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May 2015

Say It Quick
a thoughtful message in exactly 99 words

bits of serendipity to inspire and motivate
fuel for your own continuous learning
tips and tricks you can try today
Trick Perceptions Affective Realism

Better Decision Making

First Impression


Say It Quick

Is seeing always believing? Learn about affective realism in this issue of the Firefly News Flash beginning with this story in just 99 words.

Trick Perceptions
It was a foggy November night and Janna was driving a narrow country road home. Out of the woods a shaggy shadow dashed toward her car. She couldn't stop. Frantically she called her friend Nancy.

"You've got to help me. I've just hit a llama!"

What? How could this be? There aren't any llamas on the back roads of Vermont. Deer, yes, but what could Janna be talking about? Yet Janna insisted it was true.

Nancy was completely confused until she remembered that llamas are very common in Janna's home of Uruguay.

Experience plus emotions shape perceptions.



Affective Realism
Seeing is believing.

But wait, not so fast. That old adage may be ready for the dumpster!

New research as reported by Lisa Feldman Barrett and Jolie Wormwood in a New York Times article titled "When a Gun Is Not a Gun" challenges our typical notions of perception. Barrett and Wormwood share research that brings to light the emotional connections between sight and certainty.

The tendency of our feelings to determine what we see is called "affective realism". It turns out that our emotions, our affect, don't just color our perceptions of reality. Feelings influence the content of our perceptions.

We assume that our brain reacts to the physical stimuli gathered by our senses. We see or hear something and react to it. However, our brains really spend most of their energy getting ready for what will happen next. In the authors' words, "The brain is a predictive organ. A majority of your brain activity consists of predictions about the world - thousands of them at a time - based on your past experience… [making] unconscious anticipations of every sight, sound and other sensation you might encounter in every instant."

A network of neurons nestled in the emotion-processing areas of the brain are the source of these predictions. The authors state that the neural networks "drive sensory neurons to fire before sights, sounds and other sensory information arrive from the world." Afterward, our brain does the fact checking to decide whether its prediction was correct.

In other words, depending on the circumstances, you might be predisposed to see a llama instead of a deer or someone holding a gun when all they really have is a cellphone. This may be one explanation for the accidents and deaths that have occurred when police have fired on unarmed individuals. Prejudice and racial bias would only add to the likelihood of the phenomenon of affective realism.

The credibility of eye witness accounts may become a casualty of this research on affective realism. As the authors state, "What we do know is that the brain is wired for prediction, and you predict most of the sights, sounds and other sensations in your life. You are, in large measure, the architect of your own experience."

Read the full article:
"When a Gun Is Not a Gun" by Lisa Feldman Barrett and Jolie Wormwood, New York Times, April 19, 2015.



Better Decision Making
Want to make a good decision? Gather information, set goals, weigh the options, play out the scenarios, and be logical. That's the advice of many systems and processes for making decisions. By studying all the available evidence, we will be happiest with the eventual choices we make. And emotions are frequently included as important factors in making a decision.

But, at least by my informal evaluation, logic, analysis, and facts tend to play a larger role than emotions in most decision-making systems. Many times, emotion and intuition are secondary. In fact, gathering and analyzing information is often recommended as a counterbalance to the tendency to make choices based only on our feelings.

However, affective realism would suggest that our emotions probably influence our choices long before we begin gathering facts for analysis. From the article by Barrett and Wormwood, it appears that affective realism even determines which facts we gather. For all our attempts to make decisions rationally, we can never fully escape our emotions - especially in a charged, stressful situation. We are vulnerable to suggestion far more often than we realize.

What to do? This bumper sticker adage may help: "Don't believe everything you think."

In other words, perhaps we should foster a healthy skepticism about what we perceive as real. Knowing emotions play an outsized role influencing our decisions, we can make more effort to notice them. What feelings are at play before beginning a complex or stressful interaction? What are the instances in which we should double check our expectations? When should we make an especially strong effort to turn off our predicting brain? And what are some effective ways to become more aware of the mental models we are using?

Answering these questions would slow automatic reactions. Instead of being slaves to our emotions, we can intelligently bring those feelings into our logical decision-making process.



