|THE USES OF REASON
by Jonah Lehrer1
The summer of 1949 had been long and dry in Montana; the grassy highlands were like tinder. On the afternoon of August 5—the hottest day ever recorded in the area—a stray bolt of lightning set the ground on fire. A parachute brigade of firefighters, known as smokejumpers, was dispatched to put out the blaze. Wag Dodge2, a veteran with nine years of smokejumping experience, was in charge. When the jumpers took off from Missoula in a C-47, a military transport plane left over from World War II, they were told that the fire was small, just a few burning acres in the Mann Gulch river valley. As the plane approached the fire, the jumpers could see the smoke in the distance. The hot wind blew it straight across the sky.
Mann Gulch is a place of geological contradiction. It is where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, pine trees give way to prairie grass, and the steep cliffs drop onto the steppes of the Midwest. The gulch is just over three miles long, but it marks the border between these two different terrains.
The fire began on the Rockies’ side, on the western edge of the gulch. By the time the firefighters arrived at the gulch, the blaze had grown out of control. The surrounding hills had all been burned; the landscape was littered with the skeletons of pine trees. Dodge moved his men over to the grassy side of the gulch and told them to head downhill, toward the placid Missouri River. Dodge didn’t trust this blaze. He wanted to be near water; he knew this fire could crown.
Crowns occur when flames get so high they reach into the top branches of trees. Once that happens, the fire has too much fuel. Hot embers begin to swirl in the air, spreading the fire across the prairie. The smokejumpers used to joke that the only way to control a crown fire was to pray like hell for rain. Norman Maclean, in his seminal history Young Men and Fire, described what it was like to be close to such a fire:
It sounds like a train coming too fast around a curve and may get so high-keyed that the crew cannot understand what their foreman is trying to do to save them. Sometimes, when the timber thins out, it sounds as if the train were clicking across a bridge, sometimes it hits an open clearing and becomes hushed as if going through a tunnel, but when the burning cones swirl through the air and fall on the other side of the clearing, the new fire sounds as if it were the train coming out of the tunnel, belching black unburned smoke. The unburned smoke boils up until it reaches oxygen, then bursts into gigantic flames on top of its cloud of smoke in the sky. The new [novice] firefighter, seeing black smoke rise from the ground and then at the top of the sky turn into flames, thinks that natural law has been reversed.
Dodge looked at the dry grass and the dry pine needles. He felt the hot wind and the hot sun. The conditions were making him nervous. To make matters worse, the men had no map of the terrain. They were also without a radio, since the parachute on the radio pack had failed to open and the transmitter had been smashed on the rocks. The small crew of smokejumpers was all alone with this fire; there was nothing between them and it but a river and a thick tangle of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees. And so the jumpers set down their packs and watched the blaze from across the canyon. When the wind parted the smoke, as it did occasionally, they could see inside the fire as the flames leapt from tree to tree.
It was now five o’clock—a dangerous time to fight wilderness fires because the twilight wind can shift without warning. The breeze had been blowing the flames up the canyon, away from the river. But then, suddenly, the wind reversed. Dodge saw the ash swirl in the air. He saw the top of the flames flicker and wave. And then he saw the fire leap across the gulch and spark the grass on his side.
That’s when the updraft began. Fierce winds began to howl through the canyon, blowing straight toward the men. Dodge could only watch as the fire became an inferno. He was suddenly staring at a wall of flame two hundred feet tall and three hundred feet deep on the edge of the prairie. In a matter of seconds, the flames began to devour the grass on the slope. The fire ran toward the smokejumpers at thirty miles per hour, incinerating everything in its path. At the fire’s center, the temperature was more than two thousand degrees, hot enough to melt rock.
Dodge screamed at his men to retreat. It was already too late to run to the river, since the fire was blocking their path. Each man dropped his fifty pounds of gear and started running up the brutally steep canyon walls, trying to get to the top of the ridge and escape the blowup. Because heat rises, a fire that starts burning on flat prairie accelerates when it hits a slope. On a 50 percent grade, a fire will move nine times faster than it does on level land. The slopes at Mann Gulch are 76 percent.
