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Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: ...how powerful emotions can be in making decisions

Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black.

Laura: We are thrilled to talk once again with our guest on this episode, Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway. She first joined us on Nobody Told Me! back in 2018 to discuss how we can improve our working memory. Dr. Alloway is an award-winning psychologist and teaching professor who's published 13 books on the brain and memory.

Jan: Her latest book is called, Think Like a Girl: 10 Unique Strengths of a Woman's Brain and How to Make Them Work for You. Dr. Alloway, thank you so much for coming back on with us.

Tracy: Thank you so much for having me. I'm just so excited and so honored to be back on the show with both of you.

Jan: We are thrilled to talk with you. One of the things that jumped out at me when I was looking at the book and the materials for the book is that you say you wrote the book because it's a book you wish you'd been able to read when you were finding your way into adulthood. Tell us more about that.

Tracy: I grew up in Malaysia. My family moved to the US. I've lived in Central America, in the UK, and now back to the US. Along the way, you pick up these myths that you're told about women, or sometimes you say these things to yourself, "Are women emotional when we make decisions? Do we have to be more like a male to be a good leader?" As I began to get into the research, I really wish that I had a little guide like this to let me know how my brain was actually working and how, ultimately, I could maximize some of those strengths.

Laura: What are the myths that you set out to dispel in, Think Like a Girl?

Tracy: One of the big ones that I really enjoyed getting into is whether we are emotional when we make decisions. There's two pathways in our brain when we come to make decisions; there is a hot decision-making center that's housed in the brain's emotional center, known as the amygdala. The second pathway is called the cold decision-making center that's housed in the front of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, the rational decision-making center.

I use what's called a Trolley Dilemma, your listeners may have heard of it, it's actually made its way into some popular TV shows as well. The premise is very simple. You see this train hurtling at full speed and it's going to injure or kill five people. But you can save the day if you switch the track that the train is on. However, by doing so, one person will still be severely injured, but you can still save five.

Now, what's come up multiple times is that women often tend to use their hot decision-making center when it comes to making this kind of very stressful decision. But what I discovered when I began to get into the research, is that the reason for that is because we are motivated by our desire to protect. We don't want to cause harm as women, and as a result, our decision-making appears to look emotional.

That was the first interesting thing that I discovered, and I wanted to take it further in my research lab. I asked my participants, male and female, to stick their hands in a bucket of ice. I found that just one minute of having their hands in ice could actually flip the switch in their brain. They went from making an emotional decision to a more rational decision. The reason for that is that ice acts as an acute stressor, a short-term stress. As a result, the amygdala, the brain's emotional center, is highly activated, kicks into gear, and it's so busy coping with sending out a fight-or-flight response to the stress with the ice, that it frees up the prefrontal cortex, your rational decision-making center, to be able to focus on the facts at hand.

To put it in a real-world context, let's say you were offered a job in a new city, and your first instinct is to think, "I don't want to let my team down. I've been working with them, I want to protect them," and so on. And so it may be very difficult for you to look away at other factors as a result. And that's when that bucket of ice can be really helpful.

Jan: What if you don't have a bucket of ice handy?

Laura: Can you scare yourself in a different way? Or shock yourself?

Jan: Yeah. How can you make a rational decision instead of an emotional one on the spur of the moment?

Tracy: That is such a great question. I used another stressor in my lab this time, what's called a cognitive stressor. Here, I asked my participants to count backwards by 6's from 100. So 100, 94, 88, 82, and so on. When I've done this at conferences and when I'm speaking at Fortune 500 companies, you hear this audible groan. Everyone's, "Ah, no. It's too... I can't do this." It is registered as a stressful experience. In my lab, I also took physiological indicators of stress to confirm that people did respond in a stressful manner. But this is another easy way that, if you're at your desk, and as you mentioned, you don't have access to a bucket of ice, you can also count backwards and induce a little stress into your brain.

Laura: Is a lot of this just going back to the fact that we need to believe in our gut and that if we're thinking about, I don't know, too many things, if we're getting too emotional, that we're maybe not making the right decision?

Tracy: I think part of it has to do with an awareness of how your brain is actually working. Let's take risk-taking as an example. Again, another myth there is that women are not risk-takers. But actually, what I uncovered in my research, and as I was writing the chapter, is that women do take risks, but two things are happening. One, a lot of times the research calibrates risk by very life-threatening-type of activities, like jumping out of planes, or those kinds of daredevil-type activities. They're not looking at risk in everyday life, like when you have to move to a new city, when you take a new job, when you leave your job to start a passion of yours and you hope it's successful, all those kinds of real-life risks.

