Roseto, bunnies, and Google

Roseto

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers begins with Roseto, a small town in the foothills of Eastern Pennsylvania, named for the place in Italy where its residents immigrated from. In the late 1950s, when heart disease was ravaging the nation — the #1 cause of death in men over 65 — men in Roseto showed no sign of heart disease at 55, and were experiencing it at half the rate of the US at 65. A local physician, Stewart Wolf, discovered this, got to work conducting careful research, and brought in friend and colleague John Bruhn, a sociologist. Bruhn recalled, “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were basically dying of old age. That’s it.”

Was it diet? Nope. They were cooking with lard, not olive oil, and 41% of their calories came from fat. They smoked heavily. They didn’t exercise and obesity plagued many. Was it genetic? Nope. Could it be something about the foothills of Eastern Pennsylvania? Nope. No other nearby community had this immunity.

Wolf and Bruhn came to believe that it was Roseto itself. “Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world.” They visited each other, chatted on the street, had backyard cookouts, three generations often lived under one roof, and grandparents commanded respect. They attended mass which had a “unifying and calming effect,” there were over 20 civic organizations for its 2,000 residents, and Roseto had an “egalitarian ethos that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.”

Bunnies

I attended a week-long Chopra Center meditation retreat earlier this month. Over 50 hours of meditation, yoga, and teachings from Deepak Chopra, all reinforcing the power of meditation, compassion, love, the profound connection we all have to each other, and the infinite possibilities within us when we connect to who we really are. One small story he shared, almost an afterthought, was remarkable: a 1978 scientific experiment in which bunnies were fed either a high cholesterol diet or a normal diet to study the effects of cholesterol on heart disease. One cohort of the critters had an outlier result. They were fed a high cholesterol diet, but they didn’t develop the heart sickness other rabbits on this diet did. Turns out that the post-doc assigned to them “pet and spoke to the lab rabbits as she fed them.” And that protected them from the disease effects of a high cholesterol diet.

The Rabbit Effect by Kelli Harding is coming out in August. “Groundbreaking new research shows that love, friendship, community, life’s purpose, and our environment can have a greater impact on our health than anything that happens in the doctor’s office.” I’ve pre-ordered it.

Google

In 2012, the people researchers at Google set out to discover what made some teams do great work together, and other teams falter. Project Aristotle (named for Aristotle’s quote: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts), summarized in the 2016 New York Times piece “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” produced unexpected results.

The researchers mined boatloads of data from over 180 teams looking for factors that they thought might matter — how long the teams worked together, whether the members had similar interests or educational backgrounds, introvert/extrovert aspects, gender mix, reward structures, whether they socialized or not, and team processes. They found nothing — no trends, patterns, or clues that explained team performance.

Stumped, they came across research on “group norms” — social behaviors and unwritten rules that guide how groups work together — and concluded after a year of research that this was the secret sauce. They discovered that good teams shared two behaviors: (1) the members spoke in roughly equal amounts, and (2) they were emotionally clued into each other. They picked up on each other’s moods, and shared their personal lives and emotions. Harvard Business School professor and author Amy Edmondson calls this psychological safety — “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking — a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up . . . a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” While there were other behaviors that were important for high performing teams, Google’s data pointed to psychological safety as by far the most critical.

Downshift

British politician Andrew Bennett is quoted as saying, “the longest journey you will ever take is the 18 inches from your head to your heart.” These three vignettes show heart eclipsing head (and diet and exercise) in protecting health, and supercharging performance through human connection, kindness, compassion, and care. Time to start the journey, I’d say.

Sunday Morning Reflection

Think about a time you were on a great team or part of a community where you had a strong sense of belonging and safety — you felt like you could just be yourself. Sigh. Melt. Right?

Sunday Morning: 118