Kickstart Your Job Search: How Neuroscience Can Help

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Wharton's Michael Platt, who is also a neuroscientist, offers advice on how to step up your job search.

The modern job search is fraught with a number of interpersonal and technological land mines, so much so that most of us have given up any notion about a hiring decision coming down to simply who is the most qualified candidate for the position.

So, what’s a job seeker to do to gain an edge?

You can start by looking to the brain.

During a recent segment on Career Talk, which airs on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, Wharton marketing professor Michael Platt talked with host Dawn Graham, director of career management for Wharton’s executive MBA program, about how neuroscience can shed light on the best way to approach major career decisions.

Platt, a neuroscientist, is also a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor with appointments at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and the department of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences. He is also director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative.

Following are key insights from their conversation. (Listen to the full podcast using the player at the top of this page.)

Change Is Hard

It’s hard to retrain your brain – even if you’re not trying to kick a habit like smoking or eating sugar, where it’s being artificially stimulated.

“To move forward on something that’s very positive rather than going after the base things, I think that is a real challenge.”

“There’s this idea of dual selves…. There’s the animal you, that is driven by these base reinforcements: Food, drugs, sex, etc.,” Platt said. “And then there’s this rational you that is thinking, planning ahead for the future, the person that you have an internal conversation with every day.”

Both sides are part of us, part of one human brain, and they have to work together, Platt noted. Your brain can only make one output, behavior, and it’s the outcome of all of the processes that are going on inside it.

Far from working against us, “our brain is us,” Platt said. “To move forward on something that’s very positive rather than going after the base things, I think that is a real challenge.”

Part of the issue is recognizing that much of what we do reflects processes that are going on beneath our level of awareness, outside our daily internal monologue. “That’s troubling to many people,” Platt says. “But it’s also just reality. What you have control over is quite a bit less than you might expect.”

Simplicity Is Key

With all of these processes competing for space within our brains, the best way to make good decisions is often to simplify your options, Platt said.

Neuroscience has shown in the last 10 or 15 years that there are limitations on the number of things humans can effectively consider at any one time. “The more things you are thinking about, the more things you’re considering, the harder it is to actually weigh them, consider the evidence and the value of each of those and actually make a decision,” he noted.

When our brains are weighing too many options at once, it takes longer to make a decision, we’re generally less accurate, and we also feel worse about the outcome. So rather trying to weigh a number of job opportunities, or career paths, it actually helps to narrow it down to just two, Platt said.

Decisions boil down to a race going on inside our heads, he noted, and “the brain cells are racing with each other to reach a threshold for saying, ‘I’m the winner.’” When there is clear evidence that one option is much better than the other, the race is over very quickly. But if you don’t really understand the options — or there are too many options — the race takes a lot longer.

“There is a sense that your brain uses the amount of time that you spend deliberating as a signal about how accurate your decision is and how confident you should be in that decision.”

“The deliberating itself can feel unpleasant,” Platt noted. “There is a sense that your brain uses the amount of time that you spend deliberating as a signal about how accurate your decision is and how confident you should be in that decision.”

Switchers and Sitters

That internal “race” plays out whether the decision is choosing between an apple or a donut for a snack, or deciding to take a new job or to stay put.

If you have very strong evidence that leaving for a new gig is going to be an improvement over your current situation, the decision to switch is an easy one. But if you already enjoy your job, or if it’s less clear that the new job, or new career, will be better than what you’re currently doing, “the race takes longer and it’s more difficult to disengage and make that switch,” Platt said.

There are certain factors that can naturally speed up or slow that process, Platt pointed out. One of them is time pressure. “If you’re given a deadline for something, then that can shift you very quickly.  “We also think sometimes things like stress, for example, might promote switching behavior.”

But the process also differs significantly among individuals. Some people are natural “switchers,” comfortable moving from job to job fairly quickly. Others are natural “sitters,” who find it very difficult to impossible to get themselves unstuck. “I think that variation might be very difficult to fight,” Platt said. “If you’re switcher or a rover, or you’re a sitter, you might not be able to break out of that routine.”

He noted that experts are just starting to study what types of interventions or stimulations could push sitters out of a rut or convince switchers to stay put. “What we’d like to know is, first of all, if you can demonstrate you can do it with artificial stimulation, can you then replace that with some kind of contextual modification? Can you do it by changing your context — maybe rearranging your furniture or something like that? Would that actually promote a greater likelihood or comfort with switching? We just don’t know the answer to that yet.”

Making Networking Less ‘Icky’

Networking is critical to making a career change – but it makes a lot of people feel deeply uncomfortable, if not downright “icky.”

The brain is wired to be social, and to assess social environments, with some of us naturally predisposed to being more gregarious and others to being more introverted. But networking may be difficult even for those who are outgoing, Platt said, and that, too, is a side effect of how our brains view the interaction.

People who have deeper connections with each other tend to live longer, happier, healthier lives, and it makes sense that those who are better at it off the clock are also better at it in a business context. But even when it’s clear to both sides that the networking is supposed to achieve a certain end, we still want the interaction to be sincere.

“There are nonverbal cues to how you’re feeling about the interaction, which relate to eye contact and subtle movements of the muscles of your face,” Platt said. “If you’re not sincere about it … the other person’s brain is going to pick up on that.”

“The very practice of [networking] has a positive impact on the health and integrity of the circuitry of your brain that we call the social brain network.”

Networking becomes less of a chore when both sides are trying to build a lasting connection, rather than a transactional one. But if that doesn’t change your opinion of the dreaded networking event, maybe this will: It’s actually good for you. “It’s good for the health of your social brain,” Platt noted. “The very practice of doing it has a positive impact on the health and integrity of the circuitry of your brain that we call the social brain network.”

He added that studies have been done on monkeys — who, like humans, depend on having very strong social network ties and alliances — that found that the social circuitry of the monkeys’ brains actually grew when they were compelled to network with each other.

“Even though everyone’s social circuitry might be tuned to a different level, you can still build upon that,” he said. “If you’re at a level nine, you can still turn it up to 11 if you get out there and really work at it every day. It’s like going to the gym.”

The Importance of Connection – and Google Stalking

Research has helped us to understand a lot about how people react to others, and how we make emotional connections or develop biases. And those discoveries can help you when you go in for a job interview, Platt said.

“The best thing you can do is look for areas of commonality,” with the person doing the interview, Platt noted. “Try to believe that you are on the same team, or that you have very similar goals, and to emphasize things, even potentially physical things about yourself, that actually tie you together.”

Tools like LinkedIn and Google make it easier than ever to find out basic or even detailed information about your interviewer, their work background or even what they like to do outside the office. Job seekers should take advantage of that, Platt said, and find a subtle way to work what they find into the conversation.

“Hopefully you’ll have the opportunity just to introduce the idea that, ‘Oh, yeah. I grew up in the Midwest, too,’” Platt said. “That kind of thing may be a way to build some rapport with the other person.”

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