Saturday, February 11, 2012

Let's Restructure Our Environment

The previous parts of this article are here: Part 1Part 2Part 3,Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. This is the last post in the series of posts on Self-Change that I started earlier this month. I do plan to write on this topic again, but I conclude the current series with this post.

In my previous post, I shared about a research study in which it was found that people who habitually ate popcorn at movies had difficulty stopping themselves from consuming popcorn even when the popcorn served was a week old, stale popcorn that they didn't actually like much. This is the power of habits! It can make us engage in activities that we we don't necessarily enjoy or find desirable.

In another part of the same study that I shared yesterday, the research was conducted in a different set up. This time the set up was a meeting room near the cinema instead of the movie theater itself. Interestingly, with the change in the location, the habitual popcorn eaters did not consume too much of the stale popcorn. Reason: the strong-habit participants had the habit of eating popcorn at cinema, but not in meeting rooms. This is a demonstration of how context influences our habit. In a separate study published in the same paper, researchers also forced the participants to eat popcorn with their non-dominant hand, and interestingly, this helped the strong-habit participants eat little of the stale popcorn. This is again a demonstration of how seemingly strong habits can be broken if somehow the mindless automaticity of habits can be disrupted.

I believe that the key lesson from the above research studies is that a good strategy of self-change may be to control the environment as much as we try to control ourselves. In fact, if the environment is changed, then changing ourselves may be a significantly easier, because the power of habits is weakened when the context changes. This is exactly what I did last month, when I wanted to get rid of my habit of wasting time on the internet in the evenings after dinner. As I have shared here before, a morning person that I am, my energy levels are usually low in late evenings. So, it was easy to fall into the habit of engaging in mindless internet surfing after dinner. Although I knew that the habit was unproductive, I would continue with this habit. So, I took wise inspiration from my Behavior Modification classes from undergrad years: I decided to restructure my environment. Instead of trying to not engage in mindless surfing, I decided to inculcate a new habit of reading  books every evening after dinner. To read books, I did not need my laptop to be on. So, I turned off my computer completely. This helped me reduce mindless internet surfing in the evenings. However, it did not eradicate the habit completely. I realized that one of the reasons was that I read a lot of books during the day anyway, because of being in the academic profession. So, the motivation to do more academic reading was not always high in the evenings. I thought I had to read something very different than I read during the day. I decided to read fictional literature, and that worked dramatically. Not only did I not feel the urge to turn on my computer anymore, but I started enjoying my reading activity. Thankfully, I started my fictional reading with P.G. Wodehouse, whose books are a humorous delight to read.

Not many people realize the power of restructuring the environment, not even people who have had training in Behavior Modification. For example, in response to my blog post in which I had shared about my resolution to read books after dinner, a friend from my undergrad years at N.I.M.H. (India) emailed me and suggested that I should have the willpower to not engage in the distracting internet surfing activity without turning my computer off. Ain't the fact that I was struggling to get over an undesirable habit ample proof that my willpower was not working? Most of us don't realize that willpower is a limited resource that we have, and thus, we cannot always rely on it change ourselves (Social psychologist, Roy Baumeister from Florida State University has done some excellent research on the topic that I can share here some other time). My thinking is that when it comes to self-change, we need all the help that we need. So, instead of relying solely on our willpower, it may be wise to restructure our environments.

-- Concluded --


  1. You make some good points about restructuring the envt Paresh but I hope you are not undermining the power of will power or one's ability to muster enough of it. Like one accrues cultural capital, one can surely accrue will power capital through grit and det, hey?

    1. True Ma'am! I am with you on finding ways of enhancing and utilizing our willpower. The only point that I wanted to make is that we should not remain in the illusion that we have unlimited willpower. Research shows that our willpower also gets depleted, almost like the drainage of a battery. So, restructuring of environment could be seen as a method that reduced the load on our willpower. I think the more effective and efficient we are in usage of our willpower, the more fulfilling life we can live.

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