How Sight Affects Our Actions Some challenges feel insurmountable. But psychologist Emily Balcetis says the solutions are often right in front of our eyes. This week, as part of our annual series on personal growth and reinvention, Emily explains how we can harness our sight to affect our behavior.

You 2.0: The Mind's Eye

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. A few years ago, Emily Balcetis was fresh out of space in her life. She was overseeing an enormous research project. Her son was just a few months old and barely sleeping. And she had the opportunity to write a book. If Emily's life had been a hotel, it would have had a no vacancy sign out front.

EMILY BALCETIS: And that's when I decided, you know what? I also need to become a drummer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

BALCETIS: I needed something that was just for myself. I needed to explicitly and intentionally carve out time to let my own brain do the thing that it wanted to do just for me.

VEDANTAM: Emily decided she'd learn to play a single song.

BALCETIS: I wanted to play one rock tune on drums but, like, really learn how to nail it.

VEDANTAM: That might seem like a modest goal. But besides being short on time, Emily had another thing working against her. Playing drums is like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. You have to strike different drums at the right moment and use one foot to hit a pedal. Such coordination was not Emily's strong suit.

BALCETIS: I'm very uncoordinated. I have been my entire life. In the fourth grade, I was on a basketball team. And I pushed my own teammate out of balance when she was carrying the basketball because I tripped on my own feet. I wasn't invited back to the next season of play. So coordination wasn't my forte.

VEDANTAM: She chose the song "Your Love" by the English band The Outfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LOVE")

THE OUTFIELD: (Singing) I don't want to lose your love tonight.

VEDANTAM: And recorded herself while she practiced.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

VEDANTAM: Her early efforts sounded a bit like the person in the audience who claps on the wrong beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

VEDANTAM: Emily may not have been born with a gift of coordinated limbs. But what she did have was a mental encyclopedia of psychological insights. Emily drew on her years of studying psychology to help her practice. The research she put to use was not about sound but about sight.

BALCETIS: A hidden secret about goal pursuit is that what we see is really tied to what we think, what we decide and what we do.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, how we can use the brain's visual system to shape our behavior. It's part of You 2.0, our annual summer series about facing life's chaos with wisdom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When most of us think of the world around us, we think about what we see. Many people say the sense of sight is their most important sense and the one they most fear losing. My guest today says what we see affects more than just what we see. It also affects how we behave.

Psychologist Emily Balcetis at New York University is the author of "Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See The World." She studies the psychological dimensions of sight and says there are ways to exploit the brain's visual system to boost motivation, achieve goals and gain perspective. By reimagining the frame around a problem, she says, we can literally see the world in a new way.

Emily Balcetis, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

BALCETIS: Hi. Pleasure to be here.

VEDANTAM: I want to start by having you tell me the story of a skydiver named Luke Aikins. You spoke with a fellow skydiver of his who says he gave Luke this piece of advice - white, you're all right - red, and you're dead. What happened, Emily?

BALCETIS: This was an incredible story, a real amazing adventure. There were a team of skydivers who were trying to do the impossible. They were going to jump out of a plane at 25,000 feet. That's actually an elevation where skydivers need to use oxygen tanks to sustain their breathing. They were going to jump out of that airplane and land in a net on the ground but jump without a parachute. They took these incredible light bulbs, ones that are used to help airplanes land, in fact, that are sort of divided like a candy cane, almost. Half of the light bulb is a white color, the natural light coming through. And the other half is red.

They took those lights that are normally sort of positioned just slightly at an angle to help guide airplanes to the right pitch as they're landing on a runway and instead pointed them straight up into the sky so that as these parachute - well, nonparachute jumpers were jumping out of a plane, they'd be able to find this array of lights shining, sort of illuminating, almost circling around this net that they were hoping to land in. They had positioned the red on the outside and the white on the inside. And what Luke Aikins was looking for was that space of white. And that's what he was searching for as he jumped out of this airplane.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Jumpers are away. Jumpers are away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They're off.

