Poprotskiy Alexey/Shutterstock
Source: Poprotskiy Alexey/Shutterstock

I was having a discussion with a colleague recently about controlling behavior. He seemed to find the idea that one person could control another’s behavior to be both astounding and objectionable. But while the idea that other people can control my behavior makes me uncomfortable, too, it’s a fact.

Consider a simple example: Tom tells Jerry that he's found a great new walking track in a National Park not far from where they live, so they decide to go for a walk on the weekend. They decide to bring their families along and arrange that Tom will drive to Jerry’s house and then Jerry will follow him in his car to the start of the walk. On the way, Jerry decides that he wants to keep his car a constant 50 meters behind Tom’s. When they finally arrive at the destination, Jerry comments, “I had to keep speeding up and slowing down to stay with you, Tom."

Jerry is exactly right. He did “have to."

As soon as he set a goal of staying a certain distance behind Tom, Tom had complete control over how fast Jerry drove. Tom might not have consciously exercised that control; he might not have even realized he had it. But it was there nevertheless. If Tom sped up, Jerry had to speed up. If Tom slowed down, Jerry had to slow down. For as long as Jerry wanted to maintain a constant distance behind Tom, Tom was able to control how fast Jerry drove. Tom certainly didn’t have control over all aspects of Jerry as a driver—he couldn’t control Jerry’s choice of music or how he held the steering wheel—but he did have control over how fast Jerry went.

This simple example reveals a principle that applies generally: When you know an important goal that someone else has, if you can arrange situations so that they only achieve their goal by behaving in certain ways, then you can control their behavior for as long as they continue to pursue that goal.

This fundamental principle is the basis of things like praise, reinforcement, and punishment. If you want praise from someone, they will be able to get you to behave in various ways by praising you when you do. Stickers work in schools because we first teach children that stickers are great things to have, and then, when we’ve got them wanting the stickers, we only give the stickers to them when they do what we require.

But this fragile relationship of manipulating circumstances to see people behave in certain ways depends entirely on those people’s goals. When stickers don’t “work” any more, in the sense that other people won’t do what you want them to do to get your "stickers," all that has happened is that those people have changed their goals about wanting stickers. Perhaps, now, the goal to wind you up is more attractive than the goal to accumulate stickers.

The thing that is often forgotten with a sticks-and-carrots ethos is that whether something is a stick or a carrot is determined entirely by the person to whom the stick or carrot is being applied. A “carrot” is simply something a person wants and a “stick” is something the person wants to avoid.

What people want can change; when this happens, the landscape of sticks and carrots changes, too. Food can often be used to get hungry people to behave in particular ways; if someone is on a hunger strike, however, food will be a useless manipulator. Some people will do a lot of things for money but not even that works on everyone. At the end of the day, it’s all relative.

Whenever you’re feeling as though another person seems to be yanking your chain or controlling you in some way, you might be completely correct. But instead of asking them to change what they’re doing (which could also be a useful strategy) it may be helpful to check your own goals: What’s important to you at the moment? What do you want? What goals are at the front of your mind? If you can somehow change your own goals you will also change the dynamics of the relationship with the other person. Changing your own goals is not always easy but it can be a lot easier than changing another person.

It’s a fact that, because of the way we are designed, other people can control our behavior. It’s also a fact, though, that they only control our behavior by manipulating the extent to which we are able to achieve goals that are important to us. It’s our own private collection of goals that determines what will be sticks and carrots for each of us. By getting to know our own goals better we will have the best chance of developing satisfying relationships and forging the life we want. 

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