A deep dive into social and environmental factors that influence your behaviours. All Illustrations by Kanupriya Singh.
bi-ˈhā-vyər. : the manner of conducting oneself. : anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation. : the response of an individual, group, or species to its environment. behavioral adjective.
Most people are unaware of the other things that can influence behaviour. For example:
how you spend your time
who you spend your time with
what’s in your environment
how you interpret your own internal and external environments
All of these can have an impact on the decisions you may or may not make.
When it comes to behaviour, one thing that people struggle with is awareness. Sometimes, we lack internal awareness. We might not notice what we’re thinking, feeling, or what our bodies are experiencing. This includes being unaware of the stories we’re telling, or the mindsets we hold, about our goals or behaviour.
Other times, we lack external awareness. External awareness is about noticing how we might change our behaviour based on the people around us, or our physical environment. Often, we might not recognise certain triggers or prompts in our environment, or realize the impact that stress in our environment is having on our life and our behaviour.
Take a moment here to think about this, and how you are influenced by your environment.
What’s within your reach right now? How might those objects impact your choices?
What can you hear and see in your environment? How is that impacting your work, concentration, or thoughts?
What environments make you feel good? What environments don’t make you feel so good?
Though we might not naturally have a ton of awareness on how our environments are impacting our choices or actions, we do have the power to deliberately give attention to this area. This is called behavioural design – the study of how our environments can influence our behaviour. For example, one key area of research looks into how we can “nudge” people to make different choices based on tiny changes in their physical spaces. One of the most famous examples of “nudging” is the Amsterdam urinal experiment. The Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was having an issue with poor aim in their public urinals. So, a small image of a fly was added to each urinal. By simply giving people something to aim at, spillage was reduced by 80%, and the bathrooms were a whole lot cleaner.
The Elephant rider and the path
In this metaphor…
The rider is the logical – planning, judging, thinking – brain. It can control and direct the elephant… sort of. Sometimes.
The elephant is the deeper emotional brain, as well as the more basic physical sensations and impulses devoted to survival. It’s powerful, and the rider can only direct it for so long.
The path is the environment. The path can affect the elephant’s movements much more strongly than the rider can, and usually subconsciously.
Let’s say that last part again: The path can affect the elephant’s movements more easily than the rider can. In other words, one of the best strategies for adjusting our behaviour patterns, is to create a situation where the ideal choices are the obvious (or only) option.
You can shape the path, or adjust your environment in ways that help promote wanted actions.
Our brains are lazy. Brains aren’t very good at actually thinking. They prefer not to do it. Thinking is hard work. Thinking takes a lot of energy. Imagine how cumbersome it would be to think through the entire process of driving : Sit in car. Make sure it’s your car. Make sure you’re sitting in the driver’s seat. That’s the seat with the steering wheel. The steering wheel is the round thingy. Grasp the car key with opposable thumb and fingers. Stick the pointy end of the key into the little slot. Put feet on pedals. The pedals are the rectangles on the floor. And so on.
Your brain prefers quick reference pattern and routines to find the shortest possible route to the conclusion. If your brain could be on autopilot all the time, it’d be happy.
To find the shortest possible route to the conclusion, your brain needs triggers, which can be from sight, sound, smell, or situation. Once we receive the trigger, our brains simply leaf through their collection of routines and pick the right one. Then, just like an automated vending machine – out pops the routine. In daily life, this is useful. However, it’s not so useful to gain awareness and change behavior.
So, in order to become more conscious of what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing – and then change this if necessary – we need to know about our triggers. For example:
You might feel self-critical in situation A but not situation B.
You might overeat with food C but not food D. Or in situation E but not
What do these situations have in common? They all have some kind of trigger that initiates an automatic set of feelings, thoughts, and/or behaviour. If you learn the trigger, you can learn the outcome.
Because ultimately: Behaviour sequences = trigger + automatic response.
What can you do?