BALCETIS: He was looking for that beacon of white. And that's where he knew that he would find his safety net. As he jumped out of the plane, of course, he could see the mountains on the side. He could see the rivers snaking around through. And he was scanning and scanning for that beacon of white light. And when he found it, that's all he focused on - was that white light. That, to him, was what was the key here, that this narrowed focus, intense focus of attention concentrated on the white light is what led to him being able to do what was probably otherwise impossible for most people, to jump out of that airplane without a parachute and find that small needle in a haystack, that small net in the middle of a vast expanse of space.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He's in.

VEDANTAM: There's a less crazy story you tell in your book, less crazy in the sense that I'm not sure how many people would actually be willing to jump out of a plane at 25,000 feet without a parachute, aiming for a speck on the ground and hoping to land on this net. The less crazy story has to do with the marathon runner Joan Benoit Samuelson, who employs a similar technique at much, in some ways - much lower stakes. What is her strategy as she runs races?

BALCETIS: Well, she's amazing because she's one of the most incredible female athletes of of her time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Benoit won the gold medal for the first-ever Olympic Marathon for women.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: At 25 miles, she had put so much pavement between herself and Waitz, the No. 2 runner, that by the time Benoit entered the coliseum, she was all alone for the final lap and a half.

BALCETIS: She went on to win a dozen or so marathons. And when asked, what do you do? - what's your special secret power? - she said what she does is use that same kind of narrowed focus. She chooses a target ahead of her. It might be the pink shorts of somebody who's running up ahead. Or it might be a visual beacon that she can see up in the distance. And she narrows her attention. Again, like a spotlight is shining just on that target that she's selected, as if she's putting on blinders to anything that's around her. And she hones in on that target until she reaches it and passes it, passes that competitor or passes that mark. And then she sets the next goal for herself and focuses her attention there. So in a sense, she's taking this, you know, over 26 miles and breaking it down into many small little competitions with herself, encouraging herself to find the next mark and double down until she gets there and passes by.

VEDANTAM: So Luke Aikins and Joan Benoit Samuelson are obviously elite athletes. But they're employing a psychological technique that the rest of us can also use. You call it narrow focus. What is this technique? And when is it most effective to use this technique?

BALCETIS: Yeah, so my research team and I were looking into these cases of these amazing athletes and seeing these similarities in what they are using to accomplish some amazing things. And we wondered if that's a tactic that could be translated and shared with people who aren't necessarily looking to break world records or defy the odds of gravity but, instead, were working towards pursuing just an everyday goal, maybe maintaining their own health.

So we thought, I wonder if we can teach these people the strategy that elite athletes use. Can we design a set of instructions that people could hold on to in their own mind that would change the way that they look at the space around them? And could that encourage them and assist them in exercising more effectively, more efficiently and more frequently? So we came up with a set of instructions that was asking them to choose a target, to find something in their environment, maybe the stop sign up ahead, maybe the edge of a really colorful building that they can see a few blocks up, and to focus their attention there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BALCETIS: To imagine that a spotlight is shining just on that and to sort of put on blinders or just not pay attention to what's on the periphery. Now, what we found is that, in fact, they reported that it took 17% less physical exertion to walk the exact same distance when they were narrowly focusing their attention, in contrast to looking at the world the way they normally do, which is in a more expanded way.

VEDANTAM: So I think this is a study where you actually put ankle weights on people's legs and, again, told some people to focus very hard on the finish line while other people were not told to focus very hard on the finish line. And the people who focused hard on the finish line didn't just exercise less effort to get to the finish line. They actually felt the finish line was closer, which is remarkable.

BALCETIS: Exactly. That narrowed focus of attention produced a visual illusion of proximity. That goal looked closer to them than it did to people who were taking a more expanded view. And that illusion of proximity is actually what inspired them to walk faster. It seemed more feasible. The goal seemed - looked to them quite literally - closer at hand. And that was inspiring. That's what motivated them and encouraged them and gave them the energy to walk faster. And it led them to feel that it didn't hurt as much.

VEDANTAM: So the fact that people who kept their eyes on the goal walked, essentially, 23% faster, I think you found, than the people who didn't tells us that this technique is really valuable in getting people to the finish line. Is that when narrow focus is most effective?

