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Think Like a Scientist: 4 Steps to Save Time, Money and Energy

When you think of a scientist, you may think of a white coat, laboratory, or even an old school beaker. Maybe some Albert Einstein hair, for effect. This individual is supremely intelligent, working with care as they tinker away at their latest invention, cure or answer to life’s greatest mysteries.

However, being a scientist has much less to do with what one does than how one thinks.

Why is science so great? Why do we put so much weight on the results that scientific endeavors produce?

Science is not an elusive, ephemeral, overly sophisticated witchcraft by which we arrive at results and information. Instead, it is a way of thinking, involving the ability to ask the right questions, then create and test an idea in order to gain the most accurate information possible.

This way of thinking can be applied to a variety of questions, topics and events. Science is the slow and steady route to the truth. It saves us from guessing why we do what we do, how to cure a disease, how to help support children with disabilities, or how to create a wellbeing-centric company. Science is a technology system that shows us the current reality, even when we don’t like what we see. Throughout my career, I’ve used science to help companies understand where stress-inducing, performance-blocking, happiness-crushing variables exist, to support individual clients in creating their own value based at-home wellbeing programs, and to aid in the decision-making process of what a next business venture might be, to name a few.

The truth has always comforted me, even when it wasn’t the information or result I wanted. As a kid, knowing the truth gave me a feeling of stability. If I had a steady ground upon which to stand, I had a steady ground from which to most effectively problem solve. I didn’t feel like I was coming from behind, riddled with biases, guesswork and bad data.

As a lover of efficiency, I found that the truth saved me time. As a natural problem solver, I was ignited by the process by which a scientist creates, and then tests, an idea. As an adult, I became grateful for the opportunity to become a scientist myself and, eventually, for the opportunity to stand in front of hundreds of people and teach them how to think like one.

I naturally hated the phrases “this might work” or “why don’t we try this”. The shoot-aim-ready approach of business, government and just about everything else in the world of work propelled my stress to high levels. It gave me anxiety to think that we might be throwing spaghetti over the wall and wasting time and energy when there seemed to a be clearer, more systematic way.

You don’t need a fancy degree to begin to think like a scientist. Here’s how you can start:

Detach (as much as possible) from desired results.

We all have desires, hopes and biases, it’s human. We all, at some point, wish for something to be true, especially during hefty decisions (i.e., deciding whether to marry our partner, take the snazzy new job, or trust a co-worker). However, if you are sincerely searching for the truth, it’s beneficial to acknowledge any biases or hope for a certain outcome, then let it go. Thinking like a scientist doesn’t mean you don’t care about the results, it simply means that you understand your feelings and hope can skew results.

Ask the right (tough) questions

It’s important that we first understand our hopes and biases, because sometimes the questions we have to ask to reach the truth are hard ones. For example, even the thought of asking ourselves “What am I getting from remaining in this relationship?” or “How likely is it that my boss will suddenly change their ways?” can produce anxiety in itself. This creates an aversive state, which makes it likely that we will avoid the questions altogether. We replace the scary questions with easier ones, like “What do I like about my partner?” and “Is my boss REALLY that bad?”. This constructs a reality that feels better and keeps us comfortable, but may just be temporary smoke and mirrors. Eventually, you may find the scary questions coming back to tug at your sleeve.

Mind the variables

Confounding variables are events, people or things that you didn’t account for. They can color a situation and influence it in one way or another. The reason much of the good science occurs in labs is because scientists can control the environment as much as possible. Our brains very much enjoy jumping to conclusions (Systems 1 Thinking, for you Daniel Kahneman fans), and if it produces comfort or happiness, all the better. For example, we can ask “Is free lunch and yoga improving wellbeing in our company?” by looking at employee satisfaction scores. If scores happen to go up at the outset of free lunch and yoga, we pat ourselves on the back and cheers to success. However, there is much more going on in any given environment. Things like time of year, workload and even the weather could be the reason for the improved scores. Missing this could cost the company money if this is not the addition that improved wellbeing (and often, it can be what you subtract that gets results). Employees are much more likely to stay at a job if they find meaning and purpose, if they feel valued by their team and leaders, if they are paid their worth, if they have predictable performance expectations and are well resourced and trained. But yoga and lunch is sexy and easy to add, so we can tend to tell ourselves that this is what improved satisfaction scores. This is the reason that systematic changes and measurements by, in this case, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, typically end up saving time and getting to the truth of what leads to the greatest impact.

Note: We don’t typically think of meaning, fair pay and clear performance expectations as wellbeing factors, but according to Jeffrey Pfeffer, author fo Dying for a Paycheck, they heavily influence mental and physical health. In addition to these variables are things like autonomy and equal treatment of employees.

Do it again. And again.

One informal survey — or even a well done rigorous study — with a few homogenous people, at one point in time, under a few conditions (experimental and control groups, if you don’t have those, it’s not science!) means nothing, but it might be a start. When we can replicate a study over and over again and get the same results, we get closer and closer to saying “we trust this, this vaccine/methodology/answer will work”. Why is this important? Again, taking one survey or study and extrapolating the results as if they are fact makes assumptions that the same results would occur for you, your family, your community or your company. As mentioned above, there are dozens of variables that may account for the results in that one study or survey, but that doesn’t mean it works everywhere. In fact, it’s common practice in science to take a groundbreaking study and replicate it under the exact same conditions. It’s also common that we fail to get the same results as the original study. This is a critical piece of science. We can then ask, “Why are the results different this time? What could have accounted for that? What did we find instead? What were the differences in the participant groups or environment?”. Scientists do not see this situation as a failure, warranting a return to the drawing board. Most scientists I know find this fascinating. They run back to their offices to evaluate what they did, create a new study and then keenly and excitedly observe and measure what happens next time.

Thinking like a scientist provides a clear, systematic way of thinking that can lead to exponentially more truthful results than the costly, cloudy “shoot-aim-ready” practices in many businesses and in almost every aspect of our lives. If you find yourself feeling confused or unclear on how to work though a work or life challenge, consider experimenting by changing your way of thinking.

After all :

“Nothing changes if nothing changes.”

- Earnie Larson