Good Behavior

Can I ask you a personal question ?

Did you deliberately set-out to read this blog, or are you procrastinating, because you should be doing something else instead ?

We don’t always do what we should, do we ?

We get distracted, loose motivation, get bored, make excuses to ourselves and give in, or give up – then we eat the second helping of unhealthy desert, buy the expensive thing we don’t really need, or don’t do the revision we need to for the exam.

It’s as if there’s a part of our brain that rationally makes plans, has aims and objectives, and another part of our brain that needs to be persuaded to go along with it.

This isn’t news of course, we know this instinctively, and consciously attempt to manage ourselves, so that in moments of forgetfulness or weakness we stay on track. We leave notes for ourselves, we bribe ourselves with delayed treats and rewards, we put up motivational posters, read motivational quotes and listen to motivational speakers.

We also intuitively use similar techniques to try to influence the behavior of others – making fresh coffee or baking bread when trying to sell a house, in the hope that potential purchasers will associate the property with pleasant smells etc.

Changing our own behavior can be a very difficult thing to achieve . . . and successfully changing other people’s even harder !

Why ?

We might like to think we’re 100% rational 100% of the time, but unless you’re an android or a Vulcan, it’s simply not true. We are subject to subconscious or emotional, social and environmental influences and triggers, that direct our behavior at least as much, and often more, than our conscious selves.

The study of these motivational and attention based factors, and how we can make use of them to change our own, and other people’s behavior is called behavioral science. It tries to shed light and insight across a range of issues, including motivating ourselves to eat a healthier diet, tofinish writing a book weve started, go to the gym more, or simply get on with the housework.

Policy makers, businesses and many others would also like to influence our behaviour en mass – so we stick to the speed limit, buy their products, sign their petition or lend them our vote.

The acronym MINDSPACE is sometimes used to list a number of the key subconscious factors that influence our behavior – it stands for: how we feel about the Messenger, what our Incentives are, what everyone else is doing, or Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitment and Ego.

A few examples:

- People are more likely to leave their table clean after eating if they smell cleaning products in the air. This is an example of priming, by using a subconscious mental connection.

- People tend to automatically be quiet in a library. This is an example of a social Norm ie: we all have a tendency to do what everyone else is already doing.

- People tend to want, and respond to, ‘anchors’; initial reference points – when they are considering unfamiliar. This is why charities provide ‘suggested minimum donation amounts’.

- People want to feel approval in the eyes of others; which is why teachers now increasingly use happy face stickers or stamps to give positive feedback to pupils – a happy face gives a subliminal message of being liked by others in a way that a tick doesn’t. Happy or sad face symbols are used as feedback  in other scenarios too, including energy bills and public bathroom cleanliness.

A recent fascinating report has been issued by the UK government’s Behavioral Policy Unit, that considers many of these factors in detail, and considers their application in public policy making and delivery.

But it’s a complicated picture, and sometimes our behavioral responses seem counter intuitive. One study set out to measure the effect of different approaches to dissuade the taking of firewood from an area of public forest. A sign asking people not to take firewood actually resulted in an increase in the amount taken – by raising the idea in people’s minds and making them more likely to act on it. A finding that won’t come as a surprise to any parent who has ever told a child ‘whatever you do, don’t touch this‘.

A further sign giving the same message and also showing a photo of a group of men taking firewood had the effect of increasing the amount of firewood taken even further ! The photo illustrated that other people were also taking firewood, and by showing a small group doing so collectively, indicated that it could be a social activity, rather than a solitary one – we like to feel we’re part of a group!

If we want to nudge ourselves to change our behaviour, then we can try to apply these insights. Want to motivate yourself to go to the gym more ? Try keeping your gym kit where you can see it to act as a visual cue. Try tracking your workout progress, weight loss etc, to give yourself targets and feedback. Go to the gym with a friend, to add an enjoyable social aspect, a competitive element, build in accountability and create a social group where the expected ‘normal’ behavior is going to the gym frequently. This is how weight-watchers works! Some of these affects could also be created by participating in  online social networks.

Finding effective ways to influence behavior and change habits isn’t just an interesting personal development issue – many of the most significant issues and challenges our societies face are essentially behavioral ones: from reducing carbon emissions and food waste, to developing healthier lifestyles and more ethical business practices. Often we have the best intentions, but somehow fail to follow them through.