BALCETIS: It is, yeah. So when we're looking for that extra boost to help us cross that finish line either in the literal sense, like it was the case for exercisers, or maybe even in a metaphoric sense. There's a goal that we're working towards, and it seems near, but, sometimes, it can be a struggle for us to focus on our efforts. We might be pulled in other directions. A goal might sort of linger or fizzle out. That's when it's particularly effective - is when it seems that it's close by, and yet, we still need that extra push to get us over the finish line.

VEDANTAM: It's also really interesting, Emily - you've done some fascinating work looking at how our inner drives and motivations can shape what it is that we see. I remember this really funny experiment you did, I believe, with David Dunning many years ago, where you asked people to see the difference between the letter 13 and the capital letter B in an experiment. Do you remember that study and what it showed?

BALCETIS: Sure. We took this simple line drawing. Think of a capital letter B, and if you sort of pulled apart the pieces, the straight line on the left and the bubbles on the right, and gave it just a little bit of visual space between the two, that produces an ambiguity. Is it a B? Or is it sort of smushed together number 13? Now, what we did was we tried to incentivize one interpretation over the other. For half of the people, we said the computer is going to randomly choose either a letter or number to show to you. Just like at a slot machine, who knows what's going to come up? It could be a letter. It could be a number. But for you, if a letter comes up, then we'll ask you next to drink this delicious, freshly-squeezed orange juice that we just pressed a few minutes ago.

But if a number pops up, we're going to ask you to sample and tell us what you think about an organic veggie smoothie. Now, I made that organic veggie smoothie. And it was noxious. I had put together canned okra, frozen peas, some pickle juice. It had a vivid green color and a noxious smell.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

BALCETIS: And so I knew most people were interested in the orange juice. And as a result, they were hoping that the computer was going to show them a letter.

So then when we presented this ambiguous image, this B or 13 for just a half a second, and asked them, OK, what did it show to you? - and then we'll give you the drink that we'll have you taste next, what we found was that people overwhelmingly interpreted that figure as, in fact, a letter. Their wish, their desire to get the orange juice by seeing a letter, by hoping that a letter appeared actually led them to interpret that image in the more desirable way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: You might think that the volunteers were not telling the truth, that they simply gave the answer that would allow them to avoid the foul-smelling drink. But the study also included techniques to test whether participants were lying. It also flipped the conditions for half the volunteers. Orange juice was now associated with the letter. And the smoothie was associated with a number.

BALCETIS: We found now that the majority of people saw it as a 13 rather than a B when the numbers were what was tagged to the orange juice.

VEDANTAM: So I find it interesting that so much of your work has looked at how our motivations and desires shape what we see. And this book is really asking if the arrow can run in the opposite direction. Can what we see and visualize shape our motivations?

BALCETIS: I think that's exactly right. I think that's sort of the - a hidden secret about goal pursuit is that what we see is really tied to what we think, what we decide and what we do. And if we feel like we're struggling in that regard, we're not making the decisions, or we're not seeing the outcomes that we're hoping for, maybe part of the problem and maybe part of the solution could be how we're looking at the world around us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: We've seen how keeping our eyes on the finish line can help us get there faster. But what happens when we don't know where the finish line is, when we can't see the target? What happens when we don't know where we're going? That's coming up next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In many cases, it makes sense to say, keep your eyes on the finish line. Narrowing your attention in this way can help you reach your goal, especially if that goal is clear. If you jump out of a plane without a parachute, you know that your target is a net. Get to your target, and you live. Take your eyes off it, you die. But what happens when you don't know what your target is, or it's so far off that you can't see it? What do you do if the challenge and the solution are too abstract to wrap your mind around?

A case where all these things are true is saving for retirement. If you're in your 60s, it's easy to be hyper focused on retirement because the finish line is right in front of you. But it's not realistic to ask people in their 20s to be narrowly focused on retirement, even though it's really important to save when you're young. Emily saw this issue in action when she asked college students whether they were saving for retirement.

