Insights from the Behavioral Science Guy: The fastest way to change your behavior is to change your environment
Next time you procrastinate, overeat, lose your temper, text while driving, chicken out on a tough conversation — pick your sin — try something new.
Don’t blame yourself. Blame your environment.
The central message of the past five decades of social science research is this: We have far less control over our behavior than we think.
Now, lest you think I’m about to justify criminals and go soft on personal responsibility, I’m not. In fact, I’m going to share with you the key to truly taking control of your life. Here it is — crochet it onto a sampler, make it your laptop wallpaper, tattoo it on your forehead:
The best way to control your behavior is to take control of the things that control you.
It turns out that those who most appreciate how little control they have over their own behavior are the best equipped to change it.
Today, I’ll share one illustration of this empowering idea. In future columns, I’ll add others. Keep reading and you’ll have a complete view of all of the sources of influence that shape our choices — and, therefore, a powerful way of taking control of your life.
A few years back, we invited two dozen 12-year-olds at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to play soccer for a couple of hours. For our experiment, we wanted them good and hungry.
It worked. When they trotted into our dining room, they would have eaten tree bark. We lined them up by size and assigned every other one to one of two tables. Next, we served them macaroni and cheese — the universal satisfier of 12-year-olds. They attacked it like vacuum cleaners with flatware.
As they slowed down, we walked around both tables to ensure every kid had eaten to his satisfaction. After they waddled out of the room, we weighed the remaining macaroni and cheese in the serving bowls from the two tables to calculate the total consumption of each. Remarkably, while both groups reported feeling equally full, the kids at one table ate 73 percent more than those at the other.
Let that number soak in for a moment. This was not a trivial difference. If you hadn’t known better, you might assume one table had twice as many kids in attendance. But it didn’t. Kids were assigned such that the total body mass of both tables was darned near the same.
So what made the difference? Why would some kids eat such a colossal amount more?
Before I share the punch line, let me reiterate the central point I hope you’ll take away from it. We have far less control over our behavior than we think. We tend to think that our behavior is far more conscious, considered and willful than it is.
As these 24 adolescents proved, the difference between the two tables was simply the size of the plates and spoons. Kids at one table had plates that were six inches larger in diameter than those at the other and serving spoons the size of shovels, whereas the others had a more civilized size.
And consider the result again. The kids at the gargantuan-plate table ate 73 percent more, while those who ate much less reported feeling equally full.
You and I are far more affected by small changes in our physical environment than we understand. The reason this is so empowering when you understand — and accept — it is because the easiest thing you can change is your environment.
Don’t want to text while driving? Put your phone in the back seat. Tired of procrastinating? Disable some of the electronic interruptions that keep tempting you into impulsive forays. Want to change your diet? Use smaller plates and spoons.
Lest you think that adults are less susceptible to the gravitational pull of their surroundings, my friend Brian Wansink, a Cornell professor and leading expert on eating behavior, played a similar trick (www.vitalsmarts.com/desnews) on 300 of my colleagues. At the start of a daylong seminar, we invited them to breakfast. Half went to one buffet line, half to another. One line had the bacon positioned first and the fruit last. On the other table, the pig and the berries were reversed. No surprise — those at the first table were twice as likely to take bacon and half as likely to take fruit.
But that’s not the big takeaway. After breakfast, Wansink shared this result with these 300 sophisticated business representatives. They laughed. They nodded thoughtfully. Then they went to lunch. They went to one of two Mexican buffet lines. In one, the desserts came first and the salad came last. In the other, the order was reversed.
Even this informed group — who assumed they were now wise to our tricks — behaved exactly the same way they had for breakfast, eating twice as much dessert and half as much salad in the first line.
The best way to take control of your behavior — and your life — is to take control of the things that control you — starting with your environment.
Joseph Grenny, the Behavioral Science Guy, is a New York Times best-selling author and co-founder of VitalSmarts. For 30 years, he has led a research team helping organizations achieve new levels of performance.
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