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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice: Bridging I-O Science and Practice With ASCN

Rob Snyder with Mark Poteet, Lynda Zugec, and Craig Wallace

 “The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer in order to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research, as well as learn about cutting edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, etc., that may benefit from additional research. In this issue of the column we are pleased to coordinate with Rob Snyder in sharing a cutting edge practice and trend which I-O scientists, practitioners, and academics may find beneficial to learn more about: applied social cognitive neuroscience (ASCN).


Bridging I-O Science and Practice With ASCN

Rob Snyder

Northern Kentucky University


I enjoyed reading the previous TIP columns on "The Bridge:  Connecting Science and Practice" that have appeared thus far. I am pleased to see that SIOP is strengthening its commitment to reducing the gap between these two often independent domains.


In my opinion, there is no better—or more impactful—example of science and practice being "bridged" today than the rapidly increasing frequency with which business practices are being changed (resulting in higher performance) based directly on the findings of research in the neurosciences. Over the past 10 years, I've had the opportunity to watch this revolutionary trend grow and to experience its power first-hand in my work with private and public organizations, large and small.


Brain science’s transformation of management isn’t just about another new technique or model. It’s about shifting our paradigm to incorporate the hard data of science and fundamentally changing the way we think about business. When we do, we’re able to gain access to an integrated set of management practices that really do deliver on the promise of superior performance.

—Charles S. Jacobs, in Management Rewired


What Jacobs has called "brain science" is, of course, known more formally as applied social cognitive neuroscience (ASCN). ASCN attempts to answer the same questions—why people act the way that they do in any set of circumstances, including while at work—for which industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists, working in parallel, have sought answers for decades. One major difference between the research streams is the tools that are typically used to seek answers: In ASCN, a variety of brain activity recording devices as opposed to the traditional surveys, interviews, observations, experiments, and other methods that are frequently used within I-O psychology (Snyder, 2016).


Recent, rapid and extraordinary innovations in mobile, dynamic brain-activity-recording technology used in ASCN have burst the outer boundaries of our knowledge of the true causes of behavior. Metaphorically speaking, these improvements in neuroscientific tools have been compared to the invention of the microscope in biology (Rock, 2013). Neuroscientists can now "see" things that most would have been unable to imagine. In marketing research for example, experts no longer have to rely on consumers' notoriously error-prone and unreliable self-proclaimed reasons why they chose one product rather than another. Now, brain activity (including "behavior" of the visual system) recording devices can measure more directly and in real time what actual shoppers attend to (or fail to attend to) in promotional displays, on product labels, and so on, and simultaneously determine the relative amount of interest the brain is showing in response to the various perceptions that are being processed. In fact, it is now possible for technology to determine that a person has made a product choice prior to that person's conscious recognition of the fact (Shenoy, Sahani  & Churchland, 2013).


ASCN research is changing what we thought we knew. By accessing directly the neurological/physiological basis of behavior, it has confirmed the validity of many previously held beliefs about behavior in the workplace. For example, it has demonstrated - albeit more definitively - that interviewers make tentative - but difficult to overturn - employment decisions very, very shortly after each interview has begun1 (Waytz & Mason, 2013). Additionally, ASCN studies have demonstrated that some widely accepted ideas in social and organizational psychology (and many common business practices) run contrary to what we now know to be true. For example, in graduate school I learned that if you want to change a person's behavior, you must first demonstrate why the person's current behavior is wrong, ineffective, or, at the very least, far from as good as it could be. Thanks to ASCN, we now know that if we do that, it's likely that the person's brain will secrete noxious neurochemicals that can powerfully increase resistance to a proposed change (Carey, Mansell & Tai, 2014; Pulakos, Hanson, Arad & Moye, 2015; Snyder, 2016).


Furthermore, ASCN has provided solid, hard-science evidence of many underlying causes of behavior that are counterintuitive, if not merely far afield from current "knowledge" and management practice. The following are only a few of such findings provided in my recent book on the ASCN of leading large-scale organizational changes (Snyder, 2016). For each, I have inserted (in bold and in brackets) a few samples of specific functions or duties of managers or leaders where these findings might be relevant; I could have inserted leading change in every one:

  • Managers can become more influential and perceived as better leaders by speaking less (Rock, 2006) [Leadership; performance management]
  • People are more likely to come up with creative solutions to a problem when they are forced to not think about it (i.e., the problem; Van Hecke, Callahan, Kolar & Paller, 2010) [Problem solving, innovation; decision making]
  • When a person says “maybe” in response to a request for assistance, other people are likely to hear “yes” (i.e., they record it in their brains and remember it as assent; Sharot, 2012) [Negotiation; conflict resolution]
  • In high-stimulation, frenetically paced jobs (e.g., traders on the floor of a stock exchange), neurochemical changes in people’s brains can cause their decision making to become extremely reckless, without their conscious awareness of the change (Bennett, 2012) [Decision making, stress management, negotiation]
  • Talking aloud to one’s self can cause a nearly instantaneous reduction in anxiety and facilitate creativity (Lieberman, 2010) [Stress management, innovation]
  • A single, not-so-recent memory is very likely to include erroneously things that happened at different times (Medina, 2008) [Leadership; performance management]
  • Contrary to what has been taught in business schools for decades, under certain circumstances, hunches and emotion can increase decision making effectiveness (Waytz & Mason, 2013) [Strategy; decision making]
  • Even though a belief statement can be blatantly false, the more often people hear that statement, the more likely they are to come to believe that it is true (Wang & Aamodt, 2008) [Communication; attitude change; sales] 


Findings such as these have important implications for how we can help people at work (and the organizations for which they work) improve performance and, indeed, the overall culture of the workplace. In my particular sliver of OP consulting, I've seen first hand how managers, when made aware of the discoveries of ASCN research, are much better equipped to influence the variables that determine whether people resist or embrace change and how, and under what conditions, people learn best—that is, how people acquire, retain, retrieve and apply knowledge most effectively and efficiently (which is, of course, a very crucial component of large-scale change effectiveness).


