5 Questions with Behavioral Expert Stephanie Preston Ph.D. (8/14/18)

Welcome back to 5 Questions, a series of enlightening profiles with exceptional people who make Health Equity Partners so unique. Today: Stephanie Preston.

Stephanie has studied the evolution and neural basis of human behavior for the past 25 years, with a particular interest in how people develop and use empathy. Stephanie is doing the work that Kristy dreamed of doing when she was in middle school: understand why people are kind, and why people are mean.

An Associate Professor of Psychology with the University of Michigan, Stephanie has an MA and Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience from the University of California at Berkeley, and a post-doctoral fellowship at the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. Yeah, she’s all that and then some. We’re thrilled to have her as one of our research leads at HEP.

A special thanks to Stephanie for humoring Kristy during this interview when her cat barged in during the interview and would not shut up. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

HEP: You’re a professor of psychology at University of Michigan. Tell us a bit about how you ended up in this field.

SP: I have always been interested in the mind, like how people think, what motivates people, the nature of consciousness. That includes the philosophical side of the issue, like the philosophy and neuroscience of consciousness and awareness. Recently, I’ve become more focused on the practical side.

HEP: What do you mean by the practical side?

SP: In the philosophical sense, what is the nature of consciousness? Can you really know what you know, and to what degree are you aware of what motivates you? On the practical side, it’s things like, why don’t we apply this knowledge directly to real-world challenges to improve people’s lives at work, at the hospital, in our interactions with patients and altruistic fundraising, in environmental domains, etc. How can we improve problems that are relevant to today’s society given the knowledge we already possess and bridge the gap between academia and what we call the real world?

HEP: Your teaching takes an interdisciplinary approach. Thinking about the business environment: are you encouraged or discouraged by what you hear from people in the business community? What are things you’re picking up on in terms of people embracing the reality of expressing emotion in the workplace?

Stephanie P: Well, in business, in the history of psychology and in medicine there’s a dominant historical theme that emotions are bad. Emotions are going to cause faulty decision-making. A person is going to become so wrapped up in their emotions that they’re not going to be thinking rationally. However, modern emotional science now tells us that there’s no such thing as decision-making void of emotion. The very act of a decision requires that you value one thing more than another. The pros and cons in reality are emotionally instantiated, so you would say, “I fear this outcome, and I’m very pleased imagining this other outcome.” When you balance them out, is it more scary or is it more desirable? Which one is winning out is the nature of a decision, which is inherently emotional. So it’s a mistake to think of emotions as bad or not as part of decisions. If somebody says, “Oh, but we want to make the decision rationally.” Well, rational decision-making is an emotional process.


The word “emotion” has so many different levels, from, “Okay, in my mind I’m imagining these scenarios, and I’m letting my gut instincts about the pros and the cons and the likely outcomes direct my choices.” This all the way to, “I’m crying at work or I’m yelling at people during a meeting.” Those are really different ends of the spectrum. As an analogy, you need your emotional system to exhibit compassion and empathy or sympathy for, say, patients, to understand where they’re coming from, to be able to tailor the advice you give them to what you observe as their preferences and fears and distress. But nobody would ever advise you to go around crying during your interview with the patient because you’re so upset about their diagnosis.

We’re all human beings. Occasionally somebody might cry at work or be upset or mad. Is that a bad thing? It’s not inherently a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if it’s culturally frowned upon such that now you are at a disadvantage. To the extent that your business is a culture, you get to decide whether that puts somebody at a disadvantage because they cried at work or they got upset about something during a meeting.

HEP: So you’re saying emotion is what it is, that it’s up to us as a community or culture to show support in a range of ways? Often emotion is a symptom of a not great behavior that hurts others. It can also be a sign of vulnerability that is not meant to hurt others, is that right?

SP: Emotion is not inherently bad. For example, someone who is upset about a product at work is signaling their investment in the project, since they would not get emotional if they didn’t care. He/she/they is a great employee who is/are working hard to ensure a quality product.

Emotion is typically appropriate within peer groups at work. Emotion can also be a powerful tool in negotiation; for example, informing others about the strength of your convictions. It’s complex; cues and subtle nudges in how we talk to one another is a big part. The point is that emotion is where you hold trust with others.

The ways we reveal our rules about displaying emotion differ a lot by situation and audience. We intuit these rules through a lifetime of experiences within our culture. But we don’t all come from the same culture. People have different emotional tendencies. And layering on that, workplaces differ in the permissibility of displaying emotion: a good example is how negative emotions show a lot of variation across groups and cultures.

If those in power [managers, executives, C-suites] can be more open to emotion, then their teams can feel more comfortable being themselves. This extra openness — paired with an understanding of how emotions can be good, informative, and culturally-relative — can create a work environment that accommodates our natural tendencies and needs, creating a more productive environment.

HEP: That segues into culture and building more positive than more negative culture in a workplace. So often fear and intimidation is used as a tactic to keep people from wanting to speak their voice. Through various forms of research and whatnot, workplace stress is running high these days. How can we talk more openly and teach MBAs, those students who are interested in becoming the next generation of business leaders, about how important behavior and emotional intelligence is?

SP: It’s important to point out that a company with a good climate, with a leader that people appreciate, benefit more in the long-term. They have millions of experiments in game theory showing that, for example, cooperation yields higher decision heuristics than tit for tat, or, “I’ll only do something good for you if you do something nice for me.” If we act collaboratively and I sometimes trust you and I give to you and later you give back to me, these environments we end up all having more money, even in these strict economic games, than if we are stricter, untrusting, or selfish.

To me, there’s an important analogy between organization and employee and parent and offspring. We also have 150 years of research or something on developmental psychology showing that the highly strict parent actually ends up having a child with more behavioral issues than the one that has clear boundaries but tons of loving, bonding, rewarding feedback and this lack of extreme strictness. And just letting everybody do whatever they want isn’t actually as good as having some boundaries.

HEP: The parent comparison definitely makes sense, particularly when you’re a young company with a lot of people who are fresh out of school and still learning who they are. What are some important factors that play into good leadership, like good parenting?

SP: Showing people what the expectations are. Creating boundaries that are really clear. Understanding the consequences of not meeting the expectations. This doesn’t have to require any negativity. We all want and kind of expect this. You have to properly support someone in being able to achieve that goal, and if they don’t meet it, then the consequence is shared, but it’s not a surprise and no one should be getting yelled at.

(Obnoxious cat walks in and starts meowing)

Can’t have an interview without a cat!

HEP: Hold on…Cal! Going to kick you out…OK continue.

SP: When people are feeling like they have the authoritarian figure who’s yelling at them or creating an environment of stress or using threats to get work done, that environment is just going to get a lower yield of success overall. You’re going to have employees who turn over more frequently, you’re going to have a lot more mental health issues affecting the day to day, and that’s going to cycle back into lost productivity. So it’s not actually to anyone’s benefit to use a strategy of intimidation or stress.

HEP: I think you just added some great parenting words of wisdom here for me. Just in time for back to school! Thanks Stephanie.