behaviour change; not what you think






The London based RSA, founded in a Covent Garden coffee shop in 1754, is dedicated to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Last week I read an RSA essay by Matthew Taylor exploring 21st century enlightenment. Included in the essay is an evidence based exploration of behaviour change. Here are a couple of paragraphs;

“Most of our behaviour, including social interaction, is the result of our brain responding automatically to the world around us rather than the outcome of conscious decision-making. In this sense it is more realistic to see ourselves as a node integrally connected to the world rather than a separate, wholly autonomous, entity. For example, recent work on the impact of social networks shows how they subtly but powerfully influence our lifestyles. After studying public health patterns for two decades Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler conclude:

‘Social influence does not end with the people we know. If we affect our friends and they affect their friends then our actions can potentially affect people we have never met. We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend gained weight, you gained weight. We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend stopped smoking, you stopped smoking. And we discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend became happy, you became happy.’

Practically, it turns out that changing our context is a more powerful way of shaping our behaviour than trying to change our minds. If you want to become a better person, don’t buy a book of sermons, choose more virtuous friends.”

I first started to think deeply about behaviour change about 15 years ago after reading Professor Rodney Stark’s 1996 book The Rise of Christianity. The book unpacks the sociological context and factors behind the extraordinary growth of the movement in the first three centuries AD. At the time, the disruption in my thinking was related to the power of community to affect people’s lifestyle choices. In short, rather than people choosing a particular behaviour (for example, helping poor or sick people) because of a belief, studies of a variety of groups suggest it is more substantially driven by a desire to belong to a community who also practices these behaviours.

What we are exposed to, our experience of life, is the dominant shaper of our beliefs and behaviour, rather than our articulated belief system or worldview. So what? Here are two important implications:

1. Until we have experienced the alternative, we should be cautious about how dogmatically we argue our case as superior.

This should not paralyse us in putting forward a viewpoint. Indeed, whether it is a trivial argument about the merits of Sydney or Melbourne or a more substantial discussion about an ideology, we should make our point with robust evidence. But the point is that until we have walked in another person’s shoes our argument is simply a point of view. In a less ethereal context, a commitment to immersing ourselves in the other’s perspective is a powerful path forward in everyday family or household tensions.

It is often said that until one has a child, we have no idea what its like. Until we have grieved we have an impoverished view of life. Until we are unemployed, we have no idea what it is it actually like. I recall Ched Myers, from whom I have learned much, saying that the reason he chose to live where he did in LA was to “intentionally see the world through the eyes of the marginalised”.

2. Personal and professional development is still mired in the myth that it is mainly about content. Content, without context is hollow though. The stuff that catapults us forward is our intentional or unintentional exposure to a situation that challenges our existing capabilities or prejudices. Our lives follow predictable paths because we stay within our communities; we feed our minds with content with which we already basically agree, we hang out with people like us. There is nothing wrong with this except if our long term goal includes development and wisdom. My hypothesis is that the broader our thoughtful first hand exposure to different perspectives, the wiser our grasp of that domain.

Happy exploring.