Am I suggesting that I-O’s whip out their magnetoencephalographic instruments when conducting their work? Of course not. The good news is that it isn't necessary to be a neuroscientist or to conduct neuroscience research in order to fruitfully apply existing ASCN findings to management and business practices. In addition to the aforementioned examples of ASCN applications in consumer research and employment interviewing, consider these performance-enhancing, neuroscience-based changes in business and government practices: 


After Aetna began offering meditation classes during work hours, healthcare costs dropped significantly and employee perceptions of well-being shot up. Currently, about 25% of U.S. employers offer such classes and the percentage is expected to double in the next two years.


Work satisfaction and employee engagement surged once Juniper Network redesigned its performance management system based on neuroscience principles.


Auto insurers working with the American Automobile Association are successfully using the accumulated results of research conducted by cognitive neuropsychologist, Dr. David Strayer (U. of Utah) on the neurophysiology of driver distraction to convince state governments to greatly stiffen penalties for texting while driving. For example, texting while driving is now a felony in Alaska and Utah.


Food scientists use neuroscience findings on the brain's experience of "bliss" to maximize the addictive characteristics of snack foods.


Airports in Houston and other major cities were able to reduce complaints about long wait times in baggage claim by scheduling larger planes (with lots of luggage) to arrive at gates that were as far away from baggage claim as possible. Brain-wise, time passes more quickly when you are moving.


Knowing that your brain prefers the easier of any two tasks, state motor vehicle offices were able to quadruple the number of organ donors by changing the relevant form from "please indicate below that you are willing to be an organ donor" to "you will be considered an organ donor unless you opt out by answering the questions below."


Our brains like us to compare favorably with those around us. A growing trend among utility companies is to provide information on monthly bills about how much energy is used in your house versus those of your neighbors. Invariably, average utility usage declines.


Readers whose ASCN appetites have been whetted here can find a well-spring of sources for additional information and insight in iMOTIONS' list of "Top 50 Human Behavior Experts to follow during 2017."  It can be accessed at:  https://imotions.com/blog/top-50-human-behavior-experts/. The online magazine, Scientific American Mind, and the websites, "The Intentional Workplace" and "Neuroleadership" might also be of interest.



Rather than allowing: (a) the initial impression or tentative decision to operate below the level and (b) the interviewer's brain to "try" to confirm it, interviewers today are typically trained to bring the impression to a conscious level and work mindfully to disconfirm it.



Bennett, D. (2012, June 4). When animal spirits attack. Bloomberg Business Week, pp. 4-5.

Carey, T.,  Mansell, W. & Tai, S. (2014). A biosocial model based on negative feedback and control. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. Retrieved from http://0-dx-doi-org.library.alliant.edu/10.3389/ fnhum.2014.00094.

Jacobs, C. (2009). Management rewired: Why feedback doesn’t work and other surprising lesson from the latest brain science. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Lieberman, M. (2010). Social cognitive neuroscience. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., pp. 143-193). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Pulakos, E., Hanson, R., Arad, S. & Moye, N. (2015). Performance management can be fixed: An on-the-job experiential learning approach for complex behavior change. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 8(1), 51-76.

Rock, D. (2006). Quiet leadership: Six steps to transforming performance at work. New York, NY: Collins.

Rock, D. (2013). Why organizations fail  Fortune Magazine, October 23.

Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias: A tour of the irrationally positive brain. New

        York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Shenoy, K., Sahani, M. & Churchland, M. (2013). Cortical control of arm movements:  A dynamical systems perspective. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 36, 337-359.

Snyder, R. (2016). The social cognitive neuroscience of leader organizational change:  TiER1 Performance Solutions' guide for managers and consultants. New York:  Routledge Psychology Press.

Van Hecke, M., Callahan, L., Kolar, B, & Paller, K. (2010). The brain advantage: Become a more effective business leader using the latest brain research. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Wang, S., & Aamodt, S. (2008). Your brain lies to you. The New York Times (June 27), A31.

Waytz, A. & Mason, M. (2013). Your brain at work. Harvard Business Review, 91 (7-8), 102-111.


Calling Potential Contributors to “The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice”

As outlined in Poteet, Zugec, and Wallace (2016), the TIP Editorial Board and Professional Practice Committee continue to have oversight and review responsibility for this new column. We invite interested potential contributors to contact us directly with ideas for columns. If you are interested in contributing, please contact either Lynda (lynda.zugec@theworkforceconsultants.com) or Craig at (craig.wallace@okstate.edu).

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