Category: behavioral science

Motivational Hacks – Using Self-identity to Drive Behavior Change (update)

Note: we posted this blog a few years ago. In this version, we have updated it with new insights and research findings. 

Each of us has a unique self-identity that both “drives” what we do and is “influenced” by what we do.  This dual component is one of the unique aspects of self-identity that we can tap into to help drive and sustain change.

As I’ve stated before, for most people, purposeful change needs to have an emotional foundation for it to be sustainable.  The challenge we face is that tapping into our emotions is very difficult and often a random process, thus making purposeful change hard.

Since our self-identity is innately tied to our emotional core, being able to use our self-identity to help motivate behavior change could be very powerful.  If we are able to hack into our self-identity, it will help to engage the emotional drivers that we require for change.

Self-identity overview.

We often think of our self-identity as one cohesive overriding concept of who we are.

That’s a misconception. 

Psychologists tend to think of people’s self-identity as being made up of a number of smaller self-schemas that are combined together (Horawitz, 2012).  These different schemas dominate our personality at separate times depending on the circumstance, social group, or environment that we find ourselves in.  For instance, you might be the strong forceful decision maker when in family situations, but in social situations outside of the family, you might think of yourself as more of a follower.

Image: Our self- is comprised of identity many self-schemas

One way to think about self-schemas is to imagine that they are miniature mind-maps that guide how we think of ourselves in a given situation (i.e., a very localized map).  This map helps us envision how we should behave and think in this location. 

This map is the lens of how we see ourselves fitting into and responding to the world. It prescribes what we expect our actions and thoughts to be in that specific situation.

This identity lens also colors our world.  It can have a strong influence on what we see, what we feel, and what we experience.  It also impacts how we interpret and how we respond to what we see/feel/experience.

Recent work on our sense of political affiliation highlights this fact.  We like to think that we pick our political party based on how that party’s platform and policies align with our own self-identity, however, research by Dave Ciuk (2018), people tend to shift their self-schema’s based on the party’s position.  While the initial decision on which party one joins may be reflective of their self-identity, once that party has been chosen, the party’s position seems to impact our beliefs.

We have beliefs or self-schemas about whether we are fun or boring, outgoing or shy, combative or peaceful, brave or cowardly, and these schemas shape what we pay attention to, how we encode the information we receive, and what information we retrieve based on the situation (Wheeler, Petty, Bizer, 2005).

In this sense, schemas reflect our core values of who we are and how we fit in the world.

Horowitz (1998) describes it as follows: “Self-schemas include scripts, future intentions and expectations about self-realization, and core values. These self-schemas function as cognitive maps; simplifying details into attitudes…”

Schemas are also temporal in nature which means that we can think of ourselves as behaving and thinking differently based on the timeframe we imagine ourselves in – i.e., whether we are thinking of ourselves in the past, present or future tense.

Therefore, we can visualize our future self as being different than what we are today. Sometimes this future self is labeled our “possible self” or our “ideal self” which is appropriate.  The temporal nature of our self-schemas plays an important role in how we plan out our lives and make choices for the future.

Schemas and change.

So how does this impact our self-change initiatives?

First, we can think about how well our behaviors match with the schemas we hold of ourselves.  If our behaviors fit with that vision of who we are, those behaviors are “congruent”; if they do not align with that vision, they are “incongruent.”

Image: Congruent Behavior (reinforces and is reinforced by self-schema) vs. Incongruent Behavior (creates angst to stop behavior or reassess self-schema)

The more congruent the new change behavior is, the stronger the motivational pull to engage in that behavior.  Conversely, the more incongruent the behavior, the stronger the pull is to stop that behavior in order to get back in alignment. 

This is the self-regulation part of schemas and it works for however we envision ourselves. For instance, if I think of myself as “a walker”, I will have a stronger motivational pull to choose to walk when I have an option between walking or driving (or other mode of transportation).   Walking would be congruent with my vision of myself.  However, if I find myself sitting on the couch, vegging out in front of the T.V., that would be an incongruent behavior that would exert a sense of cognitive angst at not living up to my self-schema and would push me to get up and go for a walk around the block.

If I have a self-schema where I believe that I am an outgoing, happy and social person – that schema will influence my behavior to be congruent with the image I have for that. If on the other hand, I believe that I am more of an introvert and need alone time to recharge, I will more likely engage in behaviors that reinforce this belief.

