We know ice breakers can help kick off a meeting in a relaxed, positive way, but do they always have to be so… awkward? We’re here to accomplish something, so why do I need to know what book my colleague from HR would take to a desert island? Does anyone really need me to tell two lies and a truth? Behavioral scientists aren’t known to be the life of the party – in fact, we’re rarely invited to the party – but our expertise does offer us an interesting way to kick off meetings.  

Here’s my favorite ice breaker, drawn from Thiagi’s 100 Favorite Games by Sivasailam ThiagarajanAll you do is read this list of words: 

Dream 
Bed
Night
Mattress
Snooze
Sheet
Nod
Tired
Night
Artichoke
Insomnia 
Doze
Blanket
Night
Alarm
Nap
Snore
Pillow 

Ask participants to raise their hands if they recalled the words “dream” and “pillow.” Explain that people remember the first and the last things in a series, what we call the primacy and recency effects. Most participants will have written dream and pillow because they were the first and last words in the list.  

Then ask participants to raise their hands if they recalled the word “artichoke.” Explain that people remember things that are novel or different. This is called the surprise effect. Most participants will have written artichoke because it is different from the other words in the list. If you’re lucky, no one will joke, “I artichoke you.” That is called a bad joke. 

Next, ask participants to raise their hands if they recalled the word “night.” Explain that people remember things that are repeated. We call this the repetition effect. Most participants will have written night because you repeated it three times. We call this the repetition effect. And now you probably will remember it’s called the repetition effect. 

Finally, ask participants to raise their hands if they recalled the word “sleep.” Probably everyone is going to raise their hands. Reveal that this word was not on your list. Explain that the brain closes logical gaps in what it hears, sees, or reads, frequently remembering things that did not take place. Most participants will have written sleep because it logically belongs to this list (even though you never read it). We call this the false-memory effect. 

At this point your colleagues will be suitably impressed at your mastery of these behavioral science basics. You might not learn which car they would be or what they would want for their last meal, but they will know a little more about how their brains really work.  

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