First Impression
We are all familiar with optical illusions but we are much less familiar with the idea that our brain may be creating illusions in front of our eyes in the real world!

Barrett and Wormwood describe an experiment in which participants were shown a picture of an emotionally neutral face. What the participants didn't know was that they also saw the flash of either a happy or an angry face that registered below their conscious level. When asked to describe the neutral face, they ascribed emotions to it that corresponded to the subconscious image they had seen. To be precise, they identified physical features in the neutral face - the eyes are smiling or the brow is furrowed - to back up the emotion they had assigned to it.

To demonstrate this aspect of perception to your team, try the following activity.

First Impression

Purpose: To highlight the influence emotions can have on perception, decision-making, and attention

Materials: Two different handouts, one with positive headlines (1a), the other with negative headlines (1b); Photo of an emotionally neutral face on a separate handout (2) or projected for all to see

Time: 15 - 20 minutes

Participants: Any sized group

Introduce the Activity

  1. Using your own words, explain that you would like to explore the factors we consider when making decisions - especially the way our initial impressions might impact how we perceive a situation. Tell people that you will ask them to rate a list of news headlines and later discuss how they made their decisions.
  2. Distribute a list of positive headlines to half the individuals of the group and give copies of a list of negative headlines to the remaining half. Do not point out that there are two different lists of headlines or that the headlines are either positive or negative.
  3. Ask people to read the instructions on their handout and rank the headlines. Allow about 3 minutes.
  4. Next, ask people to look at the photo of a person's face (on the third handout) and think to themselves about their reaction to it. Ask them to mark the appropriate responses on the handout.
  5. Alternatively, if you are projecting an image of the face, ask people to silently write notes about their impressions of the face: What emotions does it show? What visual clues help you know these emotions are present? On a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being very trustworthy and 5 being not at all trustworthy, give this person a trust level score.
  6. Lead a discussion using the following questions as a guide.


Introduce the concept of affective realism.

  1. Share with participants that in experiments people have been shown an emotionally neutral face but it was pared with either an angry or a happy face. That paring was flashed to the people in the experiment below their level of consciousness. Yet the subconscious images actually changed what the subjects saw in the neutral face. They saw furrowed brows and other symbols of anger when the image was paired with an angry face.
  2. Point out that some of the people read positive headlines and some read negative headlines before seeing the image of the face. This was intended to establish an emotional state that might influence the interpretation of the neutral face.

Continue the Discussion


  1. Acknowledge that the activity was not about people's ranking of headlines but about the unexpected impact emotions can have on our perceptions.
  2. Invite people to share the ranking of their headlines, if they wish.
  3. Challenge everyone to become more aware of their emotional state, especially in stressful situations.


Handout 1a
Read through the following headlines. Rank them from 1 to 5 with 1 being the most positive and up-beat and five being the most negative.

Award-Winning Retriever Births Litter of Twelve
Middle East Negotiators Make Headway on Peace Talks
NYSE Surges Up for Seventh Week Running
Octogenarian Scientist Shares Secret to Long Life
Youth Volunteers Renovate Homeless Shelter


Handout 1b
Read through the following headlines. Rank them from 1 to 5 with 1 being the most negative and depressing and five being the most positive.

Local Tax Increase of 5.7% Approved by Legislature
Epidemiologist: Heroin Habit is State-Wide "Epidemic"
Family of Three Trapped in Apartment Blaze
City Center Caught in Deadly Tornado's Crosshairs
Factory Closes, 13,000 Jobs Shipped Overseas


Handout 2
Look at the face on display.

  • What emotions does it show?
  • What visual clues help you know these emotions are present?
  • On a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being very trustworthy and 5 being not at all trustworthy, give this person a trust level score.




Download a PDF of this activity including the handouts by clicking HERE. Then, when you've given it a try, what happened with your group!



If you like what you have read in this issue, I would like to bring the same innovation, creativity, and playfulness to your next meeting or learning event.

Whether you need a keynote speaker, or help with strategic planning, performance improvement, or training facilitators and trainers in your organization, I look forward to your call (802.257.7247) or .

-- Brian

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