasticity: success. Equally important and somewhat surprising: Its opposite, failure, has no impact.

Earl Miller, the lead researcher on the study (published in the journal Neuron last summer), says understanding the link to environmental feedback is crucial to improving how people teach and motivate because it’s a big part of how we learn. But we absorb more from success than from failure, according to the study.

Miller’s researchers gave monkeys a simple learning task: They presented one of two pictures. If it was Picture A, the monkeys were supposed to look to the left; if Picture B, to the right. When the monkeys looked in the correct direction, they were rewarded with a drop of juice. All the while the team recorded brain function.

“Neurons in the prefrontal cortex and striatum, where the brain tracks success and failure, sharpened their tuning after success,” says Miller. What’s more, those changes lingered for several seconds, making brain activity more efficient the next time the monkey did the task. Thereafter, each success was processed more efficiently. That is, the monkey had learned. “But after failure,” Miller points out, “there was little change in brain activity.” In other words, the brain didn’t store any information about what went wrong and use it the next time. The monkey just tried, tried again.

Miller says this means that on a neurological level, success is actually a lot more informative than failure. If you get a reward, the brain remembers what it did right. But with failure (unless there is a clear negative consequence, like the shock a child feels when she sticks something in an electrical outlet), the brain isn’t sure what to store, so it doesn’t change at all.

Does this research confirm the management tenet of focusing on your—and your team’s—strengths and successes? Miller cautions against making too tidy a connection between his findings and an environment like the workplace, but he offers this suggestion: “Maybe the lesson is to know that the brain will learn from success, and you don’t need to dwell on that. You need to pay more attention to failures and challenge why you fail.”

Expect more breakthroughs from Miller’s lab that pertain to management. Understanding the complex brain functions used in business requires the ability to record activity in several regions of the brain simultaneously, and his team is being credited with pushing the technology further than any other research group. Miller has collected data from three regions of the brain at the same time with as many as 50 electrodes.

That number will increase. As neurologists use more and more electrodes to record brain activity, they will gain much greater insight into functions such as decision making and attention. In a report in The Scientist last fall (in which Miller had the “Hot Paper” of the month, meaning it was cited 50 to 100 times more than the average research paper), a fellow brain researcher called his aggressive use of multiple electrodes “the tool of the future.”

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How to Bounce Back from Adversity

Things are humming along, and then: A top client calls and says, “We’re switching suppliers, starting next month. I’m afraid your company no longer figures into our plans.” Or three colleagues, all of whom joined the organization around the same time you did, are up for promotion—but you aren’t. Or your team loses another good person in a third round of layoffs; weak markets or no, you still need to make your numbers, but now you’ll have to rely heavily on two of the most uncooperative members of the group.

So how do you react? Are you angry and disappointed, ranting and raving to anyone who will listen? Do you feel dejected and victimized, resigned to the situation even as you deny the cold reality of it? Or do you experience a rush of excitement—perhaps tinged with fear—because you sense an opportunity to develop your skills and talents in ways you’d never imagined? The truth is, you’ve probably reacted in all those ways when confronted with a challenge—maybe even cycling through multiple emotional states in the course of dealing with one really big mess.

We believe that managers can build high levels of resilience in themselves and their teams by taking charge of how they think about adversity. Resilient managers move quickly from analysis to a plan of action (and reaction). After the onset of adversity, they shift from cause-oriented thinking to response-oriented thinking, and their focus is strictly forward. In our work with leaders in a variety of companies and industries, we’ve identified four lenses through which managers can view adverse events to make this shift effectively.


  • When a crisis hits, do you look for what you can improve now rather than trying to identify all the factors—even those beyond your control—that caused it in the first place?


  • Can you sidestep the temptation to find the origins of the problem in yourself or others and focus instead on identifying what positive effects your personal actions might have?


  • Do you assume that the underlying cause of the crisis is specific and can be contained, or do you worry that it might cast a long shadow over all aspects of your life?


  • How long do you believe that the crisis and its repercussions will last

Under ongoing duress, executives’ capacity for resilience is critical to maintaining their mental and physical health. Paradoxically, however, building resilience is best done precisely when times are most difficult—when we face the most upending challenges, when we are at the greatest risk of misfiring with our reactions, when we are blindest to the opportunities presented. All the more reason, then, to use the resilience regimen to tamp down unproductive responses to adversity, replace negativity with creativity and resourcefulness, and get things done despite real or perceived obstacles.

