Questioning your beliefs is one of the most powerful ways to grow as a person.
It builds mental flexibility, strengthens your critical thinking, and helps you understand the differences between what you think the world should be like and what it’s actually like.
“But why should I put myself through this, Andra?
There’s already too much conflict in the world I need to deal with right now!”
My answer is this: working with your own thoughts and feelings and understanding how they draw from and plug into the bigger context we’re part of helps you become more resilient. Being able to differentiate between what you can control and what you can’t, makes you calmer. Realizing the influence of your cultural baggage helps you offload some of (self-applied) pressure.
This episode with an international keynote speaker and bestselling author Tim Ash is the perfect opportunity to experiment with all of these things and more.
Spend less than an hour with me and Tim and you might just see the madness around you with a clearer perspective, making better decisions as a result.
About Tim Ash:
Who else could have started this episode with a memorable laugh other than Tim Ash?
From the very first moments, his energy and his great sense of humor overflow into any listener’s life. As we go through the many nuances of personality-building, Tim takes us on a short journey to explore the diversity of ideas and mentalities that coexist all over the globe.
Thanks to his expertise in consumer and user psychology, he speaks effortlessly about the impact of our emotions, brain cells, and gut feeling. These are truly some of the most influential factors in our decision-making process. Looking at how they work together, Tim touches on the importance of being a good member of your “tribe”, how our culture spreads, and why external perceptions can be substantially different than ours.
By diving deep into evolutionary psychology and harnessing his keen sense of observation, Tim Ash built a remarkable career as a digital marketer and as an accomplished author. That’s why he’s a sought-after international keynote speaker and has been a guest at over 200 events across four continents, including massive stages with over 12,000 attendees.
His books and body of work also draw from the 19 years he spent as the co-founder and CEO of SiteTuners – a strategic digital optimization agency. For almost two decades, he developed deep expertise in user-centered design, persuasion, understanding consumer behavior, neuromarketing, and landing page testing. He applied all of that while working with companies like Google, Expedia, American Express, Canon, Symantec, Intuit, Humana, Siemens, and Cisco.
What I really appreciate about Tim is his dedication to sharing all his knowledge and putting it to work – constantly. He published over 100 articles about digital growth, he did the Landing Page Optimization Podcast with over 130 episodes, and he’s also a certified Tai Chi instructor, a poet, painter, and an avid photographer.
During our conversation, I could see all of his diverse experiences converging and surfacing valuable life lessons we can all use to elevate our decisions and way of life.
Tim Ash is a great voice that you need to hear to build more positivity and momentum towards all the good things you want to develop in your life. Start by hitting the play button:
Listen to this episode to learn:
- What your gut feeling really is (from someone with a strong understanding of neuroscience) and how it guides us in making the right choices
- Plenty of reasons why a good night’s rest makes you more efficient and active during the day
- The importance of including gratitude in your evening routine for much better sleep and a healthier mind.
- Two essential factors that influence your decisions and help you live your life more fully
- How empathy makes you a wiser decision-maker (and generally a better person)
- How having a more conservative or more progressive personality influences your life and the choices that shape it.
A few ideas that stuck with me:
- From an anthropological perspective, our personality is influenced by all of the interactions we have within the groups to which we belong.
- Any big decision we make is based on our deep and impactful emotional involvement (no matter how much we try to be entirely rational – which is impossible).
- Two people can look at the same thing and see a completely different thing which influences their choices.
- Our nation and culture have a strong impact on our choices and perspective of life. Understanding another mentality can broaden our mental and emotional range, giving us new perspectives that make us savvier decision-makers.
- In times of uncertainty, people rely on their cultural background as a manifestation of their built-in survival instinct.
- The last hour before sleep affects our rest time more than any other event during the day.
Connect with Tim Ash:
Resources mentioned in the episode:
- Podcast: Landing Page Optimization Podcast
- Book: Unleash Your Primal Brain
- Book: Hooked by Nir Eyal
- Book: Indistractable by Nir Eyal
- Talk – Powerful Persuasion with Tim Ash and Andra Zaharia
Full episode transcript:
Andra Zaharia: Tim is an acknowledged authority on evolutionary psychology and digital marketing. His expertise and experience sit at the fascinating intersection between psychology, anthropology, communication, and all of the other disciplines that converge into this focal point. It’s actually what brought me into this field. Tim knows how to bring all this knowledge to life in an invigorating and clarifying way. That’s why he’s a sought-after international speaker and has been a guest at over 200 events across four continents, including massive stages with over 12,000 attendees. Tim’s also the best-selling author of Unleash Your Primal Brain, which we’re going to discuss in this episode, and also landing page optimization, which sold over 30,000 copies worldwide and got translated into six languages. Tim’s books and body of work also draw from the 19 years he spent as the co-founder and CEO of site tuners, the strategic digital optimization agency. For almost two decades, he had developed deep expertise in user-centered design, persuasion, understanding consumer behavior, neuromarketing, and landing page testing. He applied all of that while working with companies like Google Expedia, American Express, Symantec Zeeman’s, or Cisco. But what I really appreciate about Tim is his dedication to sharing all his knowledge and putting it to work constantly. He published over a hundred articles about digital growth. He did the landing page optimization podcast with over 130 episodes. And he’s also a certified Tai-Chi instructor, a poet, a painter, and an avid photographer. As you can imagine, I had a lot of questions for Tim and he generously shared his incredible wealth of knowledge and wisdom. I promise you’re in for a treat! Tim, welcome to the How do you know podcast. I’m incredibly excited and honored to have you here.