I actually found that women do take risks, we just use a different metric, we use emotion as a metric. If we are getting a positive feedback from that decision, we don't even view that as a risky decision, which could also be why women tend to underreport the types of risk they take in their lives. I think, here, having that awareness of how our brains are working and how we calculate risk can really give us an appreciation when we do have to make a decision, that we're using the right kind of metric that our brain is set up to do; we just need to be able to be aware of that and appreciate how we want to use that in that situation.

Jan: What are the advantages that the female brain has over the male brain?

Tracy: The whole idea of the book was, first of all descriptive. I really wanted to document how the brain works, to be able to create that understanding. I do think that there can be a lot of benefit in that knowledge, and it's not really to say that one is better, or worse, or right, or wrong. But really, it's about that knowledge and how we can use that knowledge to maximize our strengths.

One example would be with mental health. Here, our neurochemistry in the female brain is wired in such that we tend to be more attentive to stressful situations, to high anxiety type of situations. This could be in part because of this need to befriend, to tend, to work in that community aspect. But regardless, the neurochemistry does make us more susceptible to depression. Now that knowledge, I think, can be really powerful. Another thing that I did in my lab as a result of that was to understand how we can then circumvent that. What are the precursors that we can use to protect ourselves from experiencing depressive symptoms.

To do that, I had 3,000+ people in one particular study, both male and female. I found that for men and women, there were very different precursors that can protect and buffer against depression. For women, it was almost an anti-buffer, in a sense that women, we ruminate more. We have this cycle. We think, "Man, I shouldn't have done that," or, "I should have done that," or "Why?" Now with that knowledge, to be able to address that, again, studies show that changing one word can be a very powerful protectant.

Instead of saying, "Yes, but..." Let's say you had a job interview, your first instinct might be to say, "Yes, but I didn't get to talk about all these other things or these other strengths or abilities of mine." Change that word 'but' to an 'and.' "Yes, and I got to meet new people in the field, I got to network, I got to practice talking about some of my skill set." What that does is change the mindset from a pessimistic mindset to a more optimism bias, a more optimistic mindset. That is a really powerful buffer against depression. Again, it's useful knowledge to be able to say once you know how the brain is working, then you can set up a way to protect and to maximize that.

Laura: Is there a way to prevent that tendency towards being so hard on ourselves for the next generation? And what advice would you have for parents of young girls so that they can get into a much more positive mindset and avoid a lot of the mistakes that we've made?

Tracy: That is such a great question. I think it comes down to a very simple activity, and it's how we praise our children. Oddly, we tend to praise girls, again, this is based on multiple studies, we tend to praise girls for who they are. We say, "You're so great. You're wonderful," and so on. We focus on themselves rather than their ability. With boys, we say, "Wow, we saw you really working hard, you were pushing." We focus on what they do rather than who they are.

Now, what this does for a young girl, and again, there's multiple longitudinal studies that have demonstrated that, is when we praise a child, male or female, but again, typically we praise females for not doing but for being, what it does is connected to their identity. When they don't receive their praise, it then begins to affect their self-esteem, and it goes to the cycle that you just described where we're self-critical, we feel we can't do that.

If we can shift that framework and praise them for their effort, their ability, "We saw you working really hard, that's fantastic." "We saw you trying, you were up studying, you were out there practicing, that's fantastic." What that does is it shifts the mindset to let them know they have a sense of agency, they can do something to change the outcome. It's back to this idea of locus of control, that they have something within their framework that they can shift. That can really be a good, again, a buffer against the self-critical attitude that you just described.

Jan: In terms of things that we can have in our own toolkit, you talk about how we should strive to have five positive interactions for every negative one. Why is that important? Why is that 5:1 ratio important?

Tracy: That was a fun chapter to write. I was talking about bonding and the importance of a neurotransmitter called oxytocin in our relationships. When you have a disagreement with your loved one, whether it's a family member, a partner, your child, and so on, we tend to hold on to that. Again, it's back to this idea that the female brain will be set up to ruminate. You could be still thinking about that discussion, that disagreement, and rather than moving away and building on strengths, you're focusing on that negative. That's why that 5:1 is so powerful.

