1. Your friend is about to leave for a hot date. She wants you to suggest questions to get the conversation humming. Which of these is likely to be the most useful? A) What’s the best car you’ve ever owned? B) If your house caught fire, what possessions would you save? C) Should cyclists be allowed on main roads?
Go for B) (What possessions would you save?) It would make an odd first question, but it’s the most likely to lead to sharing what’s most important. Values and feelings build intimacy, provided it’s an equal exchange.
The question about cyclists might lead to strong feelings, but it also risks exposing differences too early. It’s better to wait till you make the cut before proclaiming that Scrabble is a more exciting spectator sport than rugby.
2. You are feeling a bit down and begin day-dreaming about the good old days, maybe your best family holiday, or life before major earthquakes. To lift your mood should you switch your thoughts to today, or stay in nostalgia mode?
Go with the flow for a while. Nostalgia used to be thought a mental disorder, but numerous studies have shown that it’s good for us. It can reduce stress, boost self-esteem and make us more optimistic. We suggest you use nostalgia with care and in a focused way. Avoid constant negative comparisons like, ‘Things are so much worse now’. Steer your day-dreaming to positive memories, especially of people you are grateful to have in your life.
3. Is it true that you are safer on the streets when the weather is colder?
Yes. Several studies have shown that crime goes up when the temperature does. It even works in a laboratory with people you wouldn’t expect to commit violent crimes. Experimenters heated up their lab and invited people to give shocks to one another. The hotter the room, the more intense the shocks. A bottle of cold water was all it took to make the shocks far less aggressive.
4. Let’s say a colleague wants to move on from an unhappy relationship and has asked you for advice. Would it really help to suggest writing some notes about the relationship and burning them?
Yes. It does work, for many people anyway.
Xiuping Li from the National University of Singapore tried a similar technique, but based on any recent decision people had regretted. Some participants sealed their notes about the decision in an envelope. Others just handed them to a researcher. The finality of sealing the notes worked better.
5. You want to persuade your team that sending you a brief report every Friday afternoon is a good idea. They are likely to be grumpy about it. What’s the best strategy? A) Explain how the report will help everyone and leave it to them B) Explain how the report will help everyone and make it compulsory.
B) Make it compulsory. It might take a while, but they will come around. It’s the ‘act as if’ principle. When we act as if we believe in something, we come to believe in it. People resisted seat belts years ago. Not many do now. When we act as if we are confident, our brains pick up the message from our bodies and conclude, ‘I must be confident’. The power of 'Act as if' might sound a bit flaky, but it’s supported by decades of research.
6. You want to get fit for a marathon. Which technique would be best to help you meet your goal? A) Focus on willpower B) Build a vivid picture of crossing the finish line C) Reward yourself for making progress
Only C) Reward yourself for making progress. Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire reports a couple of studies he did involving 5,000 participants. Only 10 per cent reached their goals and those who took a step-by-step approach were far more likely to succeed. Goal-seeking works when we base it on action, not fantasy (the vivid picture of crossing the finishing line) or willpower. Richard Wiseman says those who relied on vivid images, willpower and also focusing on bad things if they didn’t succeed, were wasting their time.
7. You are booking a meeting room for what you hope will be a frank discussion on an important decision. Should you choose a room with a rectangular table or a round one?
Go for the room with the rectangular table. Round tables encourage everyone to feel like a team, but you don’t need that as much as some independent thinking. Too much team spirit encourages people to supress their doubts and ‘groupthink’ has led to major disasters (literally). The finding that angular tables encourage people to think independently comes from study reported in the Journal of Consumer Research.