Behavioral Science “Beneath the Surface” – The Power of Rational Thoughts in an Unnatural Environment

Earlier this year I completed my PADI dive certification in San Diego, CA. Becoming dive certified has been a goal of mine for many years, one that had been consistently pushed off by either alternate priorities or due to time, financial, or geographic limitations.

I think it is important to note that this was completed as a part of my incentive program at work. The charge was to choose a personal development course (a class, a workshop, a program, anything really) that I saw value in and to observe the implications it had on work and life using a behavioral science lens.

In a prior semester, I had chosen to partake in a Duarte Design workshop to dive deeper into the best practices of communications and presentations utilizing the power of a story. After reviewing a significant amount of professional workshops, I identified a few that seemed interesting but overall, I was feeling a bit uninspired by the offerings that were out there. My manager and I had a conversation about it, and he encouraged me to dig a bit deeper and think outside the box. A new list was inspired and soon I was approved to take a PADI dive class so long as I could foresee value in it and commit to observing how behavioral science could be interwoven into the certification.

That’s pretty cool if you ask me. The idea that the company is interested in my personal growth inspires a heightened sense of admiration and loyalty. I know that many organizations have or are exploring similar programs and I would be interested in learning more about how that has impacted employee loyalty and retention. Send us an email here if you have partaken in a similar program and let us know your thoughts.

So, with that, what did I learn about human behavior 60 feet below the surface? As discussed in previous blog posts, the interesting thing about human behavior is that it can be observed or identified in any activity so let’s find out.

Rational Thoughts, Irrational Thoughts, and Adaptability

Before we can go to 60 feet, we need to begin at the surface. After a series of reading, modules, tests and prep (I’ll discuss these in a bit more “depth” later) I found myself at day 1, this day was 100% in a fitness club pool, no cool fish, no exciting sharks, no pretty coral – just me, an instructor, a bunch of gadgets, an old man swimming laps, and the realization that diving is a whole lot more than just swimming underwater.

After about an hour of orientation, some practice on dry land, and some instruction came the big moment I was waiting for – it was time to get into the pool and learn some skills! The very first skill is to practice breathing through the regulator underwater (for those who do not know, the regulator controls air flow from the compressed tank to your lungs). So, for the first time, fully geared up in a whopping 4’ of water, I placed my regulator in my mouth, began breathing and stuck my head under the water. Commence Panic. My brain immediately said, “No. This is wrong, you shouldn’t be doing this”.

Upon reflecting on this moment and asking myself why this happened I believe this comes down to the nuances of irrational and rational thought. Rationally I know my nose is covered by the mask, the regulator is connected to my mouth and a full tank of air is directly connected to it, allowing me enough air to easily last an hour below the surface. Irrationally though, I have spent 32 years knowing that humans cannot breathe underwater and my brain’s natural sense of panic and self-protection kicked in. For a few seconds, I was a caveman instinctually fighting for survival and grasping for the surface. Rationally everything was safe, but irrationally everything felt wrong.

After a few more attempts I’ll admit I had a moment of “hey maybe this isn’t for me…”. That is where the power of rational thought took over, I took a minute to think over the equipment, how it worked and how to use it. I knew it worked and that it was simply a process of learning a new skill. Through this deliberate thought process, I was able to push away the irrational panic, slow down my breathing, and go at it again and, voila I was calmly breathing underwater.

Within an hour we were at the bottom of the pool in the deep end and I was breathing away like the first moment of panic never happened. To me this is both fascinating and powerful – think about how much influence we have over our actions and reactions when we take a moment to think rationally, focus our intentions, breathe calmly, and use that focus to decrease our anxiety. The statement “just breathe” really can be a magical cure.

The irrational side of your brain has an incredible amount of power over you but by slowing down and intentionally rationalizing a situation you inversely have an incredible amount of power over the irrational side your brain. Don’t believe me? Try it next time you find yourself overwhelmed or nervous. Imagine if you used this the next time you were having a problem at work? The adaptability of humans is truly incredible when we put our minds to it.