Studies have shown that for every negative thing, or every negative comment or situation you have, make sure you have five positive things. Let's say you had a disagreement with your child, make sure you praise them in five different ways on that day. "We're really proud of you for doing your homework today. Thank you for helping me with the cooking. Thanks for taking out the trash," and so on. You make sure that that ratio is always weighted on the positive rather than the negative.

Laura: One thing that always seems to help whenever we're feeling bad about ourselves or have a negative interaction is physical touch. You write a lot about hugs and how important hugs are. Why are they so important, especially for women? What do you think the impact will be long-term on women who haven't been able to receive the same amount of hugs because of the pandemic?

Tracy: That's such a great question. I was fascinated when I discovered some of this research myself. I'm not a hugger, I love hugging my family, but I'm not one of those, "I'll just hug strangers."

Jan: Especially now.

Tracy: Right, exactly, exactly. But what a hug does do is release oxytocin. Again, oxytocin is this bonding hormone, some people even call it a 'hug hormone', or even a 'love hormone'. Again, when you're in the middle of a disagreement, if you reach out and hold your partner's hand, what you're doing is you're de-escalating your cortisol, that's your stress hormone, and you're bringing in that oxytocin, that bonding hormone, into the mix. It's a lot harder to be mad at them when you're holding hands and trying to yell at them for not doing the dishes or picking up the clothes and whatnot.

During the pandemic, the exciting thing is that there's lots of other ways that research shows that we can get the same oxytocin boost. Sometimes even having a good conversation and seeing someone, even virtually, can release oxytocin. Looking at a photo of a loved one, researchers have done brain imaging studies, can also release a 'feel good' hormone. Although it can be difficult during this time of social distancing to reach out, to be close to a loved one, a family member, I think it's exciting to, at least, know that having that visual of them can still release that bonding and that 'feel good' hormone in our brain.

Laura: Yeah.

Jan: I have noticed, and I was thinking of this, especially when I was looking at your book, I have noticed that I am not even trying to hug, or touch, or shake hands with people in the same way that I used to. I can sort of feel myself actively holding myself back and it's no longer as foreign as it was when we first entered the pandemic. Are you concerned that down the line, we will have all adapted these kinds of tendencies to move away from hugging and touching like we used to? And what impact would that have on us as a society?

Tracy: That's a great question. I don't think so. There is a lot of sociological research, biological research to indicate that oxytocin is one of the primary neurotransmitters that we see activated, that's immediately released when a mother bonds with their child. When they're close, you see that rush of oxytocin. It's a very powerful attachment forming hormone.

I think while we may shift how we release that hormone in our brain, I think that's still going to be a very important aspect. We may narrow down our circle, so maybe we know we get that bonding rush from 10, 20 people in the past, we may narrow the circle down to two, three or four people, that's not necessarily a negative thing. I think the important thing is that our brains still do crave oxytocin and we will find meaningful relationships in which to be able to receive that.

Laura: I wanted to say, as a reader of your book, that I was thinking to myself, I was single going into the pandemic, recently single going into the pandemic, but I was really excited about going on all these dates, and just couldn't wait to schedule them. Obviously, that changed with the pandemic, I realized that wasn't the safest thing. But now that we're feeling better about dating, I've realized that I think I'm not craving the hugs, the physical touch in the same way that I was, and that makes me a little bit nervous.

I think it's different for people who have a spouse, like my mom and my dad, they haven't really had an interruption in that. But I think it's going to be interesting to see the impact that has on people who were in my situation; and for younger kids who were growing up, going to high school, hugging their friends and everything, and haven't been able to. I'm worried we're going to end up being kind of colder as people, do you see that too?

Tracy: I don't think so. I think awareness here could be really important. When you're talking about relationships, one of the chapters I talk about in relationships is the bonding brain and how we form attachments. I know we talked about oxytocin, and I think this is one case where the attachments we form in childhood can really set the template for how we seek out romantic partnerships, and how we play out attachment styles too.

Sometimes, either for yourself, or for myself, or when I'm speaking with my friends, you hear the phrase, “I end up seeking out the wrong people,” or, “Why do I end up dating the wrong kind of person? What is it?” That could be down to our attachment style. I talk about how the difference between secure attachment, anxious, and avoidant attachment. I think while, obviously, touch is very important, the key to remember here is that you can get that even from a physical presence of someone, looking at photos of someone who's meaningful in your life.