Tim Ash: Hi! It’s great to be with you again, Andra.
Andra Zaharia: Just to give you a quick background, we had a previous conversation a few weeks ago on how to web live where we talked about persuasion and a lot of things and I’ll make sure to link to that conversation in the show notes. Simply because I know that probably many of you, especially after going through what we’re about to talk about will want to dive deeper into some of those aspects. So, you know, there’s just so much of your work, Tim, that I’d like to explore, but today I’m going to try my best, to capture your best insights and some of your best experience around decision-making, which is one of the core topics in your latest book.
Tim Ash: Yes, it certainly is. Our decision-making is what helps us survive. So, you have to decide what to do every moment of your life to stay alive or, at least, our ancestors did.
Andra Zaharia: That is so, so true. There are so many layers to that, that you kind of peel away and reveal in your book. There’s such a rich and dense set of information there that’s super compelling, that’s very easy to read, that’s very easy to understand and connect with. And that’s what I found, you know, incredibly valuable about your work and about your book simply because I’ve previously read neuroscience books and kind of the stuff he kind of texts not everyone resonates with. And while I personally got super excited about them, the people around me didn’t seem to be that into it. But I know that, when I put your book into their hands, I know that their reaction is going to be completely different.
Tim Ash: Well, thank you for that. I’ve actually tried to have this fine balance. I’m not going to dumb anything down, but I’m not going to overwhelm people with scientific jargon. There are no footnotes or endnotes in the book. There’s a recommended reading list, but I designed it to be a straight-through read and to be accessible, but there’s no wasted stuff in there. It’s just packed with insights and no fluff. So it’s this combination of accessibility and depth, hopefully!
Andra Zaharia: Definitely! And I can definitely confirm that because I almost titled it, the entire book. Every bit of it is super quotable. And I know that it’s the kind of book that I definitely want to come back to because every time I go heavy on the, you know, markers, highlights, book notes and things like that, I know that I’m going to go back to those insights again and again. And I want it to start talking a bit on the more practical side about it and asking what do you think is the most surprising fact about decision-making that you mentioned in your book? There are so many of them for those who have never read about them, but what’s one that you’d particularly pick.
Tim Ash: Well, I think that specifically in the West and then in Europe and North America, there’s the culture is that of individuals. So, we have this cultural package that says, “I’m a self-made person and I’m important and learn everything and I make my own decisions and that sort of thing. And that’s total bullshit. We’re not self-made people. In fact, there’s a back door into our heads that’s coming from the surrounding environment, the culture, and the tribes, I guess, that we belong to. And they’re the ones that are telling us what our attitudes should be, how we make decisions, and how we even choose anything. And so the notion of a self-made person or a rugged individual is, I guess, completely misplaced. We’re the most highly cooperative creatures on the planet and we’re always being influenced by our context.
Andra Zaharia: That is fascinating and I bet that most people are going to have a raised eyebrow when they hear about this. And they’re going to say, because it contradicts what we’ve been taught about our lives. It goes against, you know, our ideas of self-development and self-improvement, not that those two are disconnected. It’s simply that it happens in a slightly, let’s say, different way than we actually think it happens.
Tim Ash: In a significantly different way.
I would say that again, the contrasting East versus West, we put individuals as the important agents, and in Eastern societies, you have kind of the community as the important unit and we’re parts of that community. So that’s actually much closer to the biological roots and how we operate.
Andra Zaharia: And that’s super interesting because if we look, you know, at the past months or the past year, if we look at the kind of choices that certain societies make for kind of their people and generally, the evolution of that society itself, there’s a clear difference into what is a prize or what is deemed as valuable and desirable and achievable versus in one context, versus in other. So, while in our individualistic society, you’d have people, you know, cultivating kind of… have a very strong sense of self cultivating the ego, maybe a bit too much sometimes. And then you’d have on the other side, a different kind of decision-making that involved thinking how our actions and there are consequences with cascade on everyone else. So why do you think… why is this split so evident, actually? What do you think? You know, it amounts to in our current context?
Tim: Well, I can speak certainly for the US and a whole lot of the world is watching with horror at how our society has unfolded the last few years. But at its core, is this no, again, false notion that. It’s about me. It’s about my rights. I, you know, I get to do what I want. It’s this basic wrong-headed notion of freedom without responsibility to those around me and that extends to a lot of things. But basically, it’s, again, where’s the center of gravity, is it in the larger society? And I owe something back to the people around me or is it just me? And the border is my physical body, my right to do whatever I want. And so that’s what’s causing a huge strain on most liberal democracies right now. Is this notion that the individual should be the standard. There’s no notion of the common good, I guess, is the best way to put it without a notion of the obligation of responsibility of the common good everything breaks down. So we’re in a way hasting our own demise by pushing this agenda of individualism. And I think it’s being amplified by Social Media, where we live in our own little echo chambers too. There is no more common ground.