Again, we would love to hear any insights you have on the subject – email us here!

Note: I have snorkeled countless times and never had a fearful reaction to breathing with my face in the water and yet this was very different. I can only conclude that it is the mental awareness that I was not directly connected to surface air and that everything was self-contained, and I was weighted enough to sink to the bottom, not float at the surface. In previous experiences plunging my head fully underwater to explore meant holding one’s breath and this was a hard habit to break.

In addition to these insights around rationality, I believe that activities like diving that require intense mental focus and push you outside of the limits of your everyday thinking help to exercise the brain and drive additional clarity in the everyday world. I am a firm believer that we have our best ideas in environments where we find personal inspiration. I often find that a few miles into a hike, a long bike ride, or on the slopes my mind tends to open up I have moments of revelation and clarity – a new bliss.

While it’s still early – diving seems to have this same power. By placing myself into an environment that diminishes some senses while heightening others my thoughts are able to gather an interesting sense of clarity. Diving is extremely meditative, and I found that it opens up an interesting opportunity to disconnect and free the mind. I often focus on many things or tasks at one time which can lead to a fog and mental drain toward the latter half of the day. Interestingly enough however, on the two afternoons following my open water dives, I found myself tackling the remainder of the day without the need for a break and with a heightened sense of focus.

My advice? Find an activity (or two, or three) that allows you to become both hyper-focused and disconnected at the same time and use it to your advantage. For Steve Jobs, it was a daily walk – a moment inspired by habit and focus that helped him maintain a state of mental clarity. For me, it’s being outside and active. Carry a notebook, or if you can do so without breaking your contemplation stop and jot down some simple notes on your phone, some may be nonsense, but some just might be your next big idea if not a stepping stone it. If not possible in the moment, jot them down as soon as the activity is over.

All that said though, PADI training is a bit of BS. 

I mean that as a compliment. Prior to participating in the course, there is a series of eLearning modules that need to be completed. When I first sat down to take them, I was underwhelmed with the format and content but as I got deeper into them, I found myself impressed with some of the nuances of Behavioral Science (BS) that were sprinkled throughout.

Here are a few I noticed and why I believe they have value.

  • Throughout the learning, there is an emphasis on planning your next steps and writing them down. We know that written goals and goals stated out loud can actually help drive adherence and follow through. In addition, there is a “priming section” that allows you to review in advance each key takeaway that you are supposed to learn in that section – by priming my focus on these key insights I found that my time was better utilized in the modules themselves.
  • Habits, habits, habits. There is a strong push toward habit development in both the modules and the active training. Habits help us utilize mental shortcuts and lower the mental load that it takes to perform an activity. By creating a systematic series of habits from pre-dive planning to handling situations as they arise, the PADI system creates a solid plan for minimizing errors that could lead to dangerous situations below the surface. The training also emphasizes the need to minimize panic (i.e. engage rational thought) and allow the habits to take over. Stop, think, act.
  • Lastly, this is small, but each training and certification makes you accept a diver statement before submitting. Studies have shown that reciting an honor code or an institutional credo before signing a document increases integrity and honesty. It’s a stretch, but I cant help but wonder if this simple concept has increased the honesty of those submitting the self-examinations and knowledge-based work and, again a stretch, perhaps it has even saved a life? We may never know but it’s an interesting thought.

I think the PADI modules have a long way to go and still need to work through the weeds of BS, but I am quite impressed by the insights that they have applied so far.

At the end of the day, there is SO much more that goes into diving than I realized. That being said, I believe there is also so much more that can be learned and inspired by it than I realized as well. Try it with these insights in mind, it may just have the same impact on you!

Shoot us an email now to see how these same insights can be applied within your organization or life. If you found this interesting, share below!

Cover Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash


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1 Comment

  1. Tim Houlihan

    Ben, this is a terrific metaphor for the application of behavioral science: it’s important for us to intentionally set aside our irrational, cave-dweller thinking from time to time.

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