I think for individuals who are looking to, like we just talked about, meet new people, to start that process of dating and getting to enjoy different companionships, knowing your attachment style can be a really powerful template to understand how you're engaging with them. I talk about the difference in men and women. I talk about how an avoidant attachment, that tends to characterize a person that is reluctant to get close to someone, yet they want to get close, so you have this push-and-pull; they tend to seek out people that may also be avoidant to them, and that can result in a clash, “This person is pulling away, not committing.”

Again, I think, here's where knowledge or awareness can be really powerful because when we take time to self-reflect and think, “What are the patterns we're demonstrating here in this situation? What is my go-to in conflict?” and so on. Knowing that can help us understand, "Do we want to continue this path, is this a healthy path for us?" Or, do we need to change the way in which we approach conflict and attachment approaches?

Jan: I was fascinated to read your portion of your book where you talk about how women look for different things than men do at the start of a relationship. Tell us more about that. What are women looking for and how does that differ from what men are looking for?

Tracy: Studies show that, broadly speaking, there's this universal sense of men tend to look for attractive women; women tend to look for high-status men when we're talking about heterosexual romantic relationships. But what is interesting is that may not be the best, or the most efficient pathway to a satisfying longer-term relationship. And really, studies suggest that looking at a personality type could be a better match for us than status or physical attraction and so on.

I talk about the Big Five, that's conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience, extraversion, which is probably the most popular, the most common one, and then neuroticism. I think here, what's interesting is we think, “Oh, yes, of course, extraversion is a great one, we want an outgoing person.” I go through all these different traits and I look at the different studies of what is linked into satisfaction in long-term relationships, as identified by the partners in these studies.

Interestingly, conscientiousness, which is you can think of that individual as reliable, hard-working. But the tricky thing here, the caveat here, is that in younger ages, in your 20’s, sometimes this can manifest itself as someone who's a workaholic, even a perfectionist. We may not look at someone who's highly conscientious and view them as having traits that we actually value. But the good thing is, about conscientiousness, that it does mellow over time, and it demonstrates that that partner will be more willing to work at that relationship; they're reliable, they're going to put in the effort, they're goal direct, they want it to be a satisfying and successful partnership.

Laura: I was really surprised to read how important you said that financial stability is for women, when so many modern women do pride themselves on the fact that they're financially independent. Do you see that changing in the future? Or is that just something that we're biologically wired to want?

Tracy: I think that is probably a cultural framework, and I think that will shift over time. When I came across that study, I was fascinated by that too because that seemed to be true of countries that were wealthier, as well as other countries where there's more traditional gender roles in a relationship. I do think that this is maybe one of the myths that we’re told, “Hey, you should look for someone with a good job.”

Having said that, I have many female friends that will still use that as an indicator, and they won't swipe right or go on dates with the guy who they feel whose job is not at a level that they want, or who doesn't have a certain income, even though they have jobs themselves, they're financially independent. I think despite us having financial independence, there may be still some cultural framework that says, “You still need a guy to have this. Maybe down the road, you don't want to work anymore and so you need this kind of backup or safety net."

Jan: How does the female brain relate to social media in a different way than the male?

Tracy: This was really interesting. I looked at this in the context of empathy and connection. This is some of my own research. The first thing to remember is that empathy is not hardwired, we're not born with it. We have to learn how to be empathetic in as much as we learn how to speak a language. While some of us may be able to learn multiple languages quite quickly, we may have a propensity for that; some of us may be more inclined to feel more empathetic. But ultimately, it's a skill set that we have to learn.

I find that with social media, we can certainly use this as a way to develop our sense of empathy. For starters, we are exposed to so many different people that we would not be in our small physical or geographical network. Let's say you're going through a certain physical challenge, or an illness, or so on. You may find someone on the other side of the world, or even in another state that's going through the same thing. You can share stories, you can connect, and you can learn.

Or it might be that you see someone at work and you misinterpret some of their cues, and you think “Well, are they mad at me?” and so on. But then social media offers you a little insight. Maybe there's something going on in their life that's driving the way they're responding at work, and it's not personal.

In my research, I found that when we're active engagers on social media, in other words, we take the time to comment, to engage with individuals, rather than passively scrolling, we have higher levels, or we can develop higher levels of empathy as a result.

Laura: Which of the 10 traits that are unique, that women have, that you wrote this book about, do you think is one that we all should learn if we take nothing else away from the book?