Andra Zaharia: That is also true. And I think that you know, playing on your perspective, I think that there’s also an important aspect here, because if we don’t feel like we can rely on others or that we can ask for help or that we can, you know, design or create support systems or connect with our communities, we may think that we have to face alone all of the challenges that we have in life without having these resources to just lean on whenever we need to. So that’s a big loss in our lives. What is it kind of the biological truth behind all of this? Because you studied evolutionary psychology to such depth and extensiveness that you’ve managed to have this incredible broad view, both broad and deep into this topic. I’d love to know what biology actually tells us about this.
Tim Ash: Yeah, sure. From the evolutionary psychology viewpoint, we placed one big bet on essentially being really a good member of our tribe. So, you can think of human evolution as not the primacy of the individual, but we’re much more successful in our tribe, but beyond the mammalian idea of herds where somebody’s dominant or that sort of thing, we’re all about culture spread. And so, in order to spread culture, in order to be a loyal member of the tribe, you have to pass the information on without modifying it. So, if my tribe believes that the Earth is flat, okay, and you’re one of those pesky people that climb up on the mast of us, of a sailing ship and says: “No, look, out there on the horizon there’s this light curvature and the Earth is really round.” And I am not going to take what you say at face value. Well, you’re going to be ostracized for having a different idea because we want culture spread to be frictionless for you to basically mimic, copy and redistribute that information unchanged. And anybody that’s not willing to do that is not considered a team player. And we have this series of escalating consequences from gossiping around them to denying them economic and mating opportunities to actually excluding them from the tribe or even killing them in extreme circumstances. So, if you’re not a team player, other people around you will sanction you. It’s very hard to stand on your own. We’re not designed to stand on our own.
Andra Zaharia: That is also true. And I think that there’s so much, obviously… kind of every generation has said that their world is the most complex and most challenging but there’s an interplay of so many forces here and trying to cultivate kind of this feeling of connection to the community, while also kind of cultivating yourself, while maintaining diversity. So, we’re trying to achieve a bunch of things here. And I think that understanding all the things that you talk about in your book and understanding how all these things influence our choices and our behaviors is a key to kind of learning how to navigate all of that complexity and figuring out, you know, how we can make the best of what we have. So when it comes to decision-making, there’s this huge social element to it. There’s this huge component, even without us realizing it. And I wanted to touch a little bit on that because the things that you say around our automatic decision-making system are absolutely fascinating. And I think that there are way too few people that, you know, truly acknowledged them. So, tell me a bit about how our primal brain actually makes decisions.
Tim Ash: Well, we think our brain is only the part we can literally think about, it’s this weird self-referential thing. In other words, it’s the conscious part of the mind. It’s the part that has access to language and where we can reason and so on. And we think that that’s the important part. And there’s a long-standing bias in the West, going back to Socrates and people like that, where we say: “Hey, the objective part, the rational part is the important part. And we need to tame our animal nature and these wild beasts that are also still inside of us.” And so everything, the epitome of a rational person is one who is logical and detached and makes decisions, objectives. That’s really a false picture. It doesn’t exist, in fact, our emotions are an instantaneous response to what we should do in a particular situation. It’s what we learned from our life as being useful for survival. So here’s the thing. We literally can’t make a decision without our emotions. There’ve been people who have had various forms of brain damage and parts of their brains are disconnected. And anyway, the research is there. So, all the rational mind can do is provide you with options, but it’s only the subconscious and emotional mind that make decisions. And that’s based on aversions and affinities. Again, learned responses based on “does this help us survive?” So, if it’s negative, I want to go away from it. If it’s positive, I want to do more of it. But the strength of that emotion is what actually makes us take action. And without emotion, you can’t act.
Andra Zaharia: That is absolutely fascinating! And I think it is so important to everyone, literally, everyone, no matter their role or their job, it invites a level of self-awareness that I think is absolutely essential. You know, if one understands how to create a better path forward, where whether it’s in our job, whether it’s in our families or any kind of relationships that we may have in our lives, knowing that there are certain, let’s say constraints or limits to how much our logical mind, you know, has influence over our decisions, I think is extremely important because I think we’ll get better at, I guess, listening to our gut cause. Is our gut that set of emotions or does it have other layers to it?
Tim Ash: Yeah, well, there’s an embodied intelligence. Even, think about the brain as the part that makes the decisions is wrong. There’s this ongoing interplay between the brain and every other organ in the body. There’re nerves that touch the tip of your toes or in every joint in your body and so on. And there’s this chemical and electrical dialogue. Sometimes the organ signal that releases the chemicals, which then make it to the brain that changes the brain. So, it’s not just the one way you think like the brain is the puppet master that controls everything. There’s intelligence inside of your gut that we’re learning a lot right now. So that gut feeling, that intuition when we talk about is literally in your gut, there’s a cluster of nerve cells there. But also, the gut biome we’re finding is increasingly important. You may crave certain foods because you have a certain kind of bacteria inside of your stomach that really want that sugar. And that’s not optional. They’re saying “give me sugar, give me sugar, give me sugar” and your brain can override that. So, it’s a very complicated system and all of these needs of the body are trying to stay in a certain kind of balance I guess you could say.
Andra Zaharia: To me, I think that this information and all of the details and kind of the vividness that you talk about them with, I think they are so useful because not only did they teach us to identify some of our reactions and, you know, spot some of our choices when we’ve already made them or when we’re about to make them, hopefully, that cultivates this kind of greater sense of self, but not in the egg or statistical individualistic type of way that we talked about earlier, but simply more around finding our place in the world and figuring out why we do what we do.
