Creatures of Habit

Effective advice for lasting habit change

Social Inclusion and Habit Change: Being Included is Essential!

Being socially included matters for habit change.

Recently, I wrote about the fact that we are social creatures. The implications for habit maintenance and habit change are far-reaching. I did not stop to consider, though, why it is that we are social creatures. That's one of those great psychological questions. When you look into it, the answer that you get informs and edifies; but it also causes you to ask other questions.

The best guess is that we are social creatures because hanging around together dramatically improved the odds of our ancestors' survival. Purely from a selection point of view, then, it makes sense that prehistoric folks who were inclined to hang out together survived long enough to reproduce other folks who were similarly inclined to hang out. Over time, our tendency to be social, to congregate, to organize, has produced many configurations of people. From communes to armies, from monasteries to dance clubs.

Because the probability of our survival was so closely connected to the strength of our ties with others, it would make sense that we were, and are, especially sensitive to our social standing. If you're with the 'in-crowd,' you're in the cave when the nocturnal hunters are on the prowl.

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If you're 'out' . . . .

That's why social rejection is so powerful. No surprise, then, that people are very badly affected when excluded. Study after study shows this. People who are socially excluded report lowered self-esteem and a reduced sense of meaning-in-life. Also, people who are socially excluded become highly attentive to social cues. A lot of the time, they seem to be trying their best to regain inclusion.

A group of researchers have gone an important step further. They demonstrated that virtually the only way to get over social exclusion is to regain inclusion. This finding stands in stark contrast to other research showing that people are often remarkably flexible in eliminating the effects of a psychological irritant, such as conflicting thoughts. Not so for social exclusion. Social inclusion is so primary, so necessary to us, that only regaining it will satisfy.

There are almost certainly implications for habit change. As I mentioned in my last post on this topic, when you begin work on changing one of your habits, some of your friends and acquaintances might not be particularly supportive. This could be for a number of reasons, including the fact that you might be reminding one or more of your friends that they should be working on changing their lives for the better. Or it could be that they decide that you're misguided. Or perhaps it will mean that you won't be hanging out with them as much. Maybe they're afraid that you'll be getting another group of friends.

So, you might be on the 'outs' with some folks.

That's unfortunate because, in a time when your life has gone fairly topsy-turvy because you're changing a major element of it, you're also dealing with rejection. At the very time that you need support, you'll have less of it than you did before. Is it any wonder, then, that so many attempts to change habits break down? The economics are simple: Work hard on changing self and experience rejection vs. Don't work hard and be accepted. Huh. It's little wonder that any habit change ever happens at all!

The fact that habit change does happen, I think, is attributable to two things: First, people are strong and they will change their habits despite social rejection. Second, and much more importantly, one's immediate social network can be a wonderful source of support and encouragement. It is this fact that is paramount, and to which I encourage you to pay attention. When you're planning habit change, it is a darn good idea to strategize about ways to include your friends, either as fellow habit changers (ideal) or as supporters (still great). Find ways to include them in what you're doing, or emphasize the importance of their support. They should be willing to help. They are your friends after all.

For more writing by yours truly, visit me at My Bad Habits. I am also on Twitter.

Ian Newby-Clark is a psychologist at the University of Guelph who gives research-based advice for lasting habit change.

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