Learn your triggers. You can do this by making a trigger list in which you assess the relative risk of each situation (person, feeling, thought, environment, etc.). This can help in many ways because a trigger list:
Creates awareness. Our patterns operate largely subconsciously. We can’t change what we don’t even know about. A trigger list makes our experience less mysterious.
Shows patterns and links. Once we have a list, we can see trigger A relates to outcome B. Or maybe outcome C, tomorrow or next week.
Helps us work backwards to “break the chain”. This is particularly important for removing unwanted behaviours. It’s hard to quit doing something in the middle of it. It’s a lot easier to avoid doing it in the first place if we know how.
Helps us be compassionate with ourselves. If we understand our thoughts, emotions, and actions as the outcome of a longer sequence, we’re less likely to beat ourselves up for losing self-control or some other similar criticism.
A trigger list also helps us build an action plan.
Maybe you can choose to tackle the biggest trigger, thus eliminating the majority of the problems easily. (For example, getting rid of junk food in the house might completely eliminate late-night binges).
Maybe you can choose to tackle the smallest, easiest trigger, thus building a cumulative record of success.
Pause and reflect on the trigger list idea. If you built your own trigger list, what would it look like?
Which things trigger “good” choices?
Which things trigger “bad” choices?
A few things you can leverage to make desired behaviours easier might include
Visibility. What visual reminders can “cue” your desired behaviour? For example, you could move healthier snack options to the shelf that is at eye level in your pantry, or put your meditation app on your phone’s home screen.
Proximity. How close or easily accessible are the items you want to engage with? For example, try having that big glass of water within arm’s reach at your desk, rather than a bottle sitting in the fridge.
Convenience. How easy is it for you to start the desired behaviour? A classic example here is setting out your gym clothes the night before. (This also functions as a visual cue.)
Memory. How will you remember to do the behaviour? For example, if you’re struggling to remember to take your supplements at night, can you place a sticky note reminder on your bathroom mirror, or set an alarm on your phone?
Support. How can the people around you help you take action? For example, maybe you rope your partner into starting that new strength-training habit with you.
We can also do the reverse, and make our undesired behaviours harder. If we’re avoiding a particular action or a bad habit, we can make it less visible, convenient, obvious, and memorable.
Pause and reflect here. What is one thing you could change about your environment to make your desired behaviours easier?
Research shows that while our behaviours may seem “spur-of-the-moment”, when it comes to over-eating, the groundwork is laid several hours in advance by our daily rituals, habits, mindset, and automatic thinking. Over-eating is simply the last link in a long chain. If you can break the first link, you have a much better chance of never getting to the last link.
The goal of this exercise is to build awareness of what your eating episodes have in common. Maybe it’s a time of day, or a situation, or a type of food, or another person (or being alone), or a feeling – or all of these.
Describe in as much detail as possible what you are experiencing, or remember experiencing, at each stage. Then go back and review. Look for common features. Look at the steps you took.
This helps you build understanding of the process, which you can then use to disrupt these patterns. For instance, if you habitually over-eat when you comeback from office at 6 pm when stressed, then figure out strategies to deal with a stressy dinner hour before it happens – as far in advance as possible. If you habitually think certain thoughts beforehand (e.g., “I’m a failure”, “This will make me feel better”, etc.) then come up with ways to respond to those thoughts before they hit you.
Complete this worksheet every time you have an episode of over-eating. Be honest and thorough. You are collecting data so that you can analyze your own patterns and eventually develop strategies to deal with them.
Digestion & Metabolism – Understand how you lose fat and toolkit to solve GERD problems.
“To change any behaviour we have to slow down and act intentionally rather than from habit and impulse.” : Henna Inam
Many of our behaviors are automatic and habitual, meaning we do them without thinking. For example, biting our nails, procrastinating, or eating unhealthy food. These habits are often deeply ingrained, and it can be difficult to break free from them.
To change these behaviours, we need to slow down and become more conscious of our actions. We need to intentionally choose to act differently and be mindful of our choices. By doing this, we can break the automatic cycle of our habits and replace them with new, more positive behaviors.