Tim Ash: And I think an important part of that is actually forgiveness or letting yourself off the hook. It’s realizing that we’re going to do things that are kind of objectively if you will, again, counterproductive. And that’s okay because there are three and a half billion years of evolution to create every one of us. That’s how long life on Earth has existed from the earliest viruses. Obviously, some of which are with us still today to more intricate forms of life, but we picked up all of these survival level things and they’re useful to us. They’re useful to our ancestors, so you can’t deny them or just. Even our best intentions, like I’m going to make a new year’s resolution, that I’m going back to the gym and I’m going to work out every day. Well, by the end of January, gyms are empty again. We just can’t do those things through just force of will. There are a lot more powerful mechanisms operating in terms of our behavior.
Andra Zaharia: Again, excellent. Kind of excellent, you know, the way that you capture all of these things is not only powerful, but I feel it’s also immediately actionable. So, you know, when you talk about setting your expectations around what you can do and why you can realistically achieve and how far you can push your willpower and how far you can actually override all of these instincts that we have built-in, there are so, so many of them, because otherwise, we wouldn’t be leaving, breathing and walking around, how do you actually teach yourself or empower yourself or create a better context? So, you can increasingly make better choices, but without depleting yourself in the first mile and then, you know, running out of scene.
Tim Ash: It’s interesting. There’s so again, if we break the mind up, roughly speaking into the conscious and the subconscious parts, they’re very different. The subconscious has this massive amount of information impinging on all the time. Everything from the weight of your pressure on your butt’s sitting in that seat right now, while you’re doing this interview to the relationship of every one of our joints in space, which is why we typically don’t stick our forehead with a fork when we’re trying to eat food, because we understand where, you know, body parts are in relation to each other – breathing salinity levels, heartbeat. All of that’s been coming in and being processed by the body and the brain and all of it’s pretty much automatic. 99.9 & of it it’s not actionable. So, it’s good that it’s on autopilot and that autopilot never gets tired. You don’t have to think about keeping your heart beating at night. Most of us are not advanced Tibetan masters or something. Right. And so, the conscious brain is the opposite. It’s very energy-intensive. It quickly runs out of energy and if it gets tired, by the end of the day, they had this very famous study about judges in Israel that were considering parole violations. And whether to let people around that other violations, but whether to give people parole. And what they’ve found is that in the end of the afternoon, they’re much less likely to do it because they hadn’t had lunch in blood sugar. So, it’s better to get in front of an Israeli judge early in the day and they’re more likely to give you parole. And this is across all judges. It’s just based on time of day and your blood sugar, you know, so it, that conscious reserves, those run out very quickly and we’re much worse at regulating our emotions and decisions at the end of the day, when we’re tired.
Andra Zaharia: Hmm. So that’s why they say sleep on it. That’s not just a stereotype. It’s not just an idiom. It’s actually something that truly applies, hence its existence for such a long time.
Tim Ash: Well, it’s interesting that you bring up sleep because that’s a whole… that is absolutely critical. That’s life support for all life on Earth. Any complicated life that lives longer than a few days has some form of sleep. So it’s not optional. And for human beings, we got it down from about 10 to 15 hours a night down to about seven to nine. So, it’s much more concentrated because when we came out of the trees in Africa, it was a much more dangerous place to be on the Plains of the Savannah. So, our sleep is intense. It does much more complicated stuff. And specifically, REM sleep is tail weighted at the end of the night. So, if you’re robbing yourself for that final 90-minute sleep cycle, you’re really screwing yourself. You’re going to be more paranoid. You’re going to make worse decisions. You’ll be misreading people’s social reactions and a nuanced understanding of our social dynamics is at the core of our being and civilization. So, don’t Rob yourself. Get some sleep. Seven to nine hours a day, not optional.
Andra Zaharia: I can definitely attest that the lack of sleep will severely increase your anxiety. It will make you a lot more irritable and all of the things that you mentioned, because I remember having kind of prolonged periods where I it’s not that I wouldn’t sleep, but I would wake up like at 5:00 AM, couldn’t fall back asleep or just have like very fragmented, very poor-quality sleep and that’s reflected into everything. I was eating less healthily. You know, my body felt a lot more tired. My energy levels were low.
Tim Ash: Yeah. You can’t lose weight. If you’re getting a lack of sleep here, here’s a thought for you. There are no men major psychiatric condition that doesn’t involve a sleep disturbance. That’s how critical it is thinking about it that way. So, it’s not only diet and exercise, and then sleep is like the third thing. No, it’s sleep and everything else layers on top of that. So, to be super clear, including learning, including even physical. Yeah. learning. If you practice a skill like playing soccer or something and you don’t sleep on it, you don’t actually bank the advantage of the practice that you did. Creativity essentially sleep flushes through. The important stuff from the day and puts it into your long-term memories and creates room for new stuff to come in. So, if you didn’t sleep, staying up and cramming for a test like we did in University, dumbest thing you could ever do, it’s better to study less and sleep more. So at least you consolidate that knowledge.