BALCETIS: Well, what I found was that 55 out of 60 of my students who were on the brink of graduating, setting up their first job, thinking about entering the, quote, unquote, "real world" - 55 of those 60 said they had no thoughts about retirement. They weren't planning for it. They weren't currently saving for it, despite the fact that they all did have jobs right now. This just wasn't on their radar. And when I asked them, well, why? - the most frequently offered answer was because that just seems so far away. Retirement seems too far off for it to be relevant today.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, every financial advisor will tell you the single most important thing you can do if you're saving for retirement is not necessarily to save a lot of money but to start early. And starting early makes a huge difference in terms of what you end up with, what your nest egg looks like when you retire 30, 40 years down the road. So if we have the psychological problem that it's really hard to think about something that's 40 years away as being a finish line that we can see, you came up with a really interesting technique to try and fix this problem. What did you do, Emily?

BALCETIS: Well, I used this demonstration that I created, but it was really based off of Hal Hershfield's research, a fellow social psychologist who provided the solid scientific evidence that this may be effective. And I created a demonstration for my students. So I took a photograph of their face. I took a snapshot. And I used a photo-morphing software to create a more aged version of themselves.

So for some of my female students, I aged their face with that of Maya Angelou. They saw a little bit more white hair. They saw a little bit more wrinkles on their face. For some of the men, I morphed them with Dan Rather and other high-profile older figures so that they, too, could have that experience. And I printed off those pictures for themselves so that they could literally see what they might look like in retirement. They took a few minutes to jot down their thoughts about that. What would you be doing in retirement? How would you spend your time? Who would you be with? What hobbies would you have?

And what I was trying to do was create an illusion of proximity but in this case, temporal proximity, taking that far-off, distant retired future self and making it relevant and present in the here and now. They were literally seeing themselves as a retired person and imagining what that life would be like today. And then I asked them, what do you think about retirement? Do you think you'll start saving for retirement today, this week, with your next paycheck? And the vast majority of them now, after having gone through that experience, said yes.

VEDANTAM: There's another visualization technique that Emily says can be useful, even though it's counterintuitive. She says it can be helpful to imagine the obstacles that may get in our way as we're working toward a goal.

BALCETIS: Now, that might not seem like it would work. If I'm trying to motivate myself, I'm trying to get off the starting blocks for this new goal that I've set, why would I want to think about the likely path of destruction that I might experience? Why do I want to focus on the things that are going to pose me complications and that might stymie my progress? But really, it is important because thinking about those obstacles in advance also gives us the opportunity to foreshadow what might be the solutions should we experience those obstacles.

The metaphor I like to use is thinking about a sinking ship. If you're on a ship and it starts sinking, that's not the time you want to start looking for the life preservers. You already want to know where they are so that you can quickly go get one. And the same is true when we're thinking about goal pursuit and setting goals in an effective way. We want to prepare for what the obstacles might be, have that backup plan, that emergency escape route ready so that when we're in the thick of it and a problem arises, we don't have to then try to find the time and the resources to figure out how we'll move through that obstacle. We already want to know how to do it.

VEDANTAM: Emily describes a moment when this sort of preparation paid off for swimmer Michael Phelps. It was at the Olympics in 2008.

BALCETIS: Michael Phelps is an incredible athlete, as we all know. He was the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. In 2008, he was poised to break a world record.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: You have a chance to witness rare history live here in Beijing.

BALCETIS: In that single Olympiad, he was on the brink of winning more gold medals than any other Olympic athlete had ever done before. He had just the 200 fly in front of him for this record to be beat.

VEDANTAM: But when he jumped off the starting blocks, his goggles started to leak. Soon they were entirely filled with water.

BALCETIS: Now, for most people, that might mean disaster. But for him, it didn't because this was something that he had planned for. He had foreshadowed this obstacle. And he already had his plan of attack if this should happen. He went to counting his strokes. He knew exactly how many strokes it would take for him to get from one length of the pool to the other. And so even though he was now swimming blind, he just went to his backup plan. He counted his strokes. He won that race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Is it going to be a world record? Yes.

(CHEERING)

VEDANTAM: And he went on to win another 13 gold medals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The greatest Olympic champion of all time tosses the goggles on the deck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The techniques that Emily used to help her students imagine retirement and that Michael Phelps used to visualize the length of the pool in front of him involves something that Emily calls materializing. The idea, she says, is to take something that is abstract, amorphous and hidden and make it tangible, immediate and mentally visible.

