Category: Behavioral Science

Tiny changes can make a big difference!

Image Source: https://medium.com/@aidanhornsby/notes-on-atomic-habits-c021e38eeae7

“If you can get 1% better each day for one year, you will end up 37 times better by the time you are done”

First let me tell you the story of this tiny plant. Last year during the lockdown, I was spending good time gardening, writing, and clicking pictures. I reused an old plastic bottle and filled it with some soil and planted a small stem of my favorite plant-pothos. I fastened it in my balcony grill. Every alternate day I was giving water to it. But after some days, I saw it drying. I got disappointed and started not thinking about it. I also reduced the frequency of giving water. Days and months passed. One day on a weekend, I saw a tiny green stem inside the old plastic bottle. I couldn’t believe it. It felt like some extra grass grew. I went closer to the plant and there was a sweet smile on my face. I finally knew that my plant survived. It has not survived in just one day but because of everyday’s care & nurture getting accumulated for many days. On similar lines, your good habits are like these tiny changes you make every day that leads to a bigger change later in your lives. (Scroll it down to see the beautiful plant as of today)

Reading this book makes you believe that small habits can make a big difference. And what is a habit? A habit is a behaviour that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. James Clear believes in incremental change. He feels that success is the product of daily habits-not-once-in-a-lifetime transformations. The interesting thing about this book is that it not only tells you how to create good habits but also how to break bad habits. He also warns the readers to be careful about the future trajectory as it will be dependent on your their habits.

To me, this book feels like the combination of popular books Sapiens (A Brief History of Humankind) and Nudge(Improving Decision about Health, Wealth and Happiness) Like Sapiens, this book tells us that we have the brains of our ancestors but temptations they never had to face. We still crave calorie-dense foods because our brain’s reward centres have not changed for approximately 50 thousand years. Like Nudge, Clear argues that the environment matters more than motivation. As Richard H Thaler talks about the concept of “choice architecture” that shapes people’s behaviour, James Clear believes that ‘every habit is context dependent’. People often choose products not because of what they are, but because of where they are. Accordingly, we need to design our environment such that we pursue our good habits. For instance- if you want to hydrate yourself, you must keep the water bottlers near you. We have to create space for every habit. A stable environment where everything has a place and a purpose is an environment where habits can easily form.

Change can take years -before it happens all at once

Our daily habits(positive/negative) compound for us and lead to a bigger change. And the thing is that whenever we have breakthrough moments, we don’t realise the reason behind them. The author has talked of the concept of “plateau of latent potential”. This is that moment where we get breakthrough results, but the thing is that we human beings generally don’t have patience. We can’t wait. I can share from my own personal experience. When I started preparing for civil services, things seem insurmountable and I also felt for some time that I don’t know if I can do this. But I got results. I couldn’t even clear prelims in my first attempt. But in my subsequent attempts, I cleared prelims and mains both. And it does not mean that I didn’t work hard in my first year. My result was a cumulative effect of all years and not only of the present year when I cleared the examination.

Clear challenges the norm of setting goals if anyone wants to succeed. He adds: “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.”

There are three layers of behavior change:

  • Outcome-based habits: What you get
  • Process-based habits: What you do
  • Identity-based habits: What you believe

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it. True behavior change is identity change. It means that to make your habit permanent, you must make your habit part of your life and identity.

One of the best things Clear has to say that you need to unlearn and continuously edit your belief systems to upgrade your identity. And this cannot happen overnight. For instance- doing exercise is a good habit but to build a healthy body, you have to get out of your bed every single day at the same time. Go for a walk. Repeat this despite all odds.

As per Clear, there are four simple steps to build a better habit: Cue;Craving ; Response & Reward The cue gives you an indication about reward, craving makes you feel like getting that reward, the response is the actual habit you perform and rewards are the end goal of every habit. This whole process is also called a feedback loop.

The Habit formation Feedback Loop

Developing good habits or changing habits first and foremost requires you to understand what you are actually doing. The author tells us to create a list of our daily habits so that we can observe our thoughts and actions. We need to ask this question after making our daily list, does this habit help me become the type of person I wish to become? Below are the laws that we need to apply to cultivate good habits and eradicate bad habits.

The Laws of Habit Formation

Even our family, friends, and people we follow play an important role in shaping our behaviours. We pick up the habits from the people around us. As the author adds that ‘ we don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them’. We imitate the people we admire.The best strategy to develop a good habit is to surround yourself with the people who have the habits you want to have yourself. Sticking with good habits requires you to create short term rewards. As our brains still tempted towards instant gratification, we need to create a habit tracker. The author adds that habit tracker makes you believe that you are working towards becoming the type of person you wish to become.

In the end, the author talks about ‘the Goldilocks Rule’ that will help you to stay motivated in life and work. As per this rule, humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard, Not too easy, Just Right. Reaching goldilocks zone makes you achieve the state of flow. Flow is something one achieves when they have immersed themselves in what they are doing. But doing the same thing or following the same habit can also bring some boredom. The biggest challenge for self-improvement is dealing with this boredom. “The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over & over. You have to fall in love with boredom”, adds the author. Mastery requires more practice than planning. Though habits are important,they are not enough. You need to have a combination of automatic habits and deliberate practice. And most importantly, you need to review and reflect on these habits to continuously fine tune them as one thinker has rightly said” a genius is not born, but is educated and trained”.