When the first crossed the gulch, Dodge and his crew had a two-hundred-yard head start. After a few minutes of running, Dodge could feel the fierce heat on his back. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that the fire was now fewer than fifty yards away and gaining. The air began to lose its oxygen. The fire was sucking the wind dry. That’s when Dodge realized the blaze couldn’t be outrun. The hill was too steep, and the flames were too fast.
So Dodge stopped running. He stood perfectly still as the fire accelerated toward him. Then he started yelling at his men to do the same. He knew they were racing toward their own immolation and that in fewer than thirty seconds the fire would run them over, like a freight train without brakes. But nobody stopped. Perhaps the men couldn’t hear Dodge over the deafening roar of flames. Or perhaps they couldn’t bear the idea of stopping. When confronted with a menacing fire, the most basic instinct is to run away. Dodge was telling the men to stand still.
But Dodge wasn’t committing suicide. In a fit of desperate creativity, he came up with an escape plan. He quickly lit a match and ignited the ground in front of him. He watched as those flames races away from him, up the canyon walls. Then Dodge stepped into the ashes of this smaller fire, so that he was surrounded by a thin buffer of burned land. He lay down on the still smoldering embers. He wet his handkerchief with some water from his canteen and clutched the cloth to his mouth. He closed his eyes tight and tried to inhale the thin ether of oxygen remaining near the ground. The he waited for the fire to pass around him. After several terrifying minutes, Dodge emerged from the ashes virtually unscathed.
Thirteen smokejumpers were killed by the Mann Gulch fire. Only two men in the crew besides Dodge managed to survive, and that was because they found a shallow crevice in the rocky hillside. As Dodge had predicted, the flames were almost impossible to outrun. White crosses still mark the spots where the men died; all of the crosses are below the ridge.
BEATING BACK EMOTIONS
Dodge’s escape fire is now a standard firefighting technique. It has saved the lives of countless firefighters trapped by swift blazes. At the time, however, Dodge’s plan seemed like sheer madness. His men could only think about fleeing the flames, and yet their leader was starting a new fire. Robert Sallee, a first-year smokejumper who survived the blaze, later said he’d thought that “Dodge had gone nuts, just plain old nuts.”
But Dodge was perfectly sane. In the heat of the moment he managed to make a very smart decision. The question, for those of us looking back on it, is how? What allowed him to resist the urge to flee? Why didn’t he follow the rest of his crew up the gulch? Part of the answer is experience. Most of the smokejumpers were teenagers working summer jobs. They had fought only a few fires, and none of them had ever seen a fire like that. Dodge, on the other hand, was a grizzled veteran of the forest service; he knew what prairie flames were capable of. Once the fire crossed the gulch, Dodge realized that it was only a matter of time before the men were caught by the hungry flames. The slopes were too steep and the wind was too fierce and the grass was too dry; the blaze would beat them to the top. Besides, even if the men managed to reach the top of the mountain, they were still trapped. The ridge was covered with high, dry grass that hadn’t been trimmed by cattle. It would burn in an instant.
For Dodge, it must have been a moment of unspeakable horror: to know that there was nowhere to go; to realize that his men were running to their deaths and that the wall of flame would consume them all. But Dodge’s fear wasn’t what saved him. In fact, the overwhelming terror of the situation was part of the problem. After the fire started burning uphill, all of the smokejumpers became fixated on getting to the ridge, even though the ridge was too far away for them to reach. Walter Rumsey, a first-year smokejumper, later recounted what was going through his mind when he saw Dodge stop running and get out his matchbook. “I remember thinking that that was a very good idea,” Rumsey said, “but I don’t remember what I thought it was good for…I kept thinking the ridge—if I can make it. On the ridge, I will be safe.” William Hellman, the second in command, looked at Dodge’s escape fire and reportedly said, “To hell with that, I’m getting out of here.” (Hellman did reach the ridge, the only smokejumper who managed to do so, but he died the next day from third-degree burns that covered his entire body.) The rest of the men acted the same way. When Dodge was asked during the investigation why none of the smokejumpers followed his orders to stop running, he just shook his head. “They didn’t seem to pay any attention,” he said. “That is the part I didn’t understand. They seemed to have something on their minds—all headed in one direction…They just wanted to get to the top.”
