Breaking Out of Ruts – Stochastic Resonance

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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4 thoughts on “Breaking Out of Ruts – Stochastic Resonance

  1. Well how about that! I've been seeing this in action for me lately!

    The past few years at work, I've been sinking more and more into the 'will-do' trap. A will-do attitude is a good thing, right? Well, yes – if you know where to draw the line. But without noticing, saying 'yes' insidiously has become such a habit that the extras I've been loaded with literally amount to a full-time job, even before I begin to do what I'm employed to do – not good! I realised it had to stop but for some reason, I couldn't bring myself to decline any more extra tasks that came my way. I knew that being afraid to say 'no' wasn't the issue – just that my yes/no response mechanism seemed to have got stuck in 'yes' mode, like Igor's switch. 'Yep, will-do' would leap out of my mouth of its own volition as an involuntary response – way before I began to think about the consequences of taking it on.

    I don't know at which level of consciousness but at some point I realised that to get out of this rut, I was going to have to make changes in areas where I knew I had more control. I'm not sure whether the changes I've made qualify as random – I had a gradual restyle. First, a subtle change from neat-casual to smart-casual, then the heels got slightly higher, then as my hair got shorter and sharper, so my nails got longer and sharper… as has my perception. I don't know whether it's literally the style change or the difference that's made to my general air but gradually I've begun to notice people are more hesitant about putting things my way. For example, quite often now, when they ask me to do something they avert their eyes and somtimes mumble a bit… and I get more requests by emails and phone calls than face-to-face … and justifications they never offered before, like 'If you do this one, I'll do the next one that comes in, OK?'. Without any overt confrontation, no direct change to my actual responses until VERY recently (as in the past couple of weeks), somehow 'they' have been back-footed.

    I'm not ashamed to say that as I've noticed these things, I've seized the opportunity to press home my advantage. 'I'm really busy right now – tell you what though, if you do this one, I'll do the next one that comes in'… or 'No, I don't think so – I have more than enough to do right now.' … or, my favourite from a meeting yesterday, 'Absolutely not!'

    Of course, I don't want to gain a reputation as being an awkward cuss but I don't think it will come to that. I think – or at least hope – that people will realise I'm no longer the person who picks up all the slack and so will look in other directions (perhaps even to themselves). A good enough start, anyway.

  2. That sounds like several good principles at work, but stochatic resonance could definitely be one of them. I'll have to try it myself on my notorious habit of under-estimating my time on tasks. When I'm asked for estimates on projects, I tend to give an optimistic answer, probably in an attempt to please – rather than give serious thought to the possible obsticals and the other projects I have going.

    And thanks for commenting. I'm just getting going with the revised site and appreciate any input. If you have any favorite authors or resources you think should be included here, by all means let me know.

  3. That sounds like several good principles at work, but stochatic resonance could definitely be one of them. I'll have to try it myself on my notorious habit of under-estimating my time on tasks. When I'm asked for estimates on projects, I tend to give an optimistic answer, probably in an attempt to please – rather than give serious thought to the possible obsticals and the other projects I have going.

    And thanks for commenting. I'm just getting going with the revised site and appreciate any input. If you have any favorite authors or resources you think should be included here, by all means let me know.

  4. That sounds like several good principles at work, but stochatic resonance could definitely be one of them. I'll have to try it myself on my notorious habit of under-estimating my time on tasks. When I'm asked for estimates on projects, I tend to give an optimistic answer, probably in an attempt to please – rather than give serious thought to the possible obsticals and the other projects I have going.

    And thanks for commenting. I'm just getting going with the revised site and appreciate any input. If you have any favorite authors or resources you think should be included here, by all means let me know.

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