BALCETIS: The idea of materializing is just that, that we can create a concrete, visual image for ourselves, and that might help us accomplish our goals in ways that just leaving it in our mind might not. I think a great example of this that resonates with my everyday life is that if we think of our to-do list, those elements, those items that we just leave in our mind, those little, nagging concerns never quite make it to the top of the list. When you have a moment of free time to get something done off your personal to-do list, you forget about it, right? You forget what has - what will pop up in your mind in the middle of the night.

But we almost always make good on the things that we put into our calendar. So those items that we've set for 9:45 this morning, it's far more likely that we'll make it to those, that will meet those obligations and we'll get that done than the things that we just hope that we'll remember. So there is great power in what it is that we see, which is why a piece of advice that I offer is to schedule into our calendar those things that we might not think warrant scheduling. It might just be a reminder to make an important phone call, to schedule an appointment. Well, we can schedule an appointment with ourselves to schedule that appointment with somebody else. We prioritize those things that are in our calendar, that we can literally see as part of our daily obligations, over those things that we just leave in our own mind. And that's the power of materializing.

VEDANTAM: We've talked about two techniques to manipulate what we see in order to shape what we do. We've talked about narrow focus, keeping your eye on a target to help you get there, and we've talked about how materializing hard-to-see things can make them easier to achieve. The third idea you explore has to do with framing, the context in which we see things. Tell me about a study conducted by Anne Thorndike at Massachusetts General Hospital.

BALCETIS: Anne Thorndike and her research team were working at the cafeteria of Massachusetts General Hospital. They had as a corporate goal to improve the health of their employees that were eating in the cafeteria by trying to nudge or inspire or visually cue healthier choices at lunchtime or when people are getting snacks or at breakfast. And what they did was use two aspects of visual framing to try to encourage these healthier choices. First of all, they put these color-coded labels on the food. They put stickers on them. They put green stickers on the healthiest of options - the fruits and vegetables, the nutrient-dense foods that they were hoping that their employees would choose. They put red stickers on those that had high calories and low nutritional value, like candy bars. And they put yellow stickers on those that people should approach with caution.

So they used these color-coded labels to just encourage a conscientiousness or draw people's attention to the foods that they should be eating and those foods that they shouldn't be eating. Now, they coupled that also with visual placement. They put those green-stickered items at eye level on the shelves. They put the red and the yellow items on the shelves that were higher up or lower down and less likely to just literally fall into people's visual frame. And what they found was that that was quite effective. They were looking at what were the net sales of these red and green and yellow-colored items, and they found that over the course of the study that people actually made significantly healthier choices in the long run.

VEDANTAM: So if I remember the numbers correctly, two years after the study began, the number of green-tagged items bought rose by 12%. And the number of sweetened beverages, basically sodas, dropped by 39%.

BALCETIS: Exactly. And those items that had red tags on them dropped by 20% as well. So people were more likely to eat the green-tagged items, to choose the green-tagged items and were less likely to choose unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.

VEDANTAM: So I understand, Emily, that you have a 3-year-old son, and you have used some of these visual framing strategies at home to shape what he eats and to also shape what he doesn't eat. What are you trying to keep him from getting to, and how do you do it?

BALCETIS: So his kryptonite, what really does him in, are those little pouches of basically baby smoothies, things that you would give to a 6-month-old to help teach them how to eat non-milk foods, right? It's introduction to food Level 1. Oh, but he loves those things, and that's his go-to treat.

Now, for a 6-month-old they're great. But for a 3 1/2-year-old, they're not going to fill up his stomach. And for him, they're the equivalent of empty calories. So what we have done is put them first on a high-up shelf, literally out of his reach, out of his line of sight. And that worked for about a week. Then he found his stairs from the bathroom. He would pull the stairs that he usually uses to wash his hands - he pulled them into the pantry. So now the stairs live in the pantry, and he can reach those little pouches. We found him one early morning having quite a feast off of those little pouches.

So then we had to up our game, and what we did next was put them on that same high-up shelf but now out of sight. We hid them behind the cast-iron skillets on the shelf, so he couldn't quite see them. And when you stack two cast-iron skillets, it's actually too heavy for a 3 1/2-year-old to push out of the way. So now, both he and I have to be conscientious decision-makers about when he gets a pouch because he needs my help in order to get them.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) You also find there are things to - that you can do that help him do more of something rather than less of something. And one of them has to do with books and reading. What do you do, Emily?

