Harvard professor Francesca Gino explains how to be a better person



 Francesca Gino

For this interview I spoke with Francesca Gino. She’s a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan.

We discussed being a better person, giving good gifts, smart decision making, the power of introverted leaders and how rituals can improve our lives.


Reminders are the secret to being a better person

Francesca Gino:

Even good people can end up doing the wrong thing. We need reminders.

In a sense, you do have an angel and a devil sitting on your shoulders. We need the angel to be salient, because in the moment, it’s often easier to listen to the devil. 

We were working with an insurance company who sends out policy forms to its customers. As in many of the forms we fill out, in that case, you would report the numbers. There was basically the number of miles from your odometer, and then you sign next to it a declaration that numbers you reported are correct.

What we did for half of the customers, is move the location of the signature line so that you sign first, before you report the numbers. What we found is that by signing, people get more aware of their own sense of self, and of their own ethical principles. As a result of doing that beforehand, they tend to be more honest.

People believe they have a very strong moral compass driving their decisions, and again, my research shows that very subtle factors can sway it.

Across cultures, we have an image of children as innocent. Asking people to recall their memories from childhood makes them subsequently more helpful. Again, I find it quite fascinating because there are very subtle forces that might lead us astray, but equally, there are subtle forces that can make us behave in helpful ways.


What’s the best gift to give someone?

Francesca Gino:

Recipients often use wish lists to give an indication to others of what they’d like. Givers often don’t want to use the wish list, because they want to seem special or show that they’re being really thoughtful.

We thought that if you buy something that is not on the list, you’re going to end up very likely with something that the recipient doesn’t appreciate as much. This is actually what we find in our research. We compare gifts that people received that are from their own wish lists versus gifts that are similar but not on the list. We find that the receivers perceive them to be less thoughtful, and the gifts are appreciated less when they’re not part of their lists.

The givers actually have the exact opposite intuition. It’s a fascinating one. We know from the research that you also know that there are lots of situations where we fail to take the perspective of others, but this one is particularly interesting, because again, we often have experienced both roles so many times. Still, we have issues putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes.


Little rituals improve your life

Francesca Gino:

Rituals actually are quite powerful in producing beneficial effects. What we found is that when people experience a loss that is important to them, if they engage in a ritual, they feel less grief and less sadness towards the loss that they experienced. In this domain, rituals bring back a sense of control and reduce the level of anger or sadness that people experience. That’s one context.

If you think about when you go to a restaurant, all the rituals that are around that. You can think about rituals that you yourself might engage in prior to consumption experiences. What they do, they make us a little bit more mindful about the consumption experience that we are about to have. Because of that, we end up savoring the food or whatever we are drinking more, we enjoy the experience more, and in fact, we’re also more willing to pay higher prices for whatever it is that we just consumed. Once again, rituals are beneficial in the sense that they create higher levels of enjoyment in the experience that we just had.

In the third project, we looked at sports. Some of the pregame routines that some of the players have are kind of funny. If you think about some of the things that you might be doing or that I might be doing. Obviously, because of where I sit, I teach or I give talks. Oftentimes, I engage in little rituals before my teaching. What we studied in this project was whether these rituals are really of beneficial effect in terms of bringing you confidence and potentially impacting your performance positively. That is actually what we found.

What is interesting about the studies is that we also have physiological measures. What we find is that if you engage in a ritual prior to a potentially high anxiety task, like singing in public or solving difficult math problems, you end up being calmer by the time you approach the task, and more confident in what you’re about to do. As a result of that, you actually perform better.


Are extroverts always better leaders?

Francesca Gino:

No. This is research in collaboration with Adam Grant and Dave Hofman. There are contexts, especially situations where there is a high uncertainty, where it may be very beneficial to actually listen to what other people in the team have to say. In this type of context, being an extroverted leader might actually lead you to be very dominant in the conversations, having a style where you really shut down what other people have to say. Being introverted might make you a better listener to whatever suggestions team members might have on how to improve the process or ideas they might have for performing better as a team.

What we found is that in situations where the members are in fact proactive and they make suggestions for improvement, having an introverted leader is significantly better for team performance. It’s because the leader is actually listening to the suggestions that the team members are making that may be beneficial for whatever it is that the team is doing.


What books do you recommend?

Francesca Gino:

I just started reading Mike Norton‘s book, Happy Money, and I’m very familiar with the research. I like the message of the book, so I hope that people will read it and start applying some of the science. Sometimes, I actually find myself going back to books that I read a while back, just because I love them. Recently, I reread Dan Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness. I had wonderful memories of reading it in the park and loving every single line of it.

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