Andra Zaharia: Probably important, especially right now when people are dealing with a lot of anxiety when people are having, let’s say more arguments at home and they’re more irritable towards their colleagues and they have less social interactions and kind of weaker social ties.I feel that this kind of reinforces everything that you just said around that we need to practice self-care in the sense of getting enough sleep and then using that energy and our calmness and kind of our self-regulation ability to actually boost our ability to work better and strengthen our relationships and work on difficult things. And to me, you know, it’s very interesting that you mentioned that when we get less sleep, we’re more irritable and we’re less likely to correctly read other people’s intentions.
Tim Ash: Yes. Even the micro-expressions on their face. We think they’re more aggressive and more negatively disposed to us. We literally don’t read emotions properly after a short sleep.
Andra Zaharia: And I imagine that it kind of happens the same when you read an email or a message on Slack or anything else because there’s so much communication going on right now which is deprived of context. So many people don’t want to turn on their videos for calls and things like that. So we already have like 90% of the context stripped away and our brain has to do extra work to figure out what people are trying to say, what their relationships are like, how they’re evolving, what’s going on behind the scenes. There are so, so many questions that people ask themselves right now. Consciously and unconsciously, what do you think they should do to kind of counteract this kind of gap that’s opened up and to figure out how to better communicate with the others so they can actually make better decisions?
Tim Ash: Yeah. I think that sleep is critical self-care of any sort. So whatever you’re doing, meditation in my case, it’s walking every day and getting exercise also in doing my Tai Chi by the ocean. I’m lucky enough to be able to do that in a beautiful spot. But whatever that is, is really important. The other thing that we can do to sort of compensating for that gets as much video as possible. If we’re having our mode interactions, it’s a personal pet peeve and a practical one. I get pissed off when people don’t turn on their video in a meeting, because as you rightly put it only about 7% of the content we communicate is due to the words we’re using. A third is the tone of voice, which you still pick up on a phone call, but two-thirds, or so is his body language. So, if you have the video on, I can see your micro-expressions, I can see your posture. I can see whether you’re frowning or smiling or nodding. And so that’s critical. So why would you deprive yourself of two thirds of the communication? Turn your video on, come on, people.
Andra Zaharia: I love that call to action. I’ve stepped fully stand behind it. I don’t believe in being, you know, perfectly prepared for everything or having the perfect background. We have technology that learns everything, you can be anywhere you want to, plus it’s so important to actually, you know, feel that connection and to know that there’s someone there that’s actually paying attention to you and that’s present in the moment, which we need a lot more of when it’s so easy to have your kind of your thoughts scattered all over the place.
Tim Ash: Yeah. And then one other recommendation I would make is to be very intentional when switching contexts. So, I’ve personally found, I worked of course, like most people these days from my home office, but I did that before the pandemic and just that walking down that flight of stairs from my office area and back into the main part of the house. I kind of do a very intentional mind shift because I’m switching gears. I don’t want to bring any baggage from my work setting into the rest of my life. So if it’s getting up from your living room table and walking into your bedroom to interact with your partner or something like that take a moment to reset very consciously unintentional.
Andra Zaharia: These are such important things and people may think that they’re very obvious and that they’re very simple, but they carry with them great power, especially when you do them constantly and kind of build them into that automatic system. They make a world of difference. And I wanted to ask around changing, let’s say changing our habits and changing our minds and giving ourselves the permission to change these things and experiment with them. Why do people have such a difficult time letting go of their beliefs? It feels, you know, over the past years, we’ve all noticed that people have gotten even more kind of solidified into their way of thinking. And it’s more difficult to get through to them.
Tim Ash: Yes, that’s a great point. So, as I mentioned earlier, our big evolutionary bet was on spreading culture. And what that means in practical terms is that we will often substitute learn culture and behaviors and norms substitute them for our own direct knowledge and direct experience will override what our eyes are telling us and what our brain is telling us, because the wisdom of the tribe has been a huge evolutionary advantage. And this is especially true in times of uncertainty. So, think about the world we live in right now, we’re in the midst of a global plague, you know, like the 1918 pandemic or the black death. I mean, hopefully not as bad because we have better technology to deal with it but when people are uncertain, they especially fall back on their learned cultural knowledge. And whatever it is that they internalized earlier, instead of thinking for themselves, it’s safer for us, it has a survival advantage. So, this can be unintentional in case of, you know, fear due to a pandemic, or it can be quite intentional. There are a lot of dividers and populists in the political realm right now that are intentionally activating these fears in order to get a predictable response, knowing what your tribal values are. And so, they’re activating fear and uncertainty for their personal gain, if you will, which is a very dangerous thing to do.
Andra Zaharia: Absolutely. And it is also something that I feel is kind of our responsibility to actually just understand and acknowledge and then do what. Whatever we choose to do with this information, but having it and knowing that this is happening, I feel like it should just raise our awareness a little bit, make us pay more attention to it. And it still fascinates me. You know what you said earlier that two people can be looking at the same thing and see a completely different reality. To me, that’s always been kind of a showstopper and I guess I’ve always kind of tried to understand, you know, why this happens and how you can get people to communicate with each other in a way that they speak to each other and not just speak their minds, so they can actually make a point and just walk away from that conversation. And I feel like everything that you’re telling us right now is part of that, to visit an important part of our self-education if you will.