Dodge’s men were in the grip of panic. The problem with panic is that it narrows one’s thoughts. It reduces awareness to the most essential facts, the most basic instincts. This means that when a person is being chased by a fire, all he or she can think about is running from the fire.
This is known as perceptual narrowing. In one study, people were put in a pressure chamber and told that the pressure would slowly be increased until it simulated that of a sixty-foot dive. While inside the pressure chamber, the subject was asked to perform two simple visual tasks. One task was to respond to blinking lights in the center of the subject’s visual field, and the other involved responding to blinking lights in his peripheral vision. As expected, each of the subjects inside the pressure chamber exhibited all the usual signs of panic—a racing pulse, elevated blood pressure, and a surge of adrenaline. These symptoms affected performance in a very telling way. Although the people in the pressure chamber performed just as well as control subjects did on the central visual task, those in the pressure chamber were twice as likely to miss the stimuli in their peripheral vision. Their view of the world literally shrank.
The tragedy of Mann Gulch holds an important lesson about the mind. Dodge survived the fire because he was able to beat back his emotions. Once he realized that his fear had exhausted its usefulness—it told him to run, but there was nowhere to go—Dodge was able to resist its primal urges. Instead, he turned to his conscious mind, which is uniquely capable of deliberate and creative thought. While automatic emotions focus on the most immediate variables, the rational brain is able to expand the list of possibilities. As the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux says, “The advantage [of the emotional brain] is that by allowing evolution to do the thinking for you, you basically buy the time that you need to think about the situation and do the most reasonable thing.” And so Dodge stopped running. If he was going to survive the fire, he needed to think.
What Dodge did next relied entirely on the part of his brain that he could control. In the panic of the moment, he was able to come up with a new solution to his seemingly insurmountable problem. There was no pattern to guide him—no one had ever started an escape fire before--but Dodge was able to imagine his survival. In that split second of thought, he realized that it was possible to start his own fire, and that this fire might give him a thin barrier of burned earth. “It just seemed like the logical thing to do,” Dodge said. He didn’t know if his escape fire would work—he thought he would probably suffocate—but it stilled appeared to be a better idea than running. And so Dodge felt for the direction of the wind and lit the prairie weeds right in front of him. They ignited like paper. The surrounding tinder wilted to ash. He had made a firewall out of fire.
This kind of thinking takes place in the prefrontal cortex, the outermost layer of the frontal lobes.3 Pressed tight against the bones of the forehead, the prefrontal cortex has undergone a dramatic expansion in the human brain. When you compare a modern human cortex to that of any other primate, or even to some of our hominid ancestors’, the most obvious anatomical difference is this swelling at the fore. The Neaderthal, for example had a slightly larger brain than Homo sapiens. But he still had the prefrontal cortex of a chimp. As a result, Neanderthals were missing one of the most important talents of the human brain: rational thought.
Rationality can be a difficult word to define—it has a long and convoluted intellectual history—but it’s generally used to describe a particular style of thinking. Plato associated rationality with the use of logic, which he believed made humans think like the gods. Modern economics has refined this ancient idea into rational-choice theory, which assumes that people make decisions by multiplying the probability of getting what they want by the amount of pleasure (utility) that getting what they want will bring. This reasonable rubric allows us all to maximize our happiness, which is what rational agents are always supposed to do.
Of course, the mind isn’t a purely rational machine. You don’t compute utility in the supermarket or use math when throwing a football or act like the imaginary people in economics textbooks. The Platonic charioteer is often trounced by his emotional horses. Nevertheless, the brain does have a network of rational parts, centered in the prefrontal cortex. If it weren’t for these peculiar lumps of gray and white matter, we couldn’t even conceive of rationality, let alone act in a rational manner.