BALCETIS: So in his bedroom, we have a gigantic bureau. It's from the 1960s or something. And, you know, it could've housed one of the first old-fashioned televisions that are 3 feet deep and weigh 150 pounds. It could hold something like that. Or it could've held somebody's wool sweaters. What we've done is instead fill it entirely with his books. Every single shelf is filled with books. There's boxes of books at all of the levels. It's about 7 feet tall, and it's entirely filled with his books. There's doors on this on the top and on the bottom. And we keep those doors open. Now, in the middle of the night when he calls for help and we need to go in there where, we've bonked our heads on those open doors more times than we care to admit.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

BALCETIS: And we have the bruises on our forehead to show for it. But we still keep the doors open because we want that to be what - when he wakes up in the morning and when he goes to sleep, that's what he sees - are all of his books.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: We've looked at three techniques involving the visual system in the brain that can help you motivate yourself and others. You can narrow your focus. You can make something tangible, what Emily calls materializing. And you can arrange the context of what you see to encourage certain behaviors. Emily calls this visual framing. When we come back, we explore another idea that can help you when you feel like giving up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Emily Balceris is a psychologist and the author of "Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See The World." Emily looks at how the visual system in the mind is closely connected with our drives and motivations. What we choose to see and what we choose not to see can shape what we do. We began this conversation by looking at how we can narrow our sight to achieve specific goals. Emily says there are also times when we can use our vision to help us do the opposite - to zoom out and see a more complete picture.

Emily, some years ago, you asked a small group of women to take a survey about their lives. You asked them to list their dreams and hopes. What did it tell you?

BALCETIS: They did this survey in the privacy of their own home. Nobody else was around. They were asked to set aside an hour or so to take a step back and think about all aspects of their life and what would be the ideal in each of those facets of life. They thought about, what would their perfect career look like? How many hours would they be working? What sort of education would they have received in order to prepare for that career? What did their personal life look like? What kinds of relationships did they have? Did they have children? Did they live with anybody? What home were they living in?

Now, all of these are important decisions. And, of course, all of these are things that we do think about. But rarely do we give ourselves the opportunity to think about them at the same time and to decide what's a priority and what isn't. But that's what this survey was encouraging people to do. On their own in the privacy of their own home, they were defining what their ideal life looked like.

VEDANTAM: So some weeks later you invited the women to a pop-up shop. And you asked them to bring a mentor with them, another woman. This could've been a mom, a friend, a cousin. But this was actually not just a shop. This was actually a social experiment. What were the things on sale at the pop-up shop.

BALCETIS: Well, on the shelves at the store, there were canisters. There was an array of canisters in one section. And it offered options with the question posed above on this placard that said, how many hours would you work a week? There were cans that had a response of five hours or 10 to 15, 15 to 20, 30 to 40, 40-plus. We gave them a basket when they walked into the shop. And they could walk around, look at all of the shelves, entertain all of the questions and pick off the canister that reflected how many hours they wanted to work.

They would go to the next aisle. They would walk to the next segment of the shop, and they would see another question, who do you want to live with? And there would be bags that had different answers on there, like living alone, live with a roommate, live with a significant other, be married. And they would choose the bag that reflected their answer to that choice, as well.

So what they perhaps picked up on but maybe didn't realize in the moment was that the basket that we gave them was of a specific shape and size and that they wouldn't be able to necessarily max out and choose the most desirable aspect of life across all of these different facets and have them all still fit in the basket. So in a sense the social experiment was encouraging them to think about the tradeoffs that might have to be made in order for them to achieve what their perfect life would look like. And as they're walking around the store, of course, they were walking around with their best friend, their law school buddies, their mother, a cousin. And they were having conversations. Everybody was playing this game. Everybody was trying to shop for their perfect life.

But they realized the challenges of it. It brought up interesting points. Like, for example, there was one woman there with her mother. And when her mother pulled off the shelf living alone, even though she was still married to our protagonist's father, well, that inspired not only a laugh but a pretty deep conversation about, well, why would you choose that? You're still married to Dad? So the conversations were really interesting to listen to and were pretty deep ones where these women were having intense conversations about, well, what would an ideal life look like for me? What would it look like for you? And they were helping each other to figure that out.