Tim Ash: Yeah. Well, and again, I think the thing to understand is that we’re very tribal creatures and we’ll form into tribes over. What are the most trivial things? A story I like to tell is I was in Australia once and I went to an Aussie rules football game in Brisbane, and the local team is the Brisbane lions I believe, and the away team was Carlton. And so, the person that came with was a Carlton fan for several generations. And I bought a little Carlton scarf and all of a sudden, I’m a Carlton fan. I know nothing about either of these teams, you know, but I’m rooting for one side already. And the more visible those demonstrations are, the more waving flags and colors and things like that, the more we get behind them, the more solidly we’re part of that tribe. And that gives us tribal cohesion than an advantage against other tribes. So, that kind of inner group rivalry is massively important to our psychology. We want to be a really good team player within our tribe, but we’re fighting against every other tribe. So, depending on which tribe we attached to, that’s where the danger lies.
Andra Zaharia: So questioning, let’s say, questioning our kind of solidified ways of thinking, which gets extremely solidified after 35 years, once you kind of surpass 30 or 35 it gets a lot more difficult to change your mind, literally, both physically and through our brain plasticity and then just, you know, to actually cascade that down to you, your habits. I’m curious, you know, while you studied all of these things and you’ve read probably almost everything that there was to read on the topic and you’ve worked with consumer psychology and user psychology for so many years, how did you feel that your own decision-making processes change? What kind of advantage did it give you to understand all of these things to such depth and with such clarity?
Tim Ash: Well, there are two things that I can say about that. I have a couple of short prescriptive chapters at the end of the book about how to live a better life and make the world a better place, I guess you could say. And one of them was that really put yourself in uncomfortable situations. And what I mean by that is if you’re comfortable and you have your own tribe, your own belief systems, and you’re safe and secure, you’re going to get what’s behavioral economists called confirmation bias. Like all the feedback you have coming back just reinforces the views you already have. Right. So it’s really good to consciously stretch and put yourself in uncomfortable situations that Tim Ferriss in his book, the four-hour workweek has this great little warmup exercise. He says: Okay, you’re walking down the street (pre-pandemic), what if you just laid down on the sidewalk for a few seconds, just laid there on your back flat, and then got up and just kept walking. Now no one’s being hurt by that. Some people might be concerned, see if you’re physically okay but they would feel really uncomfortable. And that’s the point. Is just like other muscles you exercise for physical benefit. You have to stretch your brain and say: Hey, instead of being locked into this tribe or a cultural belief I have, what if I stretched? What if I went a little further? What if I put myself in the uncomfortable situation of being around people that behave and think differently than I do? So I think the biggest antidote to this tribalism is travel. Exposure to other people that you find like the most parochial local concerns is from people in small towns and people that never travel for economic reasons or cultural reasons. So they’re reinforcing a very local form of tribalism. And if you’re lucky enough like me to have been traveling all over the world, you see that there’s a lot of different perspectives and it makes you a lot more accepting of others.
Andra Zaharia: I believe it definitely does. And I feel like, you know, traveling is one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves. While we may be limited right now to traveling locally more or, or doing that, there are so many things that you can do can like go outside of your city or where, if we didn’t live like an hour away and still discover a ton of things that you probably never saw through tourist eyes or, you know, someone who’s just discovering something new. I highly encourage that, I’ve been trying to do kind of this exercise with my partner and it’s just made us realize that one hour away from the city there are so many places that we’ve never explored and so many kinds of interesting architectural styles and all of that. And we’re not kind of the people to just stick to the city, but still, again, there’s a richness and diversity everywhere you go, and understanding and having contact with this diversity and what these uncomfortable situations cultivate. On a level of empathy that we could never do just by trying really hard on our own or reading all the books on the topic.
Tim Ash: Yeah and I saw some interesting research that basically said the difference between what you’d call conservative and progressive people is where they attach the tribes. So, if you look at this as a concentric series of circles, there’s me, there’s my immediate family, there’s my temple or church, there’s my town, my state, my country, and then beyond that as the world of all people, and then beyond that to the world of all animals, and then there’s the universe, right? So, there are these concentric circles. And what they found is that conservative people have a very local sphere of concern. They’re more community-based whereas progressive people are more universal. So in the US for example, we have an animal in the white house judgment call on my part. That’s putting separating asylum seekers at the border and tearing, children apart from families. But you look at this through my point of view, as a progressive, I go, that’s a basic human value. You can’t treat human beings that way, okay, so that’s just morally wrong. Whereas somebody that’s more conservative would say, well, they don’t look like me, they don’t talk like me, they don’t pray like me, they don’t live in my town or go to my church. Therefore, it’s very easy to marginalize people if they’re not in your tribe and demonize them. So, they’re those immigrant people coming to steal our jobs and you know, that sort of talk and you see that in Europe, of course as well. But we have our own special flavor of it in the US. So, the bottom line is that conservative people attached to smaller tribes and then anything outside of that tribe is seen as foreign or alien and something to be feared. And that’s where all the feeder fear activation happens.
Andra Zaharia: It’s so done, and it skews our sense of fairness because you reminded me while you were mentioning this and these kinds of problems are very obvious in Europe as well, all over the place, each with their cultural background and what they did, or their kind of motivations that let’s say, sourced and to me, you know. It’s just like we were mentioning earlier.It kind of stops my brain to think that our sense of fairness can be applied with the same ferocity, with the same intensity, but in ways that are completely opposite. And something that you mentioned in the book is that, you know, as humans we’d rather get nothing than be kind of be the subjects of an unfair result. What is it in our biology that triggers such a visceral response to unfairness? However, we may perceive it.
