Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

Easy to think means likely to do...
One of the more frustrating things as a parent is that your kids do things, and when you ask them why, they have no idea. You ask them, "What were you thinking?" and you get a blank stare, and if you're lucky, a shrug of the shoulders. As adults, we think we understand our own behavior, and so it frustrates us that our kids don't understand what is driving their actions.

Of course, adults aren't really that good at understanding the source of their actions either. That is why so many people have profited from some form of counseling. We don't know the factors that drive our behavior. Worse yet, we often assume that our behavior is driven by aspects of our personality. We believe that we have a lot of agency in choosing our actions.

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The reality is that our environment drives a lot of our behavior.

In my last few posts, I talked about how the accessibility of our concepts can influence our preferences. Accessibility is how easily something comes to mind. If something is easy to think about, then we assume we like it. So, if I make popcorn easier to think about, then you are more likely to choose to eat popcorn than if popcorn is hard to think about.

A study by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz in the October, 2008 issue of Psychological Science extends this idea to look at the ease of reading things in your environment.

For example, in one study they asked people to read about an exercise routine that would help them get into shape. For some people, the routine was written in a font that was easy to read, while for other people, the routine was written in a font that was hard to read.

Later, people were asked to judge whether they thought the routine would be interesting, and also how likely they were to participate in that routine. People thought the routine would be more boring if it was written in a hard-to-read font than if it was written in an easy-to-read font. They also felt that they would be less likely to incorporate the routine into their lives if it was hard to read than if it was easy to read.

So, no wonder it is difficult for us to figure out what is driving our behavior. Very simple aspects of our environment that make information easy or hard to process can influence the likelihood that we will engage in different behaviors.

But findings like this also have a positive message. Because our behavior is so strongly driven by our environment, we can help ourselves to change our own behavior. We must strive to structure our own environments in ways that make it easy to think about the behaviors we want to perform. For example, if you are a runner, keep your running shoes in a visible spot, so you are reminded about running. Keep t-shirts or medals from races where you can see them to make it easy to think about running. All of these aspects of your environment will increase the accessibility of thoughts about running, and that will affect how likely you are to keep up that behavior.

And finally, understanding the effects of subtle factors in your environment on behavior should give you more sympathy for your kids. When they say they don't know why they acted as they did, they're right. They just aren't as good as adults at making up stories to explain their actions

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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