VEDANTAM: So these women collect the various things that they've essentially bought at the store, and they come to the checkout counter. And waiting for them there is you. What do you do?

BALCETIS: Well, they didn't realize it, but I had saved their answers from that survey that they had taken at home in private. Down in the basement of this shop was a whole data analytics team that was piping up to the iPad - the checkout register that I had access to was telling me their responses. They were reminding me of what people had identified as the ideal way to live this aspect of their life. And I could contrast that to what they had put in their basket in this moment.

So we had a conversation. I sort of surprised them with the fact that I knew what they had said when they were alone at home and brought to their attention where it differed after they had a conversation with their mom or their best friend and asked them to explain why those differences existed in those areas that we had found them to be.

And what they actually found - these conversations were really amazing - was that this experience of having these conversations with these important sources of social support actually led the women to make more ambitious choices. The majority of women made more ambitious choices. They decided they wanted to spend more time at work or they wanted to go back to school to further their education. But they made those more ambitious choices in the areas that they had on their own identified as being the most important and meaningful facets of their life.

So what this suggested to me was that rather than this idea that women in particular are pushing each other to have it all - to be everything, to be the best at every aspect of life - that wasn't what these conversations were doing. Instead, these women were supporting each other's own personal ambitions and encouraging people to invest in what was most important to them. And that might be even in contrast to what was important to them.

For instance, there were three women who had studied in law school together and were all at very competitive firms in New York City. And one of them wanted to pull away from that life, the life that they had all been working collectively to achieve. And these two law school buddies who were still in that world and were still striving to be at the top of this intense career were incredibly supportive of their friend's want to leave the firm, to move to an entirely different city and to change a focus in law to something that was less demanding and more supportive.

VEDANTAM: So when someone asks you to take a survey in your own home and says, you know, think about these different things and you come up with it - you spend maybe half an hour, 45 minutes with it - you come up with a list of answers, that feels entirely different than coming to the store, seeing the choices made visual in front of you, seeing visually the trade-offs that you're making by putting what you're putting into the basket, having the conversations with this other person who's important in your life - there's something that's happening here that's psychologically very different than just asking people, what's important to you? What's happening here, Emily?

BALCETIS: I think what that shopping experience did was induce a wide bracket. We rarely take the opportunity to think about how all the different pieces of our life's puzzle come together. Oftentimes we're just putting out today's fire, or we're making a choice about our career. But it's challenging to also think about, simultaneously, the ramifications for what that means for my personal well-being or for my family life or my obligations to others.

We're - we tend to be more myopically focused or focusing just on whatever is most salient or visible in our mind's eye. But what the shopping experience did was sort of pull people back. It helps to see the forest, not just the tree in front of us and to realize that a choice in this space might mean this trade-off and another.

That's what the shopping experience did, was literally put all facets of life before their eyes. And the supportive conversations that were being had were putting those choices and those juxtapositions literally on the table in front of them, inducing this sort of wide, expansive take on life and making the choices resonate more with this holistic view that people were trying to achieve rather than just focusing on the here and now.

VEDANTAM: So I'm struck by the words you use there because it's almost like climbing to the top of a mountain. And when you climb to the top and get to the top, from the peak, it's not just the view looks better but that the terrain looks different. You actually see better with altitude.

BALCETIS: Exactly, yeah. We have a very different perspective. I mean, we can see the multitude of paths on the forest floor when we're at the top of the mountain rather than just the left or the right turn that any one path has presented to us when we're on that forest floor.

VEDANTAM: Have you used any of these techniques to help get you through the COVID pandemic?

BALCETIS: Oh, definitely. To get through the COVID pandemic, for me, the wide bracket has been really important. So I always have kept an electronic calendar. I keep it on my phone; it syncs with my computers. But what I realized was that that wasn't giving me, like, the the feedback that I needed to know whether I was getting anything done in the day.

