Getting Their Attention: How to Bend time With The Oddball Effect

How can we get our teammates to sit up and take notice?

By slowing down time.

Odd as it may seem, we can actually do this, and unlocking this power can be an effective leadership tool. It involves a simple concept called the oddball effect. Here’s what it is and how we can use it to make a lasting impression.

Breakfast Club

A few Fridays ago I pulled out my wallet to pay for breakfast.  It fell open to a family photo I have kept there for some years, and for the first time in a while, I paused to look at it. 

A lot has changed – it was from about 15 years back, when both kids were still in grade school.  My now-bearded son finished college a while ago, and my daughter is enrolled in graduate school.

Where did the time go? 

I shared the photo with my friends at the table, and one of them related an interesting story about our sense of time, and about people being shown pictures of brown shoes. 

I later learned that this was a unique experiment conducted by neuroscientist David Eagleman that revealed what has become known as the “oddball effect.” 

The Oddball Effect

On a computer monitor, Eagleman showed people a succession of pictures: 

Brown shoe
Brown shoe
Brown shoe
Flower
Brown shoe

Later he asked them which photo they were shown the longest.  Everybody said “flower.” 

But it wasn’t true – they had been shown all the photos for an equal length of time.  What was happeing was that once people got used to seeing pictures of brown shoes, the shoes faded into the background, and the pictures seemed to pass by quickly. 

On the other hand, the novelty of the flower grabbed their attention.   And as they devoted more mental resources to examining this departure from the expected, time seemed to slow down for them.

Set amongst the brown shoes, the flower made a bigger impression.

Flex Time

“Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

The more familiar the world around us becomes, the less our brains pay attention to it, and the more quickly time seems to fly by.  Once we sense a pattern, we move it to the background in our minds and unconsciously scan for things that are different that merit closer scrutiny.

Clocks offer a “convenient fiction” Eagleman says, because they imply that time passes regularly and predictably forward.  Our experience shows us that it is much more flexible. 

But what does any of this mean for leaders? 

Punching the Clock

If we want to make a lasting impression, we can slow down time and get people to focus.  All we have to do is take advantage of the oddball effect by framing things in an unusual context.  Make it a flower among all the shoes.  Some ideas:

Meetings.  Hold important meetings in different places than normal, change the seating arrangement, or alter the agenda with unexpected speakers, presentations, or activities.  The new settings, organization, and actions will force people to take note.

Rewards.  Make giving small rewards a big deal by picking an unusual place or unexpected way of presenting them.  In the Army, we gave out special coins to recognize top performance. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times, but the one I remember?  When the boss waded knee-deep into the Tigris River with the Soldier to make the presentation.

Presentations.  For several great examples, consider the hit movie The Big Short.  Director Adam McKay had to explain complex but potentially boring financial concepts without losing his audience.  To accomplish that, he had actress Margot Robbie explain sub-prime mortgages while sitting in a hot tub, chef Anthony Bourdain illustrate collateralized debt obligations from his kitchen using three-day-old halibut, and song writer Selena Gomez at a blackjack table to talk about how synthetic CDOs work.

The Oddball Effect – The Takeaway

Changing the packaging from the expected alerts our brains to pay attention.  Time seems to slow down as we focus on the things that are different from what we thought we’d see.

Of course having set patterns helps people productively move through their day.  They know when the meetings are, what to expect from others, and what is expected of them.  We need the brown shoes in our day.

The Oddball Effect - Give Them Flowers

But if we want to get their attention, we can take advantage of the oddball effect.

Disrupt the pattern.

Surprise them with flowers.

Lead on!

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