The prefrontal cortex was not always held in such high regard. When scientists first began dissecting the brain in the nineteenth century, they concluded that the frontal lobes were useless, unnecessary folds of flesh. Unlike other cortical areas, which were responsible for specific tasks such as controlling the body or generating language, the prefrontal cortex seemed to do nothing. It was the appendix of the mind. As a result doctors figured they might as well find out what happened when the area was excised. In 1935, the Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz performed the first prefrontal lobotomy, a delicate surgery during which small holes were cut into the frontal lobes. (The surgery was inspired by reports that chimpanzees became less aggressive after undergoing similar procedures.) Moniz restricted the surgery to patients with severe psychiatric problems, such as schizophrenia, who would otherwise be confined to dismal mental institutions. The leucotomy certainly wasn’t a cure-all, but many of Moniz’s patients did experience a reduction in symptoms. In 1949, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for pioneering the procedure.
The success of the leucotomy led doctors to experiment with other kinds of frontal lobe operations. In the United States, Walter Freeman and James Watts developed a procedure known as the prefrontal lobotomy, which was designed to completely ablate the tracts of white matter connecting the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus. The surgery was brutally simple: a thin blade was inserted just under the eyelid, hammered through a thin layer of bone, and shimmied from side to side. The treatment quickly became exceedingly popular. Between 1939 and 1951, the “cutting cure” was performed on more than eighteen thousand patients in American asylums and prisons.
Unfortunately, the surgery came with a wide range of tragic side effects. Between 2 and 6 percent of all patients died on the operating table. Those who survived were never the same. Some patients sank into a stupor, utterly uninterested in everything around them. Others lost the ability to use language. (This is what happened to Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of President John F. Kennedy. Her lobotomy was given as a treatment for “agitated depression.”) The vast majority of lobotomized patients suffered from short-term memory problems and the inability to control their impulses.
The frontal lobe lobotomy, unlike Moniz;a leucotomy, was a crude procedure. Its path of destruction was haphazard and unpredictable. Although doctors tried to cut only the connections to the prefrontal cortex, they really didn’t know what they were cutting. However, over the past several decades, neurologists have studied this brain area with great precision. They now know exactly what happens when the prefrontal cortex is damaged.
Consider the case of Mary Jackson, an intelligent and driven nineteen-year-old with a bright future. Although she grew up in a blighted inner-city neighborhood, Mary received a full scholarship to an Ivy League university. She was a history major with a pre-med concentration and hoped one day to become a pediatrician so she could open up a medical clinic in her old neighborhood. Her boyfriend, Tom, was an undergraduate at a nearby college, and they planned to get married after Mary finished medical school.
But then, in the summer after her sophomore year, Mary’s life began falling apart. Tom noticed it first. Mary had never drunk alcohol before—her parents were strict Baptists—but she suddenly started frequenting bars and dance clubs. She began sleeping with random men and experimented with crack cocaine. She disowned her old friends, avoided church, and broke up with Tom. Nobody knew what had gotten into her.
When Mary returned to school, her grades began to slip. She stopped attending class. Her semester report card was dismal: three F’s and two D’s. Mary’s advisor warned her that she would nose her scholarship and recommended psychiatric counseling. But Mary ignored the suggestion and continued to spend most of her nights at the local bar.
Later that spring, Mary developed a high fever and a hacking cough. At first, she assumed her sickness was just the side effect of too much partying, but the sickness wouldn’t go away. She went to the student health center and was diagnosed with pneumonia. But even after she was treated with intravenous antibiotics and oxygen, the fever lingered. Mary’s immune system seemed compromised. The doctors ordered more blood tests. That’s when Mary learned she was HIV-positive.
Mary immediately broke down in a fit of hysterical tears. She told her doctor that she didn’t understand her own behavior. Until the previous summer, she had never felt the urge to do drugs or sleep around or skip class. She had been diligently focused on her long-term goals of going to medical school and starting a family with Tom. But now she was unable to control her own impulses. She couldn’t resist temptation. She made one reckless decision after another.
Mary’s doctor referred her to Dr. Kenneth Heilman, a distinguished neurologist now at the University of Florida. Heilman began by giving Mary some simple psychological tests: He asked her to remember a few different objects, and then distracted her for thirty seconds by having her count backward. When Heilman asked Mary if she could still remember the objects, she looked at him with a blank stare. Her working memory had vanished. When Heilman tried to give Mary a different memory test, she flew into a rage. He asked her if she had always had such a bad temper. “Up to about a year ago, it was extremely rare that I got angry,” Mary said. “Now it seems I am always flying off the handle.”