Tracy: I think for me, it would be the Happy Brain. I think mental health really is such an important and integral part into how we view the world, it’s the lens that we wear when we look around us. Knowing that you can shift your perspective to an optimism perspective, so when a situation happens, are you going to ruminate and focus on that negative? Or are you going to look at that "Yes, and..." and focus on what you can be grateful for?

Again, brain imaging studies show that you can actually, that sense of gratitude and optimism is almost like a muscle; the more you use it, the more easily that will be activated in the brain. We know it's Broca's area, the language center of the brain. Saying out aloud the things you're grateful for, the "Yes, ands..." in your day can make a huge neurological difference in your brain that can ultimately affect your mental health, your behavior, your social interaction.

For me, personally, that was a big takeaway. I would certainly love that readers take that away as well, that just a simple switch like that can make a huge difference to their daily life.

Jan: When we're talking about the female brain, you say that women lie for different reasons than men.

Laura: But it's a sign of intelligence, she says.

Jan: I like that. So, tell us more about that.

Tracy: Both of those are true. Some of my early research in children has actually linked working memory and lying because, of course, when you tell a lie, you do have to use your active memory; you have to think of what you want to say, what you don't want to say, what you think your listener knows and doesn't know, and keep all of these moving parts active and not conflicting.

In this particular book, in the chapter on the Intelligent Brain and lying, I was interested to discover that there are two types of lies that we tell. The first is what researchers call an anti-social lie. If you think of a child, "Did you eat the cookie?" There're crumbs all over their face. "No, no, of course I didn't." They don't want to get in trouble, so they lie to protect themselves. The second type of lie is called the pro-social lie, "Did your brother or sister eat the cookie?" Now here, they may lie because they don't want their brother or sister to get in trouble, timeout, or whatnot.

We have these two types of lies, the lies to protect themselves, and the pro-social lies where they protect someone else. There's an interesting study I talk about in the book where women would be more likely to lie to protect someone else than they would to lie for themselves. I took this all the way back in childhood with a group of four, five-year-olds. I found even at that early age, my young girls in the study would be more likely to lie to protect someone else than they would for themselves.

Laura: That's kind of nice. Right?

Jan: Yeah, that is nice, yeah.

Laura: I might be proud of my kid if they did that, even though it's lying.

Jan: They're trying to help somebody else. Yeah.

Laura: They have integrity, I guess.

We asked you before what your nobody told me lesson is, but we want to ask it in a little bit of a different way today. What did nobody tell you about the strengths of a woman's brain that you wish that you knew when you were a little girl, thinking that maybe boys had the upper hand in a lot of ways?

Tracy: I think I wish I knew how powerful emotions can be in making a decision, in taking a risk. And that if we're focusing on the positive emotion that we're getting from a decision, that can be a game-changer in what we choose to do. I wish I knew that. As a child, my parents would tell you that they thought I was a risk-taker. Anyway, my dad attributes his hair loss to my teenage years. But nonetheless, I think knowing that this is a real strength that, as women, we look to see how we feel, and if we get positive feedback from a decision, we're willing to make that risk, we don't even view it as a risk. I think that's a really powerful piece I wish I knew growing up too.

Jan: What advice would you have to parents of daughters, in terms of what they can do to really help their girls?

Tracy: I would say, make sure you praise their effort. I have two boys, I'm still mindful of that. I try not to say, “Wow, that's awesome.” I'll say, “Wow, I saw you make that great corner kick go over there. I saw you really practicing or studying hard.” I try to be really mindful as a parent, as well, to focus on effort praise, rather than praising the person.

Laura: I love that.

Jan: Yeah, I like that, yeah.

Laura: How can people connect with you and learn more about the book, which we just really love. It's an easy read, it's a fun read, and you just really learn a lot.

Tracy: Thank you so much. I have a website, tracyalloway.com. I'd love to connect with your listeners on social media, drtracyalloway.com. I'm on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and would love to hear more about the myths and the nobody told me's that they're interested in.

Jan: Tracy, thank you so much for joining us. It's been an absolute pleasure, as it was the last time you were on the show.

Tracy: Thank you again for having me.

Jan: Our thanks to Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway whose latest book is called, Think Like a Girl: 10 Unique Strengths of a Woman's Brain and How to Make Them Work for You. Again, her website is tracyalloway.com.

I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.

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