Your brain is a prediction-making machine — which is why it isn't wired to deal with a pandemic. Here's what to do about it.

Your brain is a prediction-making machine — which is why it isn't wired to deal with a pandemic. Here's what to do about it.
Our brains are desperately trying to predict what comes next.Solarseven/Shutterstock
  • Rasmus Hougaard is founder and managing director of Potential Project, a global leadership and organizational development firm serving many Fortune 100 companies and hundreds of others.
  • Nick Hobson is director of Behavioral and Data Sciences of Potential Project and chief behavioral scientist at The Behaviorist, a behavioral change consultancy.
  • Right now, our brains are trying to predict what comes next by relying on default biases — but in our current moment, those biases risk hurting our mental health at work.
  • We may become overly analytical, retreat inward, or try and fill in the gaps in our uncertainty with things that aren't there.
  • Instead, it's important to practice self-awareness and personal reflection and challenge your default thinking.
  • If you're struggling, call the SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

The workforce is in a limbo phase right now. For some, there's been a relaxing of COVID-related restrictions. For many of us, however, the lockdowns and isolated lifestyles are back in full force, with hardly a moment of respite in between.

Organizations, teams, and leaders are grappling with a set of complex scenarios like we've never seen before. With all of it comes a tremendous amount of anxiety and uncertainty: What comes next? Will life return to the way it was? How do I best support my team right now? What will my work look like in six months or a year?

Your brain is a prediction-making machine — which is why it isn't wired to deal with a pandemic. Here's what to do about it.
Rasmus Hougaard.Rasmus Hougaard

No one really has the answers. Predictions abound about the so-called "future of work," but our models can only predict future states when there's enough reliable information to go into those models.

Default mindsets need rewiring

It's understandable that talk abounds about what the future holds post pandemic. The desperate attempt to search for predictable answers can't be helped. Our brain is literally a prediction machine. It constantly compares new inputs from our experiences to the predictions generated by our mind's internal models. This critical function of the brain allowed our ancestors to survive.

And yet, for all its evolutionary merits, the mind is relying on a set of default biases that, when applied to the current COVID context, are at risk of bulldozing our mental well-being at work.


1. We are overanalyzing

In our research on organizations' reactions to COVID, we have observed that people believe the best way to deal with the crisis is by thinking their way through it. Adopting a hyper-analytical mindset is the brain's way of searching for solutions. But since there are no real answers to be found (yet), all that the mind accomplishes is to direct a stream of attention towards the problem and its stresses — over and over again.

Research has shown, in fact, that this style of analytical vigilance backfires by causing a heightened sense of obsessive rumination and worry. It is more sensible, indeed more rational, in times of uncertainty to approach situations with hope instead of with fact-driven decision-making. Even when people are dealing with chronic and terminal illness, we see these individuals stop trying to "figure out" a way out and instead rely on hope or faith for coping with the current situation.

2. We are drawing inward

We have also noticed that people in organizations, many of whom are now working from home, are more prone to a selfish state of mind. Looking at the emotional content of the types of phrasing and words that our clients' employees are using, we've noticed that people are talking more about the self and less about others.

And, not surprisingly, being suddenly dislocated from the physical workspace has removed the naturally occurring social encounters that serve as a reminder that work is so much more than just "getting the job done" — it's also the comradery of working alongside other people.

Your brain is a prediction-making machine — which is why it isn't wired to deal with a pandemic. Here's what to do about it.
Nick Hobson.Nick Hobson

It's clear that the only way out of this crisis is by relying on others. This is the time for us to feel like we belong at work — that we're being supported and helping to support others at the same time. There's the line that goes, "If fear is only telling you to save your own skin, there's not much hope for us."


3. We are "seeing things"

In the brain's desperate attempt to grab onto something predictable, it will often form what's called "illusory correlations"; that is, it will see things that aren't actually there, like detecting an image in noise or believing in conspiracy theories. The heightened motivation to fill-in-the-gaps during times of uncertainty can be detrimental to employee-leader interactions, in addition to increasing errors in judgment in stock market trading, and stereotypical discrimination towards outsider social groups.

It starts with observing the mind

The rewiring of the mind and brain begins with self-awareness. It's not often that people take the time and ask, "If you could look inside your mind, what would you discover?" Without having this moment of personal reflection, we're far more likely to just go with the default because it feels easier. The problem is that this sense of ease is set to the short-term. In the long run, an unexamined mind is likely to suffer more.

There are different ways to observe the mind, including tracking or journaling apps, or practices like mindfulness meditation or constructing personal narratives.

We may not know what the future of work holds. But whatever comes our way, one thing is certain: the mind is the best tool we have for dealing with the current crisis. So we better use it wisely.