All of these neurological symptoms—the diminished memory capacity, the self-destructive impulsiveness, the uncontrollable rage—suggested a problem with Mary’s prefrontal cortex. So Heilman gave Mary a second round of tests: He put a comb in front of her but told her not to touch it. She immediately started combing her hair. He put a pen and paper in front of her but told her to keep her hands still. She automatically started writing. After scribbling a few sentences, however, Mary become bored and started looking for new distractions. “It seemed that rather than having internal goals motivate her behavior,” Heilman wrote in his clinical report, “she was entirely stimulus dependent.” Whatever Mary saw, she touched. Whatever she touched, she wanted. Whatever she wanted, she needed.
Heilman ordered an MRI. That’s when he saw the tumor: a large mass emanating from the pituitary gland and pressing on Mary’s prefrontal cortex. This was the cause of her decline. That growth had left her with executive dysfunction, an inability to maintain a coherent set of goals and contemplate the consequences of one’s actions. As a result, Mary was unable to act on any ideas but the most immediate. The tumor had erased some of the necessary features of the human mind: the ability to think ahead, plan for the future, and repress impulses.
“You see this with a lot of patients with frontal-lobe problems,” Heilman says. “They can’t hold back their emotions. If they get angry, then they’ll just get in a fight. Even if they know that getting in a fight is a bad idea—the cognitive knowledge might still be there—that knowledge is less important than the intensity of what they are feeling.” Heilman believes that in Mary’s case, her damaged prefrontal cortex meant that her rational brain could no longer modulate or restrain her irrational passions.” She knew her behavior was self-destructive,” Heilman says, “But she did it anyways.”
The tragic story of Mary Jackson illuminates the importance of the prefrontal cortex. Because she was missing this specific brain region—it was damaged by the tumor—she couldn’t think abstractly or resist her most immediate urges. She was unable to keep information in short-term memory or follow through on her long-term plans. If Mary Jackson was fleeing a fire, she never would have stopped to light the match. She would have kept on running.4
WAITING FOR THE MARSHMALLOWS
Imagine that you are playing a simple gambling game. You are given fifty dollars of real money and asked to decide between two options. The first option is an all-or-nothing gamble. The odds of the gamble are clear: there is a 40 percent chance that you will keep the entire fifty dollars, and a 60 percent chance that you will lose everything. The second option, however, is a sure thing. If you choose the alternative, you will get to keep twenty dollars.
What option did you choose? If you’re like most people, you took the guaranteed cash. It’s always better to get something rather than nothing, and twenty dollars is not a trivial amount of money.
But now let’s play the game again. The risky gamble hasn’t changed: you still have a 40 percent chance of keeping the entire fifty dollars. This time, however, the sure thing is a loss of thirty dollars instead of a gain of twenty.
The outcome, of course, remains the same. The two gambles are identical. In both cases, you walk away with twenty of the original fifty. But the different descriptions strongly affect how people play the game. When the choice is framed in terms of gaining twenty dollars, only 42 percent of people choose the risky gamble. But when the same choice is framed in terms of losing thirty dollars, 62 percent of people opt to roll the dice. This human foible is known as the framing effect, and it’s a by-product of loss aversion. The effect helps explain why people are much more likely to buy meat when it’s labeled 85 percent lean instead of 15 percent fat. Any why twice as many patients opt for surgery when told there’s an 80 percent chance of their surviving instead of a 20 percent chance of their dying.
When neuroscientists used an fMRI machine to study the brains of people playing this gambling game, they was the precise regions that these two different yet equivalent frames activated. They found that people who chose to gamble—the ones whose decisions were warped by the prospect of losing thirty dollars—were misled by an excited amygdala, a brain region that, when excited, evokes negative feelings. Whenever a person thinks about losing something, the amygdala is automatically activated. That’s why people hate losses so much.
However, when the scientists looked at the brains of subjects who were not swayed by the different frames, they discovered something that surprised them. The amygdala of these “rational” people were still active. In fact, their amygdalas tended to be just as excitable as the amygdalas of people who were susceptible to the framing effect. “We found that everyone showed emotional biases; no one was totally free of them,” says Benedetto de Martino, the neuroscientist who led the experiment. Even people who instantly realized that the two different descriptions were identical—they saw through the framing effect—still experienced a surge of negative emotion when they looked at the loss frame.