Although it’s far from being an exact science, using visual cues, indicators, reminders, feedback, social expectations, punishments and incentives can help us influence both our own behavior and that of others. Real time energy monitors encourage greater energy efficiency. Using smaller plates and bowls will subconsciously encourage us to reduce our portion sizes. Signs highlighting that 99% of people don’t throw litter on the street may increase the sense of social disapproval for those who do etc.

The Jam song Absolute Beginners (as referenced by the behavioral scientist Paul Dolan in the video below) contains the apt lyrics:

“You can loose some hours just thinking of it. You need the strength to go and get what you want”


Photo by CGP Grey via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – The Art of Giving Up,  It IS the Winning and Losing that Matters

The Fishbowl of Happiness

This post is a journey between two TED talks.

If you spend much time browsing in bookshops like I do, you’ll probably have noticed there’s an ever increasing number of books promoting voluntary simplicity, slowing down, downshifting, thrift, returning to the ‘good life’ etc.

They all have slightly different ideas about what aspects of modern life we should be suspicious of, and what we can do to go about living simpler, more authentic and fulfilling lives. I quite like many of these books, which I think often contain good advice (though often inter-spaced with a lot of waffle and self-justification), but it seems not too many of them seem to consider why adopting a simpler lifestyle seems such an attractive proposition for many of us.

One of the reasons is anything but obvious: we have far too much choice to be happy.

We have more options open to us than ever before – what to eat, what to wear, what we do, where we work, where we go on holiday, what we watch on TV, what music to listen to, how to manage our health, what sort of lifestlye we want. It’s stressful to decide, and if we’re to make confident decisions we need to have done our research beforehand. We all constantly run the risk of discovering we’ve chosen badly and missed a better option or opportunity.

Henry Ford famously described the available range of  his cars with the phrase “you can have any colour you want so long as its black” (though he probably never actually said it). Later when we were able to exercise a little choice, our cars also began to make statements about us – a badge of our identity as consumers, a further layer of choice, meaning and complexity.

But we are now faced with so many choices on a daily basis that we are overwhelmed, anxious or even numbed by the prospect. We might make the wrong choice, or a sub-optimum choice. Are you on the best energy tariff ? Best mobile phone tariff ? Did you pick the best handset available ? Is your browser the most secure/user-friendly ? Do you have the optimal level of insurance cover ? What are you going to watch on TV tonight ? Have you set the recorder for everything you might want to watch ? What music are you listening to ? What great new bands are you missing out on ? What books (or blogs) are you reading ? Is your food or clothing as ethical as it could be ? Have you got the best deal on your next holiday ?

Postmodern life and in particular the internet is responsible – we simply have so much information and so many options available to us. What should be liberating and empowering tends to have the opposite effect and becomes stressful, exhausting and depressing. The psychologist Barry Schwartz describes walking out of a jeans store after an hour of trying on different pairs of jeans, and although he was wearing the best fitting pair of jeans he’d ever worn in his life, he felt worse about them than any pair before . . . he describes the various reasons why and examines the negative consequences of being surrounded by constant choice in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More“.

He also makes the observation that the rich world is surrounded by too much choice, which makes us unhappy, while those in the poor world have far too little choice.

But if too much choice is making us unhappy, what should we do ?

The answer is simple: lower our expectations and learn to be happy with what we already have.

Does this really work ? Can we do this ?

Yes, according to psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In his TED talk Daniel describes the evidence for his view that we all can ‘synthesise happiness’. Synthetic happiness is what we tend to ‘fake’ in order to make ourselves feel better when we don’t get what we want, as opposed ‘real’ happiness, which is how we feel when we do get what we want. The common perception is that synthetic happiness isn’t properly real – just a story we tell ourselves to hide from the truth of disappointment.

In his talk Daniel describes Moreese Bickham, who spent 37 years wrongfully imprisoned in Luisianna State Penetentary, and upon being released said “I don’t have one minutes regret. It was a glorious experience”, and others who appear to have ‘synthesised’ happiness, to avoid facing a disappointing reality.

But recent clinical research indicates that ‘synthetic’ happiness is every bit as real, and that we can therefore become genuinely happier simply by telling ourselves that we are . . . and if we consciously limit our ambitions and lower our expectations, we are likely to find ourselves becoming genuinely happier and less dissatisfied with our lives, and by not constantly striving for more, become more likely to help improve the lives of those most at need in the world.

“Live simply so that others may simply live” - variously attributed to both Mahatma Gandhi, and Elizabeth Ann Seton

Photo by Bitterjug, via Flickr