Let’s learn how to hack our operating system

Patrycja Sławuta, Social Psychologist, Founder at SelfHackathon was interviewed by Ewa Zakrzewska, Innovation and Curiosity Leader at Publicis Groupe.

Ewa Zakrzewska: Modern and complex technologies are encroaching more and more deeply into our lives. However, we do not see that we ourselves are a very advanced system. Please start by telling us what H:OS or the human operating system is – where it comes from, what it consists of and how we can program it.

Patrycja Sławuta: In the course of 300,000 years of evolution as homo sapiens we have developed a system that allowed our ancestors and ourselves to survive. This is something that all human beings have in common. H:OS is a metaphor that we use because people are generally not interested in psychology. Engineers were especially uninterested in it when I worked in Silicon Valley. So we came up with the term to open engineers’ minds to psychology and show that they program us (as users), but there is also something that programmed them before. And what programmed them and all of us was in fact evolution.

The human operating system has 4 parts and it is really a compilation of the 4 great departments of psychology:

  1. The head which is the software, that’s the cognitive science, the thought processes, the different biases, prejudices or thought patterns that we have.
  2. Heart, or a little bit of electricity, which activates the entire system (positively or negatively, escape from something or strive for something), this is the department of emotions and motivations.
  3. Body or hardware, this is psychophysiology (how our body affects our mind and vice versa). Just like a phone has hardware, if it breaks down the best software will not help.
  4. Social network, which is social psychology. We know from research that the way we are is partly a result of the people we spend time with – starting with our closest ones, family, friends, acquaintances, society and culture.

And just like when we buy a new phone we get a new operating system, which we can’t really change, we come into the world with this system. At first it is others who program us – family, culture, religion, gender, events beyond our control. Later, when we are older, we can improve this system a little (or not). The important thing is that in H:OS all the elements have to work and have to cooperate for it to update and develop – the head coupled to the heart, to the body and to our social network. If we just want something, for example, but it’s not followed by any behavioral changes, the chances of success are definitely less.

EZ: The pandemic, the entire situation that we’ve been facing for a year now has a big impact on the system that you’re talking about. We would all like it to end soon. But there are more and more voices saying that we will not return to the state (of normalcy) that we knew before March 2020. How will all these changes, the challenges of the last year, affect us permanently?

PS: There is no single answer, no single vision of what might happen. Four elements come together here: the large, acute and prolonged stress that many people feel, the long unknown/uncertainty that we don’t like as humans, and grief – individual, but many studies show the collective one as well. These three elements are multiplied by a fourth – social distance. Lockdowns put us out of touch with others, and we are, after all, social beings. On the one hand this can be very bad, we can clearly see the negative effects, but on the other hand we see the emergence of many interesting things. We have a reevaluation in important areas of life. We are beginning to pay attention to physical health, mental health. We appreciate the importance of social contact, the importance of touch – suddenly we see how much we miss it, how important it is to our sense of safety and comfort. Sixteen different emotions can be perceived by touch alone. In New York City, you can supposedly no longer adopt dogs because there are no “available” ones, they have all found homes within the last year. Dogs, cats, other people we can cuddle with, we need it so badly.

EZ: Direct relationships between people have changed on many levels, which ones are still worth noting?

PS: There’s still a lot of speculation about what the future will look like – whether the pandemic will end, whether it will be repeated. A lot of people are noticing that we’re living at work – we’re seeing that it’s not just moving work to the home. And that’s quite dangerous. The whole rhythm of being together and being apart has been disrupted. Many family psychologists point out that finding a balance between these two states is very important. Being together all the time can be very tiring. Being apart all the time is a longing. Now you have to find a new rhythm. Before, it was given in large part by working 9am to 5pm in an office. By working from home this has changed. Rituals of transition – from “me at work” to “me at home” – are very important. Before the pandemic this was taken care of by getting to and from the office. In times of working and living in the same place, we should create new rituals to separate that.

There is also a lot of talk about changing the way we work in general. In Australia, where I live now, the restrictions are ending and you can go back to the office. However, a lot of people are saying they don’t want that. They like the model of 2 days in the office, 3 days at home, and a lot of companies are adjusting their work model to accommodate that. Research shows that when it comes to fine-tuning, continuing projects, you can easily do it from home, but new ideas, creativity, collision of ideas happen when people are in a shared space.

EZ: Many of our firmly established habits have been changed, what does that mean for us?

PS: It is very interesting to observe what happens with habits – we create new ones and forget the ones from the times before the pandemic. Recently one of my friends told me that he didn’t remember how to use tickets in public transport. We stop using something, taking advantage of something, and it turns out that it atrophies like an unused muscle.

