How Your Environment Determines Your Behavior
Episode #8 of the course How to change any habit by John Fawkes
In 1951, a psychologist named Solomon Asch conducted a fascinating experiment. Subjects were shown a card with a straight line drawn on it, along with another card with three lines on it. They were asked which of those three lines was the same length as the line on the first card.
Over 99% of subjects got this right.
But then, he threw in a twist. He put each subject in a group with several actors who were only pretending to be subjects. He had the actors match up the lines first, before asking the real subject to do the same. In most cases, the actors deliberately chose the wrong answer. The aim was to see if the subjects would choose the correct answer and stand out, or choose the same wrong answer as the people around them.
Only 25% of subjects always chose the right answer when everyone around them was wrong. Five percent always conformed to those around them, while 70% conformed at least some of the time. Incredibly, it seems conformity is such a powerful force that it distorts even our most basic perceptual abilities.
The Uncomfortable Truth: You’re a Conformist
This particular branch of psychology is called social psychology, and virtually every study in this field says the same thing: people adapt their attitudes and behavior to the people around them and the environment they’re in. This has tremendous implications for personal development.
If the people around you work hard, you’ll work hard. If you spend a lot of time around books, you’ll become a reader. If your environment has a lot of healthy food and images of people playing sports, you’ll probably be healthy.
But what if you’re one of those 25% of people who don’t conform, you may ask? The answer is that, over time, those people either do conform to their environment or they leave it—or at the very least, the stress of resisting that pressure to conform takes a heavy toll on them. But the environment always matters. Thankfully, you can choose your environment.
Successful People Change Their Environment
Nearly everyone who successfully and permanently changes their habits also changes their environment. Either they modify the one they’re in or they leave it for an entirely new one. Here are a few things people have done to make their environments more supportive of their self-improvement:
• Re-organize their office to make themselves more productive
• Get a job at a company with a healthier corporate culture, move in with new roommates, or date someone new
• Start attending a gym or switch to a different gym, or play in a sports league.
• Join a networking group or business mastermind group
• Unfollow some of their most negative/downer friends on Facebook, and follow others who are more supportive
• Get someone else to join them—have their spouse go on a diet with them, practice guitar together with a friend, etc.
Note that changing your environment is not, in itself, a habit change, because it doesn’t require consistent action on your part. The beauty of an environment change is that this one-time action on your part produces long-lasting benefits.
Exercise: Change Your Environment to Support Your Habit Change
Think of one way you can alter your environment to make it easier to maintain the two habits you’re changing. It can be big or small, but it should be something you can do in the next couple days. Implement that change immediately—if not today, then do it before this course is completed.
Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
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