With COVID - I mean, there's so much that people are trying to simultaneously manage that it was really hard for me to find a moment to reflect on what I got done today and how did that line up against what my actual to-do list was. And just seeing it on my calendar and knowing that I had gotten through that meeting or I had sent along that product, that wasn't enough for me to get that sense of calm or relief or to let the anxiety subside. So in COVID, I've started also just using an old-school paper and pencil calendar, like, a journal, and writing down what I needed to get done. I look at the week. I don't look at the day. I set a goal for the week, and every Sunday or Monday, I reset my goals for the week and cross them off, cross the items off like anybody does when they have a to-do list. But rather than ripping that page off and throwing it in the trash when the week is done, I've kept all of them. And periodically, every one or two weeks, I flip back and I look at, a month ago, what was I trying to do? Three weeks ago, what was I trying to do? And that actually brings a sense of calm.

It's hard for me to remember what did I get done. I am so myopically focused because that's what life is requiring right now. But I do get a sense of relief and productivity and progress by reflecting on what happened a month ago that really, for me, seems to come by quite literally looking at that to-do list that I wrote down by hand and seeing all the things that I checked off and the things that I didn't get to and realizing that that ratio is tipped in my favor.

VEDANTAM: Now, it can seem on the surface, Emily, that you're advising people to do not just different things but opposite things, you know, have a narrow focus that will get you to the finish line, have a wide focus that'll actually give you more perspective on your life. I think your point is that different visual techniques might be valuable at different stages of a project, maybe even at different stages in life.

BALCETIS: Yeah, I think of these as tools in a toolbox. And if we want to build a house, we can't just use a hammer, that sometimes there are different tools that are better for different jobs. Now, of course, we could use a screwdriver and bang against a nail and it might make some progress, but it might not be the best tool for us. So by being aware of these techniques, by practicing these techniques, it creates a flexibility. It expands our toolbox so that we might try trading out one tool when it's not working for us. Or when the job gets harder or the job changes and we're not making the kind of progress that we'd like, we can swap out one tool for another.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Emily's insights on goal pursuit have come from running experiments on other people. But she's also treated herself like a research subject. She has used the techniques she described here to help her learn to play the drums. As you might remember from the top of the show, Emily had a number of factors working against her.

BALCETIS: So, for me, this was going to be quite a challenge to learn how to coordinate all four limbs in order to play a tune that I was going to perform for others. That's how I made myself accountable was I set a date, and I was going to have a show, a show of one song. And there would be no encores because I didn't know anything else to play, unless they wanted to hear the same song again.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

BALCETIS: And so that's what I talk about in this book is these tactics that I suggest others try. I tried them all out on myself across the course of this year, my son's first year of life, and that happened to be also the same amount of time that it took me in order to learn this song. I wasn't a fast learner, but I got there. And some of these techniques I tried at different points in the process. Some of them worked better in other moments than others, and they had - they brought different opportunities to me. And so I write quite truthfully about my experience, and sometimes I'm advising one tactic and then saying, but you know what, it actually didn't work for me in this instance. Maybe I used it at the wrong time. Maybe I used it the wrong way. But, full disclosure, it may not work for everybody. And I think that's the truth of it is that no one tactic that anybody says to help us along the way is going to be a foolproof solution. Every person is different. Every challenge is different. But these are four tactics that just give us alternates, something else that we can try if what our go-to strategy is just isn't working.

VEDANTAM: Psychologist Emily Balcetis works at New York University. She's the author of "Clearer, Closer, Better How Successful People See The World." Emily, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

BALCETIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LOVE")

THE OUTFIELD: (Singing) I ain't got many friends left to talk to, nowhere to run when I'm in trouble. You know I'd do anything for you.

VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen and Jenny Schmidt. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Cat Schuknecht. Our team includes Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu, engineering support from Neil Rauch. Our unsung hero this week is Erin Register. Erin is a project manager in programming at NPR. She makes every project that she walks on run more smoothly, and she does so with kindness, compassion and a real attention to detail. Thank you so much, Erin. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter. Today's episode was part of our You 2.0 series, which runs all this month. If you liked today's episode, please be sure to share it with a friend who might enjoy this series. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LOVE")

THE OUTFIELD: (Singing) And don't forget what I told you. Just 'cause you're right that don't mean I'm wrong, another should to cry upon.

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