Tim Ash: Oh, well, that’s interesting. Well, that is mammalian, certainly and at a primate level. So, our monkey and apes selves there, if monkeys are shown like Okay, I can get grapes, I can get two grapes and the other monkeys: I’m getting four grapes, that’s not fair, so, I’ll reject the two grapes. You see this kind of behavior even in our close cousins, evolutionarily speaking. But for people in particular, yeah, there is this notion that we have a part of our brain that sensitized to the overall rewards to the group. This is really important, not to our own individual rewards, but whether the group is getting value out of it. And if that often overrides our need to get our personal rewards because we were better off as a group and again, we’re very, very social and concerned with the group dynamics. So, we would rather have fairness as a result, even if we’re personally worse off, but if that gets to be extreme and it’s really, really unfair, we’d rather say, screw you and actually take negative consequences. And that’s when you see people rising up because the circumstances are just intolerable and they would rather fight and have conflict. Then, you know, in theory, from an economic standpoint, I say, oh, I have this bread, let’s divide up the loaf. You get 50%. I get 50%. That seems fair. Right? By that thinking, if you got 99% and I got 1%, I’m still better off economically than I was without that 1% of the bread. But in reality, people say, no, that’s completely unfair. Screw you, I want nothing and I’ll fight you instead.
Andra Zaharia: These are such, you know, the implications of your observations run very deep and they touch on kind of very sensitive and very important topics that we’re all involved in. No matter where we are or what our social or financial standing is, we’re all in this together. And to me, you know, everything that’s happened over the past year. It has not only emphasized the importance of figuring out how to make better choices or how to design a context that will help us make better choices, but also kind of our heightened sense that we depend on each other. There are so many people who are just now realizing that the world is so connected, that something that happened in China a few months before, ended up affecting the world in a matter of months, in a way that no living human on the planet has ever experienced. And they realized that production chains and delivery change and the distribution systems are all affected and they act like Dominos basically. We’re all pieces of the same puzzle and people felt, I feel that people still kind of negate that reality. They think that by closing off borders or setting up walls, stayed more protected but that’s…
Tim Ash: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, I would say that a couple of observations on that, I mean, one is from a risk management standpoint, you do need to have some firewalls or places where you can close things off or less than dependencies. So I think, you know, Germany, for example, is very smart. They’ve always had a policy of “we have to be able to grow our own food. We can import specialty items, but we can feed our country based on the food we produce inside of our country.” That sense of local autonomy is very appropriate I believe and not to depend on just making enough food to feed your people on other countries and trade wars and whatever else, right? So, there’s some decoupling that’s necessary and appropriate and as a risk mitigation strategy for complicated societies. That’s fine, but you’re absolutely right. I think one of the very naive, politically naive things that the American Republican Party has, for example, is this notion of limited government. So you’re talking about the most complicated civilization ever on the planet, and we think we can have this rugged individualism and we don’t need government for Andover, anything. So, let’s dismantle environmental controls, diplomatic stuff, all of these other things, and you’re absolutely right. The reality is we’re highly interdependent and we see that, in stark relief, we see the social safety nets failing and the cruelty of our societies in many cases and things like that. So, again, the notion of rugged individualism I think is one of those memes that’s really causing a lot of damage in Western democracies.
Andra Zaharia: So, how do we cultivate a balanced approach? How do we balance social influence, which the part of it that we can see to the tip of the iceberg, that we can actually see and acknowledge and realize while everything else beyond the surface worse, kind of with our basically automated system like we talked about?
Tim Ash: Well, I’d say that the first thing that we should think about is cultivating empathy. And what I mean by that is literally imagining yourself in that situation. When do you see another person walking down the street and saying, “I’m a man and a middle-age”, but if I see an old woman, what if I said I am that old woman? What’s it like to be in her shoes, walking with that cane, with those big glasses on? So, you can barely see with those weak muscles the whole life she’s lived. What if I were to take that on and try it on myself? Then I’d have more compassion. So, I think empathy allows us to extend without even interacting directly with people. Like we were just talking about, you know, travel and things like that. That would definitely expand your mind and your heart. But if you just see that on the news, it’s not some dark skin person after a flood in Bangladesh, that’s my child, how would you act then? And so, I think that the practice of empathy is a very, very important thing here. Instead of seeing this as disembodied or depersonalized, all these things are happening. If you say, what if that was directly impacting me or my loved ones, and then you get a… you come away with a much larger sphere of a concern than your strictly local stuff.
Andra Zaharia: You absolutely do. And I think this theme of empathy, which is something that is so incredibly necessary, I feel like it’s a lifeline. I think it can also help us slow our down a little bit decision-making process because what you mentioned in the book is that basically what are primal brain does is try to speed through all this information, to filter out anything that’s irrelevant and anything that doesn’t capture our strong emotions. And it doesn’t kind of trigger them and just go straight to the point and it does. And it keeps us moving and going and doing things. What else can help us slow down when we need to make maybe important decisions, but also small ones? Because to me, I feel like any decision could be important, could be potentially instrumental for our lives if we just pay enough attention and just focus on one thing at a time and not try to do everything at once.
