In the last few months, I have gotten into friendly debates with others about whether it is appropriate for local school boards to ban candy and soda from their public schools in light of the alarming increase in childhood obesity.
A recent Rasmussen Reports public poll shows how controversial an issue this is. Results indicated that 52% of the public favors the ban and 40% oppose it. This is a case in leading consciously.
On the one hand are the advocates of personal responsibility. They contend that instead of banning candy and soda from school vending machines, schools and parents should teach children proper nutrition.
On the other hand are those who emphasize changing systems, not just individuals. These advocates base their opinions on a growing body of behavioral science research on how we as human make choices. The evidence is emerging that our environment influences our behavior more than most people imagine.
All of this was brought to mind when I discovered a wonderful website that succinctly summarizes research studies about how heavily influenced we are by subconscious thoughts and the environment in which we live and work.
So what shapes our behavior?
The website includes a publication entitled MINDSPACE, an acronym for influences on our behavior. Quoting directly from the website:
- Messenger — we are heavily influenced by who communicates information
- Incentives — our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses [My note: in other words, not losing is more important to most people than winning.]
- Norms — we are strongly influenced by what others do
- Defaults — we “go with the flow‟ of pre-set options
- Salience — our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us
- Priming — our acts are often influenced by sub-conscious cues
- Affect — our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
- Commitments — we seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts
- Ego — we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves
In short, most of our day-to-day behavior is influenced by what feels good in the moment, what others are doing around us, and the habits we have formed. Our habits are made by strong neural connections in our brains from one thought to the next. The stronger the neural links, the more automatic the behavior.
With regard to fatty foods, though, there is even more to it than bad habits. Recent research has found that our body has fat receptors that respond to how much fat we take in. Once our body gets used to having a certain level of fat, reducing the fat intake causes the body to crave more fat.
To illustrate how difficult it is for children to resist sugary snacks and soft drinks, one university nutrition researcher showed a photo of children sitting in a snack room at a table surrounded by huge vending machines filled with soft drinks and junk foods.
Let’s enter the subconscious mind of Little Johnny, age 10, sitting around a table with his friends in the school’s snack room layered by vending machines along the walls. Using, the MINDSCAPE acronym, what influences Johnny’s decision to either buy soda and candy from the vending machines or to eat the homemade muffin and orange juice his mother packed for him in his lunchbox?
- Messenger — If my principal and teachers think it’s okay to have these vending machines here, it must be just fine to eat and drink from them.
- Incentives — I love the taste of Whippy Crème Sugar Snack. If I eat the low calorie snack my mom made for me, I’ll miss out.
- Norms — All the other kids at the table are drinking soft drinks and eating Whippy Crème. I’d look so uncool if I pulled out the juice and muffins my mom packed for me.
- Defaults — I’ve bought from these vending machines since I’ve been in kindergarten. Why should I change now?
- Salience — The vending machine is right here in the snack room — a huge display. My little lunch box is back in my locker down the hall.
- Priming — The vending machine is here, I’m thirsty, it’s a no-brainer.
- Affect — I deserve a snack. The teacher gave me a hard time today.
- Commitments — Susie bought me a soft drink yesterday. I’ll buy her one today.
- Ego — It feels good to sit here with my friends drinking these cool soft drinks, just like those handsome guys in the television commercials.
Most people I know highly value their right to choose. Yet MINDSCAPE reminds us that as human beings, we are prone to mindless behavior — to take the path of least resistance. As a friend of mine likes to say, the advertising industry is betting trillions of dollars that we make choices based on environmental influences whether we believe it’s true or not.
It’s hard to override our subconscious mind if we are unaware of what influences our behavior. When we become aware, we are prepared to lead consciously — to intentionally choose among alternatives so that the choices really are our own.
It’s not an either-or
Even if Johnny’s school enacts bans on soft drinks and soda within school boundaries, he and his parents still have the responsibility to make sure that he chooses his foods wisely. Yet to break mindless habits, it helps to set up the environment so that desired behavior may occur with less effort.
- Have you been promoting a change in your organization that just isn’t happening? Which of the components of the MINDSCAPE acronym might be interfering with the change?
- Think of the people whom you are seeking to influence. Is it easier for them to move in the direction of the change you are seeking, move away from it, or stay put?
If anyone offers an example, we can analyze it through the MINDSCAPE lens.
- Reframing Change, Chapter 7 on Initiating Change
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