We are irrational beings?

new image

Nobel laureate Herbert Simon has given the concept of “bounded rationality” which tells us that the human mind can not cope with the complexity of the world due to the limitations in their mental capacity. To make sense of this complexity, we create a simplified mental model of reality and work with this model. Obviously, the model created by us is full of biases, stereotypes and irrational views. On the same lines, the author of this book-Dan Ariely motivated by his personal tragedy of severe burns tries to understand the rationale behind irrational decisions taken by human beings who are termed as the most intelligent species of their time.

The quote “Man is not truly one, but truly two” by Dr. Jekyll tells the crux of the behavior of human beings. We always wonder after seeing various newspaper reports related to irrational crimes like teenage pregnancy, rape of children, extreme violence etc committed by sane individuals. Generally, it happens in a fit of arousal which can vary from hunger, anger, excitement, jealousy and importantly sexual arousal. This happens because human beings are not only irrational but systematically and predictably irrational. As MIT Behavioral economist Dan Ariely proved in his book through various experiments which guides us to understand irrationality in human behavior so that we can design our choices for the better decision-making process.

Dan Ariely in this book has tried to substantiate through various experiments that despite all achievements and wonders were done by human beings, we behave irrationally in our daily life because of wiring in our brains. We behave irrationally because its easy for our brain to make things clear in a complex world. He talks about relativity and tells that we don’t have ‘internal value meter’ that can evaluate the worth of any product or other emotional things also. We always compare things to understand its worth. In fact, relativity helps in the decision-making process but it also makes the life miserable because of the never-ending quest of getting physical and other emotional things in life better than others.

These ideas are very much visible in our daily life. We all experience the phenomenon of comparing with our neighbors, friends, colleagues etc. In fact, we also get suggestions from others that don’t compare yourself with others. However, we can’t stop doing this because we don’t have any other way to measure things.  Not only this, we make very crucial decisions in our life like buying things, subscribing magazines, choosing the life-partner etc with the help of relativity.

The zero-price effect creates an emotional pull for all human beings to participate in the processes which offer things for free. We automatically accept the free beer or Pepsi or energy drink not because we liked it or we needed it but because it is free. At times, the zero price can affect our decision-making process in a negative manner also as seen in terms of wastage of common resources owned by humanity.

One of the interesting findings in the book is that “we live simultaneously in two different worlds -one where social norms prevail and other where market norms make the rules”. In fact, social norms and market norms exist together in the society but whenever they collide, it creates a lot of problems. We can not measure the value of emotions and other social norms in monetary terms. When the social norms are converted into market norms, it is very difficult to go back. Here the author has given the example of a study conducted in a school in Israel where parents were penalized if they came late to pick up their children. The result was disastrous after this, as parents now didn’t feel guilty about coming late to pick up their kids, as social norms were converted into market norms.

The author also talks about the rampant consumerism, procrastination, problem of self-control, the high price of ownership not only in terms of physical products but also in terms of ideas, points of views. When we agree to one point of view, we just don’t want to change it because of the fallacy of high valuation of whatever we have. And he also proves that due to our stereotypes and expectations, we get in what we expect. The value of price is very important in our life. We lavishly enjoyed the food in a high-end restaurant even if the food is bland because we have paid more for it. That is why the author mentions that our headache disappears when we take a 50 cent aspirin but it persists when we take a penny aspirin.

At the end of the book, the author has spoken about the character of human beings and why are we dishonest? In fact, as per the author, we are honest until the moment it suits our requirements and when there is an opportunity, many honest people will cheat. It happens because small transgressions do not wake up our conscience and super-ego as propounded by Sigmund Freud, and we cheat on small things because of the absence of internal honesty monitor.

In the era of digital banking, the author provides a radical perspective that people are more prone to cheat when they are not dealing with cash. The argument here is that when we cheat under electronic transactions, we don’t feel it in our hands and therefore we don’t even realize that we are doing something wrong. In fact, it is so true that when we spend money through credit cards, we don’t feel the pinch but when we buy things through cash, we feel the pinch of spending money. In fact, this can be the reason behind various electronic frauds happening in various parts of the world. One more interesting thing about honesty revealed by the author was when we are reminded of moral values and principles, we followed it immediately.

The author also talks about our behavior to influence others and sacrifice ‘ personal utility’ to gain ‘reputational utility’. It happens because we want to show others that we are ‘unique’ and different.

However, the realization that we are predictably irrational also creates opportunities to frame our choices and influence the decision-making process of individuals to make better decisions in life. The zero-price effect can be used to frame good policies in terms of making it free to travel on public transport, using electric vehicles etc. Social norms are cheap and have a strong emotional backing which can be used to influence people to pay taxes, to take care of the elderly etc. In fact, we need to be reminded of moral codes every now and then so that our super-ego does not sleep and makes us aware whenever we try to commit any dishonesty.

In just 280 pages, the author has provided stimulating and thought-provoking details of human behavior and how human beings are systematically irrational because we repeat our behaviors again and again. This book along with “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness” authored by Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein and “The Art of Thinking Clearly” written by Rolf Dobelli provides  a holistic understanding of human behaviour, its irrationality and how to capitalise on this irrationality by using incentives, nudges, social norms, default options, providing feedback etc to improve decision-making process.