Innovation and Adaptation

Future Ready

By Melissa Tal August 23, 2019

Let’s play a game.

We gave $10 to the Cove to split with you.

The Cove gets to decide how much of this $10 they want to give you.

You get to decide if you want to accept or reject the offer. You are free to accept or reject any offer of your choosing; however, if you reject the offer, no one gets anything. Not you or the Cove.

Now, according to game theory (and basic logic), you should accept whatever the Cove offers, however measly, because getting some money is better than getting none.

The Cove offers you $2. So, if you accept this offer, The Cove gets $8 and you get $2.

What would you do? Accept or reject?

Alan Sanfey, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Arizona, and colleagues, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to look into people’s brains while they played this game. [i]

It turns out that the majority of people, when offered below what they personally considered fair, rejected the offer. Even in the face of making money for nothing.

As offers became increasingly unfair, the anterior insula, a part of the primal brain response (aka the “monkey brain”) involved in negative emotions including anger and disgust, became more and more active, as if registering growing outrage.

Meanwhile, part of the higher brain, an area of the prefrontal cortex involved in goal orientation (in this case, making money), was also busy assessing the situation.

By tracking the activity of these two regions, the experiment was able to show what appeared to be a struggle between emotion and reason, as each sought to influence the players’ decisions.

Do you punish the stingy Cove? Or take the money, even though the deal stinks?

Experiments like these illuminate the aggressive participation of our emotion-driven brains in all kinds of decision-making, but you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to see how the emotional brain can badly distort judgment. 

This science is not new.

This experiment was published in 2006. That’s thirteen years ago. To give that some perspective, the date of the first iPhone release was 29 June 2007, twelve years ago. It’s older than the first iPhone.

Think about the sheer volume of progress that has happened in the mobile device industry since the introduction of the iPhone. Yet, in the category of human behaviour, can you pinpoint any one thing close to this kind of progress in how we understand and manage our emotional status?

We know our unchecked emotions impair our abilities, not just in basic decision-making but in every aspect of our lives. How we interact with the environment (road rage, anyone?) how our environment impacts our mood (Canberra’s current morning weather status?) the way we communicate (parenthood – need I say more?) the way we focus, act, react and interact.

It’s all impacted by how we feel. Yet, somehow our desire to create the tools to achieve the same kind of exponential progressive change we’ve seen in other areas just isn’t there when it comes to human behaviour development.  

Why is this important?

Let’s put aside the obvious and often spoken about reasons as to why we need to figure out how to build emotional adaptivity and intelligence. This is not to undermine the importance of the ever-growing and staggering statistics around depression and anxiety disorders in our society, nor to dismiss the social and economic impacts they have on us all. Today I want to explore a perhaps less considered, but equally important, reason. Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Artificially intelligent machines. 

As opposed to the human-like machines that immediately come to mind, I’m talking about the more imminent future. The one where we are in a human society that is heavily augmented by intelligent machines.

It won’t be long, perhaps within five years, that we are able to build machines intelligent enough to replace all our basic rational cognitive tasks.  Not long after that, we will have machines that can also extend our cognitive ability (less sci-fi than human brain implants maybe, but easily foreseeable in being enabled by wearable tech).

Let’s picture this.

It’s 2026. You no longer need to do 50% of the basic cognitive administrative tasks you currently do, because you have various computer-operated devices and systems that do it for you (not sure about you, but I say hooray to that!). You have armbands that can transcribe your thoughts into emails (already exists), [ii] and you have access to an open-source supercomputer that you can send complex problems to and it will spit out the top three most logical potential solutions (also already being built)[iii].

So, as a human, what is your speciality? What is your mastery? What can you do exceptionally well, that systems and electronics cannot?

Contextualise. Intuit. Feel. Humans bring humanity into the equation.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Even to accept and embrace this future requires some base emotional intelligence skills.

The future will require you to have enough emotional intelligence as a baseline standard, to be able to separate yourself from the pride you have attached to doing basic functional tasks. So in other words, being what you now consider useful. To enable you to outsource it in the first place takes humility.

If you don’t, there will be 10-year-olds who will be born into that technological reality that will be able to do this, and as such, will also be better at your basic useful jobs than you are.

In fact, even to prepare for this future, you must be able to imagine a life totally foreign to the one you currently know. This requires empathy.

What I’m saying here is that for every leap forward we make in technology, we as humans must leap forward in humanity. This means questioning how we learn emotional intelligence and our entire attitude towards these supposed “soft skills”. This requires moral courage.

This is not a list of answers or a prescription of what you should do.

The purpose of this is to start the wheels turning about the space and time which you give to building your own emotional skills and the consideration, innovation and focus that they may actually require to be future-ready.

The good news however, is that since these feelings naturally occur within us all, we all have the agency to develop and improve them, immediately.

It’s my position that to do this at a level of excellence requires a deep and honest understanding of who you are and why you behave the way you do in any situation, and this personal understanding starts with a playful kind of self-enquiry.


  • Do you know when you are lying to yourself?
  • Do you see a pattern in the situations that make you defensive?
  • Do you understand what makes you feel good?
  • What causes you to lose sleep/have a bad night’s sleep? (Stress? Too much food before bed? Screen time? Something else?)
  • Do you know what it feels like when you make a good decision? Or a bad decision?

The last question in the above list, about decision making, is an example of one I am currently asking myself. To help me understand this, I created a self-experiment based on an article I read about keeping a decision journal [iv].

For a three-month period (I started mine on 1 June) I have been keeping a record in an Excel sheet of every medium to large decision I make each day. I’m doing this so I can track my decisions over time, and then wait a quarter and go back to them and include the outcomes. I’m doing this in an attempt to understand second and third-degree impacts that these decisions had on my life.

I’m only halfway into this experiment and I’m already learning valuable lessons about how I make decisions that have so many far-reaching impacts. All this, while gaining insight into how I could improve with very little effort (circa 5 minutes a day x 90 days + some reflection time = about 1 day of time over 90 days).  I’m not suggesting you do this exact exercise, but I do encourage you to experiment and learn.

What outcomes do I want from this experiment?

My decisions don’t just impact me, they impact my team, my family and my clients. Self-understanding for me is the path to self-mastery. Self-mastery is about human excellence. I’m not sure about you, but I want to be the most excellent version of myself possible. You can see an example of the sheet I am using here. [v]

If you have been wondering how to build your own emotional intelligence skill base or doing some self-experimentation, I would love to hear about it, and encourage you to comment below.

Let’s start a conversation about how we can take responsibility for our journey of self-understanding along the path to human excellence. Or we could simply call this being future-ready.


End Notes:

[i] Van ’t Wout, M., Kahn, R.S., Sanfey, A.G. & Aleman, A. (2006). Affective state and decision-making in the Ultimatum Game, Experimental Brain Research, 169, 564-568.




Melissa Tal

Melissa is an entrepreneur, with an active interest in cognitive science, philosophy, and how technology and human behaviour intersect.

She is currently the founder of Liminal Technologies. Liminal is a leadership training and technology company that have developed an immersive, experience-based training that uses a new kind of measurement technology to quantify, measure and map authentic human behaviour.

This technology is a reflection of an individual’s behaviour (like a data photograph) that is feed back to them in both live and in spaced reporting loops. This is used within the program to create deliberate practice environments that help accelerate the learning of emotional intelligence and adaptive behaviour skills.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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