What, then, caused the stark differences in behavior? If everybody had an active amygdala, why were only some people swayed by the different descriptions? This is where the prefrontal cortex enters the picture. To the surprise of the scientists, it was the activity of the prefrontal cortex (not the amygdala) that best predicted the decisions of the experimental subjects. When there was more activity in the prefrontal cortex, people were better able to resist the framing effect. They could look past their irrational feelings and realize that both descriptions were equivalent. Instead of just trusting their amygdala, they did the arithmetic. The end result is that they made better gambling decisions. According to de Martino, “People who are more rational don’t perceive emotion less, they just regulate it better.”
How do we regulate our emotions? The answer is surprisingly simple: by thinking about them. The prefrontal cortex allows each of us to contemplate his or her own mind, a talent psychologists call metacognition. We know when we are angry; every emotional state comes with self-awareness attached, so that an individual can try to figure out why he’s feeling what he’s feeling. If the particular feeling makes no sense—if the amygdala is simply responding to a loss frame, for example—then it can be discounted. The prefrontal cortex can deliberately choose to ignore the emotional state.
This is one of Aristotle’s essential ideas. In The Nichomachean Ethics, his sprawling investigation into the “virtuous character,” Aristotle concluded that the key to cultivating virtue was learning how to manage one’s passions. Unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle realized that rationality wasn’t always in conflict with emotion. He thought Plato’s binary psychology was an oversimplification. Instead, Aristotle argued that one of the critical functions of the rational soul was to make sure that emotions were intelligently applied to the real world. “Anyone can become angry—that is easy,” Aristotle wrote. “But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy.” That requires some thought.
One way to understand how this Aristotelian idea actually plays out in the brain is by examining the inner workings of a television focus group. Practically every show on television is tested on audiences before it hits the airwaves. When this testing process is done properly, it demonstrates a fascinating interplay between reason and emotion, instinct and analysis. In other words, the whole enterprise mimics what’s constantly happening inside the human mind.
The process goes something like this: People representing a demographic cross section of America are ushered into a specially equipped room that looks like a tiny movie theater, complete with comfy seats and cup holders. (Most television focus groups take place in Orlando and Las Vegas, since those cities are full of people who have arrived from all across the country.) Each participant is given a feedback dial, a device that’s about the size of a remote control and has a single red dial, a few white buttons, and a small LED light. Feedback dials were first used in the late 1930s, when Frank Stanton, the head of audience research at CBS Radio, teamed up with Paul Lazarsfield, the eminent sociologist, to develop the “program analyzer.” The CBS method was later refined by the U.S. military during World War II as it tested its war propaganda on the public.
The modern feedback dial is designed to be as straightforward as possible so that a person can operate it without taking his or her eyes off the screen. The numbers on the dial increase in a more positive direction, like a volume knob; higher numbers signal a more positive response to the television show. The participants are told to rotate their dials whenever their feelings change. This gives a second-by-second look at the visceral reactions of the audience, which are translated into a jagged line graph.
Although every television network depends on focus groups for feedback—even cable channels like HBO and CNN do extensive audience research—the process has very real limits. The failures of focus groups are part of industry lore: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Hill Street Blues, and Seinfeld are all famous examples of shows that tested terribly and yet went on to commercial success. (Seinfeld tested so badly, it was introduced as a midseason replacement.) As Brian Graden, president of programming at MTV Networks, says, “Quantitative data [of the sort produced by feedback dials] is useless in itself. You’ve got to ask the data the right questions.”
The problem with the focus group is that it’s a crude instrument. People can express their feelings with dials, but they can’t explain their feelings. The impulsive emotions recorded on the dials are just that: impulsive emotions. They are suffused with all the usual flaws of the emotional brain. Did the focus-group audience not like Seinfeld because they didn’t like the main characters? Or did they dislike the show because it was a new kind of television comedy, a sitcom about nothing in particular? (The Seinfeld pilot begins with a long discussion about the importance of buttons.) After all, one of the cardinal rules of focus groups is that people tend to prefer the familiar. The new shows that test the best often closely resemble shows that are already popular. For example, after the NBC sitcom Friends became a huge commercial hit, other networks rushed to imitate its formula. There were suddenly numerous comedy pilots about pretty twentysomethings living together in the city. “Most of these shows tested really well,” one television executive told me. “The shows weren’t very good, but they reminded the audience of Friends, which was a show they actually liked.” Not one of the knockoffs was renewed for a second season.
