Business Strategy | Leadership / Management | Organizational Development

Our DNA doesn’t want us to change. Time for some genetic engineering.

We’ve spent a lot of time over the years asking how to battle change and complexity.

Turns out we’ve had the answer all along. All we have to do is be ourselves.

In his terrific new book You Are Now Less Dumb, David McRaney says humans are genetically hardwired “to be optimistic in the face of futility.” It keeps us from giving up when we encounter hardships. When the chips are down, McRaney says we are programmed to see the silver lining.

It’s all thanks to “positive illusions” — unrealistically favorable opinions that people form about themselves in times of severe stress or upheaval.

“Traits such as ambition, resolve, and group morale pushed human beings to cross oceans and tame crops,” McRaney writes. “When the wind crushed those ships to splinters against impartial rocks, and those crops withered under an unsympathetic sun, your ancestors’ positive illusions kicked in, biasing the downtrodden to see things in such a way that led to persistence, no matter how futile it must have seemed at times.”

The more desperate our situation, McRaney writes, the more likely we are to see ourselves as indestructible.

“There is plenty of evidence that the odds are not in your favor, enough to deter you from trying just about everything in life,” McRaney writes. “Luckily for you, most of the time you have no idea what you are getting into. … It makes sense that primates like you would have evolved a fondness for delusions of grandeur. That’s the sort of attitude that gets you out of caves and beds.”

There are some negatives to positive illusions, though.

Here’s my new theory: The reason so many of us are resistant to change is that our positive illusions tell us we don’t need to change. We don’t need social media because we’re awesome without it. We don’t need to move to the cloud because we’ve done just fine without it. We don’t need to worry about new business models because our current models are profit machines.

The problem with those positive illusions is that they make us just a bit too confident. We overestimate our ability to conquer change.

“On average, positive illusions work, but left unchecked, they can lead to terrible decisions and policies,” McRaney writes. “… Occasionally, the same emotional state can mutate into hubris. … Since you are programmed to become increasingly overconfident the less you understand about any given scenario, you can expect to find the most destructive overconfidence in places that are exceedingly complicated and unpredictable.”

In this day and age, is it possible that positive illusions keep us from changing when change is needed most? That they breed overconfidence in the present and ignorance of the future?

Maybe what we need right now are equal parts blind optimism and outright terror — faith that we need to change, and fear that we’ll perish if we don’t.

That’s closer to the truth, after all.


Bill Sheridan