One common response we get from people after we help them to see their Lizard Brain is “Thank you for making me aware of my Lizard Brain…now how do I get rid of it?” The surprising answer we give people is "You can't kill the Lizard Brain -- nor would you want to.” And we're serious -- the Lizard Brain does some amazing things for us.
Let’s use familiarity as an example. Multiple studies have shown the link between a psychological/behavioral preference for the familiar and survival — whether we’re talking about birds, lizards, or organizations. The "familiarity" part of the Lizard Brain serves vital (in every sense of that word) tasks. So, I would propose the following statement to explain this dynamic:
The Lizard Brain is positively correlated with survival, and negatively correlated with growth-related change.
Let’s unpack that statement a little, and we’ll use familiarity again as an example.
- “Familiarity (an aspect of Lizard Brain) is positively correlated with survival.” Let’s say that you’re hiking through the woods and you’re really hungry. You could use a boost of energy to help you get back to camp — but you don’t have any food on you. You come across two patches of berries (pictured below). Which ones will you eat?
Now, you might not know what that first set of berries are, but familiarity will help you out. Your brain will steer you towards the ones you have familiarity with eating and away from the other ones. This is a really good thing, because those red berries with the lavender flowers will poison you (those are the berries of a Bittersweet Nightshade plant, by the way.) So, in this example (as in the example of the lizards, insects and organizations from above), familiarity has a positive contribution toward survival.
- But what about the flip side of the statement? Familiarity is negatively correlated with growth-related change. Here’s what we mean by this: there are times when we will have opportunity to take actions to grow our work or personal lives, but our Lizard Brain’s drive for familiarity will steer us away from those actions. And we have examples of this as well. We’ve seen companies struggle and sometimes fail at software transitions or regulation changes because they haven’t sufficiently equipped their workforce to deal with the individual and collective aversion to anything unfamiliar. There’s a fascinating study on how investors will refuse to invest their money with solid, promising stocks in favor of more familiar companies and strategies.
So, “How can I tell when my Lizard Brain’s desire for familiarity is keeping me from growth?” That’s a big question that we go deep with people to understand and apply in workshops and retreats and OneWires, but I can offer a few simple ways to recognize when familiarity may be keeping you from growth, rather than keeping you alive:
- If you find yourself responding with a fight-or-flight/life-or-death response when you’re not actually in a life-or-death situation. That’s a signal to slow down, breathe, and think about what’s actually at risk in the situation you’re currently facing. Maybe practice a little metacognition about why you’re as worked-up as you are. Make a “pros and cons” list. That brings me to number 2…
- Make a pros and cons list of the situation before you as best you understand it. If one option is clearly better than the other, but you’re still looking to go with the inferior-but-familiar option, that’s a clear signal that the familiarity part of the Lizard Brain is calling the shots.
- If you find yourself uttering or thinking any form of the phrase “I’ll take the devil I know over the devil I don’t,” that’s a signal of familiarity. Now, you might actually be better off with the “devil you know,” but it’s important to recognize that this phrase is based on the belief that familiarity is unequivocally valuable — and that’s the very idea we’re trying to challenge in the Lizard Brain. A psychological preference for familiarity is valuable…in certain (not all) situations and for certain (not all) goals.
What do you think about the way I broke down the Lizard Brain? Is that helpful? Any questions I can answer? Hit me up in the comments!