The job of a television executive is to sort through these emotional mistakes so he or she isn’t misled by the audience’s first impressions. Sometimes people like shows that actually stink and reject shows that they grow to enjoy. In such situations, executives must know how to discount the responses of focus groups. They need to interpret the quantitative data, not just obey it. This is where the second-by-second responses of feedback dials are especially useful, since they allow executives to see what exactly people are responding to. A high score in minute twelve might mean that the audience really liked a particular plot twist, or it might mean that they liked looking at the blonde in her underwear. (A conclusive answer can be gotten by comparing the ratings of men versus women.) One cable channel recently tested a reality-television pilot that scored well overall but showed sharp declines in audience opinion at various points throughout the show. At first, the executives couldn’t figure out what the audience didn’t like. Eventually, however, they realized that the audience was reacting to the host; whenever she talked to the contestants, people turned down their dials. Although the focus-group audience said they like the host and rated her highly when she talked to the camera, they didn’t like watching her with other people. (The host was replaced.) And then there’s the “flat line”: when a focus-group audience is especially absorbed in the show—for example, during a climatic scene—they often forget to turn their dials. The resulting data can make it appear that the show has hit a rough spot, since many of the dials are stuck in a low position, but the reality is precisely the opposite. If the executives don’t realize that the focus-group participants were simply too involved in the program to pay attention to their dials, they might end up altering the best part of the show.
The point is that the emotional data requires careful analysis. Audience research is a blunt tool, a summary of first impressions, but it can be sharpened. By examining the feelings registered on the dial, a trained observer can figure out which feelings should be trusted and which should be ignored.
This is just what the prefrontal cortex does when faced with a decision. If the emotional brain is the audience, constantly sending out visceral signals about its likes and dislikes, then the prefrontal cortex is the smart executive, patiently monitoring emotional reactions and deciding which to take seriously. It is the only brain area able to realize that the initial dislike of Seinfeld was a reaction to it originality, not to its inherent funniness. The rational brain can’t silence emotions, but it can help figure out which ones should be followed.
In the early 1970’s, Walter Mischel invited four-year-olds to his Stanford psychology laboratory. The first question he asked each child was an easy one: did he like to eat marshmallows? The answer, not surprisingly, was always yes. Then Mischel made the child an offer. He could eat one marshmallow right away or, if the child was willing to wait for a few minutes while Mischel ran an errand, he could eat two marshmallows when the experimenter returned. Practically every child decided to wait. They all wanted more sweets.
Mischel then left the room but told the child that if he rang a bell, Mischel would come back and the child could eat the marshmallow. However, this meant that he’d be forfeiting the chance to get the second marshmallow.
Most of the four-year-olds couldn’t resist the sugary temptation for more than a few minutes. Several kids covered their eyes with their hands so that they couldn’t see the marshmallow. One child started kicking the desk. Another one started pulling on his hair. While a few of the four-year-olds were able to wait for up to fifteen minutes, many lasted less than one minute. Others just ate the marshmallow as soon as Mischel left the room, not even bothering to ring the bell.
The marshmallow was a test of self-control. The emotional brain is always tempted by rewarding stimuli, such as a lump of sugar. However, if the child wanted to achieve the goal—getting a second marshmallow—then he needed to temporarily ignore his feelings, delay gratification for a few more minutes. What Mischel discovered was that even at the age of four, some kids were much better at managing their emotions than others.
Fast-forward to 1985. The four-year-olds were now high school seniors. Mischel sent out a follow-up survey to their parents. He asked the parents about a wide variety of character traits, from the ability of their child to deal with frustrating events to whether or not the child was a conscientious student. Mischel also asked for SAT scores and high school transcripts. He used this data to construct an elaborate personality profile for each of the kids.