We also have to see that the world has (at least) two speeds – here in Australia we had 2 weeks of lockdown, now life is going on normally. When I call Poland I can hear that my family and friends are afraid to leave home. I can’t even imagine the feelings connected with this. When I went to a restaurant after two weeks of closure, I was moved by the sight of people. And what will it be like after a much longer retreat? Certainly today we can clearly see how social we are.

We took a lot of things for granted, and suddenly they were taken away from us. Watching now how our operating system works at a very basic level can be very interesting. It can be the best opportunity to look into ourselves.

EZ: How can we use what we know about habits to help ourselves, our loved ones, our environment?

We know that the brain needs two things: movement and novelty. Movement is very important. Giving it up, not exercising is like taking a depressant. Lots of research shows how important it is for making new neural connections. When we fall into a state of stupor, an emotional downward spiral, stronger exercise will be the way to break out of that numbness. The second element the brain likes is novelty. We are constantly scanning our surroundings, observing the environment for something new. Now that the days seem the same to us, a constant Groundhog Day, it helps to pay attention to what’s new. And it’s less about a new series on Netflix (because that’s a situation where we’re the ones being hacked) and more about new challenges, something new happening outside the window, nature changing, even our breathing. These are good ways for our system to calm down a bit and catch what is our rarest natural resource, our attention. Seeking healthy novelty and movement are habits we should pay special attention to now.

EZ: We have a lot of work, we’re at a distance from each other so we’re not able to seek relaxation in connecting with others or receiving good energy from them. How can organizations help employees take care of their mental fitness and resilience? Because this situation is not going to change in the near future.

PS: During this last year we had a chance to get to know each other more as people than just as employees. In some companies at meetings they show their apartments, their surroundings – this is me, this is my wall with photos, here I am dancing and so on. It’s cool, because for a moment you invite others into your world. At the very beginning when we started working at home, a lot of attention was paid to what you could see behind the person. Some people just had white walls, but some had bookshelves, plants, doors to another part of the home.

Many companies do regular conversations about success, but also what we’re not managing well with, what’s hard, and what we’ve learned. New topics have come up at work, not just work stuff, but also about what happened on the weekend, for example.

I was recently at a lecture about how music and sounds affect the brain and well-being. It turns out that singing or listening to music together really synchronizes a group. And I know of several examples, including in Australia, where mining companies, which is pretty hard work, you might say manly work, where employees regularly sing together in a choir. Dancing, moving around together also works very well. Activities that synchronize movement, breathing, and tone not only bring us together, but also calm our nervous system and increase our immunity. There’s a lot of research showing how oxytocin affects our immune system. And the good thing that I hope stays with us after a pandemic is realizing how important this system is. We’re also seeing more and more that this immunity, it’s not something that works by itself, it’s invisible and intangible, but there’s a whole bunch of things that affect it: how close we are with others, what emotions we feel. Some emotions make the immune system stronger, more resourceful, and others (like shame, social isolation) make it weaker. This is biology and psychophysiology – the effect of emotions on our immune system.

EZ: And how can we use this knowledge of how the human operating system works to build the experiences people have with brands?

PS: Let’s go through the elements of H:OS one by one.  We start with the head – we know that we have about 70,000 thoughts a day, the vast majority of which (85-90%) are repetitive thoughts. Listening to the stories, narratives that exist in our heads, catching certain (often repeated) phrases and words, allows us to create mental/thought maps of a person. This was used very nicely by the Dove brand in their “Real Beauty” communication. They showed what women really think of themselves – that gap between inspiration and how they describe themselves (and someone draws them based on that). We did a similar campaign in Australia for the financial industry. We took on the sense of shame associated with financial situations – what we show others and what internal dialogue we have all the time are often very different things. A whole bunch of companies try to dumb down what their current and potential customers think. We tried to break the taboo related to finance. And I think that breaking taboos is going to be an interesting direction for brands in many industries.

Now let’s look at the heart – it shows us a map of unfulfilled needs. In psychology we say that virtually everything is a need. As humans, we often have trouble defining exactly what we need and it happens that we fill that space with anything. All of our behavior is basically running away from pain and heading towards pleasure. And the biggest pain we have is what’s going on inside – fear, shame, insecurity. And what most companies do is play on that – they sell us certainty or at least some form of it.

If we think about the role of the body then we have to pay attention to habits. In psychology we say that the best predictor of future behavior is habits and past behavior. Understanding the map of habits, how one affects the other and finding moments and places that can change can be very helpful for creating communications and brand experiences.

And the last thing is our social networks, our influence networks. We’re doing a big campaign right now for solar cells, and it turns out that the best predictor of whether someone will buy one is whether their neighbors already have one. The greater the degree of uncertainty in an area, the more likely we are to make a decision like our friends have made. So understanding who influences whom is key.

EZ: Thank you for the interview.