Tim Ash: Well, slowing down and intentionality is the key. So, I have my friend, Nir Eyal, who wrote a couple of great books. One of them is called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”. And then, he wrote kind of the antidote to that, called “Indestructible”, which is also a great book. But you know, one of the things that… if we’ve always had the fire hose aimed at us, then an order getting overwhelmed with stimuli and information and we never stop and we’re always trying to growth hack and pivot our way to the next unicorn and all this other bullshit that we do in the marketing world, for example, then there’s no deep thinking. There’s no connection to our feelings. I did this training as personal development training and they had us run in place for a minute and then try to access our emotions. You can’t because of the activity is overriding your nervous system. Then, they had his lie down on our backs and deep breath for a minute and then access our emotions. And in the middle of that stillness, all of the emotions come up and you can send some much better. So, the direction is clear: it’s towards sleep, it’s towards intentional activities like Tai Chi or yoga or a prayer or anything that puts you at a different level of consciousness. And I’m only in operate more from there. Don’t be so busy. Turn off your freaking phone. Don’t binge-watch another episode of that show on Netflix and get some sleep, have morning rituals. Like one of the things I stopped doing is I don’t bring my phone into my bedroom anymore. There’s no reason for it to be in my bedroom at night and I have a different wake-up routine. I now get up, I take one of the self-help books on my nightstand and I’m reading that and underlining it. And I’m not seeing, you know, what are my friends are doing on Facebook. That can happen a half-hour later or an hour later. But it’s finding, it’s making space for and that’s what deepens things, not being barraged by information or stimuli.
Andra Zaharia: And it’s kind of up to us to do all these things. It’s up to us to kind of clear the path for that clearer thinking and better decision-making and more anchoring into our reality, in the reality of our partners, instead of just being old crooked neck and just looking over our phones constantly and to have, instead of like turning everything off and having like a 15-minute conversation when we’re actually there and not on Instagram and it’s someone else’s life that we’re comparing ourselves to for no reason and in a very unhealthy way. I feel there’s so much potential. I love technology for one. I love its positive potential as broad, as much farther than we can imagine. It’s brought us here, today, together, you know, having this conversation and being able to discuss all of these things, but it’s up to us to kind of work against our automatic system, not against it, but with it to actually clear that path for ourselves and just wrap up. There are so, so many other things I’d love to ask you about, but I think that I would, you know, urge people to read your book, to get the entire context, to understand and to kind of deepen their understanding of these things and try to observe them in their lives. Then, try to work with them and understand them and do all these things for themselves. So I wanted to ask kind of as a wrap-up, you know, if people were to leave with a question that might ask themselves so they can trigger kind of that self-awareness that reflection, what question do you think they should sit down and write the answer to, and then try to kind of figure their ways, their way around.
Tim Ash: Hmm. Well, you know, one of the things I talk about and you’re right, there’s so many things. I mean, neurochemistry, sleep, learning, culture, language, it’s all in there. And I wish I could share so much more, but one of the chapters I have is on neurochemistry and addiction. So, the positive chemicals and how they can chase positive neurochemicals can actually lead to unhappiness. The one prescriptive thing that I would say is that there’s one source of non-addictive happiness and that’s recapitulating gratitude and saying: What am I grateful for? Like religious people, they’ll say their prayers at night and they’re basically like remembering the good things that happened that day and putting other people into their sphere of concern and including them. And then, that actually changes how you sleep and what you remember, because the things you process in the hour before sleep are weighted five or six times more than the rest of the day’s events combined. So, I would say have a very intentional going to bed process and it should involve gratitude. What I personally do is keeping a gratitude journal and I’m not writing a book or something. I just have bullet points. I don’t even go back and look at it. Here’s that, that was a good thing, I saw a cat on my walk today and he came up and he let me pet him, the sun was shining, you know, my daughter said “I love you” back to me when I said “I love her”, very rare occurrence, but it happens, you know? So recapitulating all this gratefulness that you have, it’s a renewable resource. It doesn’t cost you anything. There’s no way to get badly addicted to it or trigger negative stuff. So, have a going to bed routine. Because you’re going to get your proper sleep seven to nine hours and as part of that include gratitude.
Andra Zaharia: What a perfect ending to an incredible conversation, too. You know, your generous sharing of everything that you’ve learned and that your generous posture of getting people to question what they’re doing in a good way, so they can, you know, carve out a bit of a better path because these incremental improvements can lead to such a change in the long-term, a much bigger change than we realize or suspect. So, thank you so much, Tim! Thank you for all of this!
Tim Ash: It’s my pleasure! This book was really kind of my gift to the world. I applied things to marketing. My agency created a 1.2 billion in value for our clients by applying this kind of stuff to marketing but I want this to be something that people truly benefit from. This is kind of like how your brain works well. We all share as a billion humans on the planet, and so, yeah, my intention is to have created more self-knowledge and awareness. All the information by the way, is that primalbrain.com, sort of e-Books, the audiobook which I narrated, and pre-release autograph paperbacks.
Andra Zaharia: And I’ll certainly include links to all of these. And I highly recommend, again, your book and all the insights and your work. Generally, you’re sharing so many perspectives that all kind of feed from this body of work, from what is basically your legacy. So, thank you again, Tim. It was an absolute honor to have you on the podcast!
Tim Ash: Andra, was my pleasure!