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Weekly Blog #10 - "Why your brain never runs out of problems to find"

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

Over the past weekend I've had the chance to go through some old and new studies and articles on how the brain works. I set a bookmark for one specific article almost 3 months ago, maybe even longer. It dealt with the topic mentioned above: "Why your brain never runs out of problems to find".

The core message of the article is that we are inconsistent when it comes to identifying and judging our problems. The tests undertaken by the author and his team show that "[...] when something becomes rare, we sometimes see it in more places than ever."

In one of the tests the author describes that he and his team"[...] brought volunteers into our laboratory and gave them a simple task – to look at a series of computer-generated faces and decide which ones seemed “threatening”. The faces had been carefully designed by researchers to range from very intimidating to very harmless. As we showed people fewer and fewer threatening faces over time, we found that they expanded their definition of “threatening” to include a wider range of faces. [...] when they ran out of threatening faces to find, they started calling faces threatening that they used to call harmless. Rather than being a consistent category, what people considered ‘threats’ depended on how many threats they had seen lately."

I will not go into further detail about the testing methods and the findings because I believe most of it is condensed in this one paragraph above.

Now, just think about your own life and try to recall a situation when you had to judge the work of a colleague or your boss, gave feedback to someone, or even just ate your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant for the second, third or fourth time... over time we become more picky, we find the little things that bug us out, we are inconsistent in our judgements. If we don't have systems in place that help us to be more consistent and fair, we'll find that one thing that is worse than last time, the one thing that wasn't quite as exceptional, the one thing that just didn't taste or feel or look as good as the first time.

Here's one example from my old company: the company's culture and character is shaped around giving and receiving feedback. This is utterly important since most of us management consultants - young or old, more or less experienced - are quite full of ourselves and have, what Ray Dalio calls it, a huge "Ego-Barrier". So we need someone to tell us where we took a wrong turn, how we were perceived in specific situations, where (in my case) it would have been better to shut up, how our professional behavior led to success or failure and how we can improve.

For the first couple of years we struggled to create feedback sheets that would help us to create a more consistent approach on giving feedback. We created (copied) categories which we believed were the right ones to judge someone's professional behavior. We had a ranking-system (from "area of improvement" to "outstanding") and we gave ourselves room for recommendations to write down, typically as brief and precise as possible with a couple of bullet points. Very important. End of discussion. Class dismissed. Well, not quite...

Because here comes the catch: if you now think about the quote again "[...] when something becomes rare, we sometimes see it in more places than ever." - how can you make sure that you are still consistent with your judgement of good or bad work over time - especially if the quality, shape and form of the work you receive changes? And how can you make someone else accept your judgement if you are not able to draw the complete picture?

Think about a situation where someone did something for you. A PowerPoint presentation, a collection of information you've asked someone to gather for you, a meal at a fancy restaurant or any other work that has been prepared for you in the past. Now think about the person that prepared the work. You probably don't exactly know much about the skills of that person the first time you ask for help. So your standards might be derived from your own work and capabilities. In case you're skilled in that specific task, you'd most certainly judge a bit more kindly in the beginning.

Now, let's stick with the the PowerPoint document for a moment since I'd claim this to be my area of expertise. The document will probably be sent back and forth until a certain, acceptable level of quality has been achieved. You might even finish the work yourself but still provide a gracious and kind feedback to the person that helped you with it (as you probably should... always...). Then, over time and just like in the Harvard study, the colleague's work improves. He/She creates more and more presentations, and probably (hopefully) gets more skilled over time.

But what happens to your judgement? It most certainly will adapt to the work you receive and it will most definitely not be as kind as the first time. At first you will raise your expectations to your own standards. Later on you will probably judge someone's work above your own standards and capabilities - you will create "problems" that weren't there the first time you judged. And that's where I believe the whole thing gets a little bit more dangerous.

Our brain keeps telling us that we need to find the flaw, that there has to be a problem somewhere - we just have to look hard enough. Let me underline this with a passage from the article: "Research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience suggests that this kind of behavior is a consequence of the basic way that our brains process information – we are constantly comparing what is in front of us to its recent context." This is due to the fact that our brain uses less energy doing relative comparisons with our latest experiences than trying to develop a big picture and create the "absolute measurement". The same way our brain falls to bad habits if we don't force us to do better or create an environment that supports better habits.

Now, here's what I think to be very important about the whole story: If we cannot manage to create the "absolute measurement" and properly prepare our story-line on why and how we've judged someone's work, it might get difficult for us to articulate and explain our feedback and even more difficult for that person to understand and accept our feedback. It could be perceived as being unfair, illogical, inappropriate, even harmful to the relationship with that person and your credibility. Especially when it's clear that you are judging way above your own capabilities.

I have experienced this over and over again on both ends. What I've learned from it is that we have to have metrics in place that allow us to always see the bigger picture before making a final judgement. Always try to develop the "absolute measurement", not only the relative one. What was the starting point? What has improved? What has not? What's still to improve? Tell the full story, follow it through, provide proper examples. Prepare yourself if you have to make judgements, especially if you judge other people. Use helpful tools such as feedback sheets as we did in our company, but use them as a way of supporting your own system and don't just rely on one piece of paper created every 4 to 10 weeks...

Since I have struggled a lot with that in my professional career, learning more about it might turn out to be very helpful for my personal and professional future. Not only as a way to understand and see the benefits of systems and metrics that could make me more consistent in my judgements, but also to worry less and be more specific and clear towards myself and others regarding my"problems", to be able to distinguish real problems from small hiccups and - hopefully - to make more successful and lasting life choices.


The article is based on a Harvard study - the author is David Levari ( - he is a postdoctoral research associate at Harvard.

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