As we turn our calendars to 2012 and our attention to New Year's resolutions, it's worth taking a moment to remember a critical, yet too-often overlooked ingredient in the recipe for self-improvement: context.
As I explore in my new book, Situations Matter, context has the power to shape our most basic behaviors and our most private thoughts. From moral character to sense of identity to physical attraction and falling in love, our instincts and actions are surprisingly subject to the power of ordinary situations.
Take brain function, for example. Cognitive scientists refer to the idea as state-dependent learning: we perform better when we're tested on information in the same environment in which we learned it. Why? Because subtle aspects of situations serve as cues that trigger memories.
• Students score higher on exams given in the same room where their lectures took place. And they do even better if they sit in their regular class seat.
• Test people on a word list they memorized while the smell of chocolate lingered in the air and they'll suddenly remember new items as soon as the same odor is piped into the room.
In a nutshell, the true nature of human nature turns out to be remarkably context-dependent.
The story recounts drug abuse among the military during the Vietnam War. Specifically, as of 1971, some estimates had heroin addiction rates as high as 20% among U.S. servicemen. The problem was so severe that President Nixon established a new Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention to monitor and address it.
The data collected as part of this effort led a surprising conclusion, however. A full 95% of returning soldiers–who had been forced to dry out and sober up before coming home–managed to resist falling back into addiction their first year back in the States. The reason? Context. Or, more precisely, that these men found themselves in a very different environment than the one in which their addiction originally flourished.
As Spiegel's story details, many of our bad habits become routinized in particular settings. Indeed, as I've explored in recent posts, most of our daily existence takes place in familiar environments, within the confines of well-worn routine. We get to the point where we take those immediate surroundings for granted, but we also come to associate automatically certain behavioral tendencies with those routines.
Like the smoker who mindlessly lights up when stuck in morning traffic. Or the serial texter who automatically whips out the smart phone at every red light. Or the employee who instinctively grabs an unhealthy snack from the staffroom meeting snack tray.
As the Vietnam example illustrates, a major change of scenery can break this link between context and repetitive, even addictive behavior. But the example also hints at less drastic interventions worth considering in the battle against bad habits. (So, no, you don't need to pick up and relocate to another continent in order to capitalize on the transformational power of context.)
Anything you can do to disrupt your automatic response to your surroundings can be beneficial. One example Spiegel gives is breaking the routine of binging on ice cream by forcing yourself to hold the spoon in your non-dominant hand. Another would be to handicap your habit by proactively preventing access to the tools of addiction in precisely those contexts where you know they'll be most harmful (e.g., leaving your cigarettes or iPhone in the trunk during the morning commute, bringing an apple to that daily staff meeting).
Frankly, just being aware of the role context plays in sustaining bad habits can be enough to kickstart the effort to snap them. One of the major themes of the past decade of social cognition research is that we can combat implicit associations by making them explicit. So by forcing yourself to appreciate the ways in which context shapes behavior, you can regain the upper hand in the battle for self-control.
In other words, with addiction as with other aspects of human nature, you have to recognize that the world around you is pulling your strings before you can effectively start yanking back.