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Nieman Foundation at Harvard – To Prepare for the Future, Skip the Present:

The probable elimination of a raft of second-tier newspapers during this economic downturn will provide a fertile environment for a new generation of digital media businesses to flourish. Here are 10 ways that will help newspapers make the transition to digital media companies:

Narrow the focus. When newspapers operated regional monopolies, readers depended on them to cover a wide range of subjects. Newspapers still routinely use their own reporters to cover a gamut of stories, ranging from politics to sport and business. That’s nonsensical in the Internet era, when readers may choose content from a variety of sources. Instead, media companies need to invest more money in their premium content—editorial that is unavailable elsewhere but that is highly valued by readers. Go deep, not wide.

Plug into a network. Media companies should finance the additional spending on premium content by eliminating editorial costs in areas where they are unable to compete with the best on the Web. If you are weak in sports coverage, link to the best Web site for your local sports. Well-curated hyperlinks to other Web sites are a valuable service for readers, and they cost nothing. Media companies will increasingly see themselves as part of a chain of content, as opposed to a final destination. Journalists will act as filters, writing with authority but also guiding readers to sources that add depth to coverage. The future of journalism is selling expertise, not content.

Rolling news with views. Newspaper deadlines suit publishers, not readers. News is a continuum. It never starts or ends, and coverage should reflect that reality. That doesn’t mean a newsroom needs to be open for business 24/7. If 90 percent of readers don’t log on between midnight and five in the morning, there is little point in being staffed overnight. But it is critical to be alert at the time when your traffic surges—typically between 8 and 10 in the morning and again around lunchtime. Remember: It’s not simply about serving breaking news—the AP and Reuters can handle that. The role of a newspaper company on the Web is to add value: look at a story from a number of angles, engage your audience, add multimedia.

Engage with your readers. The explosion of blogging and social media Web sites has created a culture in which consumers of news expect to be included in the news publishing process. Closed operations that shun reader engagement will increasingly be seen to offer a second-rate experience. Create functionality that encourages readers to share eyewitness accounts of breaking news, rate services such as restaurants and hotels, and get into discussions and debates.

Bottom up, not top down. The reporters on the ground are closest to your readers. They are therefore best placed to conceive, create and nurture community Web sites. Look at which reporters or editors get the largest mailbags and free them up to manage blogs on subjects that your readers are passionate about. That’s likely to be narrow areas such as gardening or a mom’s network, rather than broad subjects, such as politics or sports.

Embrace multimedia. Train editors to see video, photo galleries, graphics and maps as equal storytelling forms to text. A story about Tina Fey’s takeoff of Sarah Palin is incomplete without video highlights from “Saturday Night Live.” A story about a soldier’s life on the frontline in Afghanistan is best told with video, a map, and pictures as well as text.

Nimble, low-cost structures. About 75 percent of newspaper costs have nothing to do with the creation of editorial content. In a digital era there may not be any need for printing presses or vans to transport a physical product. But the switch to digital should also be an opportunity to challenge the need to hold on to other in-house costs. Newspaper companies are bad at technology, so a digitally minded chief technology officer will be able to get cheaper and more effective services by outsourcing. Newspaper sales teams don’t do particularly well at selling ads on the Internet; too often they sell ads that are irrelevant to a reader’s interests in an era when Google has made relevance key. If your sales team can’t beat Google, then outsource to Google.

Invest in the Web. Don’t try to suck too much revenue from your fledgling network. Your Web site needs investment before it can fly. Large networks, such as rail, phone and utilities, took decades to yield substantial returns. A Web revenue-growth model cannot simply be a mirror image of the decline in your newspaper sales.

Shake up leadership. One of the biggest obstacles to planning for a digital future is the senior editor or manager who is wedded to the analogue past. If the people who run your newsroom aren’t passionate about your digital future, it’s certain not to materialize.

Experiment. We are operating in the most creative phase of the media industry’s history. A time when broadcast, text and social media are colliding. Don’t be afraid of failure. Try new projects, see what works, and build on success.

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