It is safe to say, we view ourselves through the lens of our schemas.  Applied to our change effort, this can provide motivation to engage in or resist from certain behaviors that do or do not mesh with our self-schema.

Our behavior also provides us with a way to revamp our identity.  As mentioned in the first line, our self-identity both drives what we do and is influenced by what we do. 

Thus, our behaviors influence what our identity is. 

If we start to walk to the store instead of drive, invite friends to go for a walk instead for a coffee, relax by taking an evening stroll instead of sitting in front of the T.V. – our self-identity will be impacted.  We will need to reassess our behaviors and our schemas of self in order to get them more in alignment.

We can use our potential future selves to drive our behavior change.

We are usually really good at envisioning our future.  It is one of the key facets in any purposeful change process.  We need to visualize not only the change that we want to happen, but who we are in that change process.   As Gandhi said “be the change you want to see in the world.”

When we imagine highly detailed visions of the self in pursuit of a desired goal, those visions shape and organize our actual behaviors (Inglehart, Markus, & Brown, 1989). One study showed that persistence and effort expended on a tedious mental task were influenced when participants “possible self-schemas” were activated. In other words, people who imagined themselves as successful in the future out-performed those who imagined negative outcomes (Ruvolo & Markus, 1992).

Hacking our schemas?

Hack 1: The old adage, “fake it until you make it,” rings true when we think about hacking our schemas. 

To some degree, schemas can be thought of as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  So, if we tell a different story, we should be able to help influence our behavior.

Image: Our acted behaviors influence our self-identity.

As we have shown, our behaviors influence our self-identity.  If we have always thought of ourselves as shy, but continually find ourselves in situations where we are initiating conversations with new people – our brain sees this as incongruent behavior and works to get back in alignment.  One way that it can do this, is to reassess the schema of being shy and use this new information to update our self-schema to one where we see ourselves as being more outgoing (at least in those situations).

Hack 2: Can we envision our self so clearly and so in line with our goals/change process that we make it a reality? 

Probably not – a vision by itself won’t be enough to achieve our goals – however, it can help.   Karen Stein (1995) stated, Possible selves have been shown to play a powerful role in motivating and regulating goal-directed behavior.”

So, we should be very mindful of what are we envisioning our future self to be.  We should be purposeful in imaging our future self and the impact that the future self will have on us, and our behaviors and attitudes.

To identify alternative schemas, fill in the blank with detail on what you would like to do, “I am the type of person who ________!”   This helps create the vision of that “possible self.”   To add some more specificity to it, we could add in “I am the type of person who ________ in _______ situation!”

In one study that looked at how behavior changed when people held a “self as exerciser” schema, Kendzierski (1988) found that people with an exercise self-schema exercised more frequently than those with no self-schema and also used more strategies to help them exercise regularly.

Hack 3: Engage in reinforcing activities and create small wins

When we are at the beginning of a change process, we should purposely set up specific opportunities where we can actively engage in congruent behaviors.  The more that we can reinforce our positive schema, the more that schema will make stronger cognitive connections.

These congruent behaviors are registered in our brain as small reinforcements of our schema.  They are small wins for us in our change process.

We should look for specific activities or environments that we can be successful at.  For instance, if my behavior is to walk more and I’m reinforcing my walking self-schema, I should purposefully park my car at the far end of the parking lot.  This small step supports our schema and provides positive reinforcement.

Difficulty and cautionary advice

Hacking our self-identity isn’t a silver bullet.  Here’s some reasons why:

We are really good at fooling ourselves…really good.

Once formed, schemas’ are often maintained in the face of contradictory evidence.  We distort what we see or feel, our brain can ignore those behaviors that are incongruent with our schemas, and we engage in cognitive discounting – were we see contrary evidence as an exception and not the rule (Padesky).

Studies have shown that people are more likely to direct their attention to information that is consistent with an established self-schema, and to process information more quickly, and have greater recall for schema-consistent versus schema-irrelevant information.  It is difficult to change our perception of ourselves when we only see things that are aligned with our behavior.

We view the world through our self-schema colored glasses.

We can’t just will ourselves into a new schema.  We may tell ourselves that we want to be a certain type of person, but if that schema is not believed in our subconscious, it is hard to maintain.  We will find other, older or more aligned schemas, taking over.

Take the shy example from above.  We would hope that our brain would reassess the available information and start to reassess our schema – however what often happens is that the brain might view that behavior as an outlier (I’m not normally like that, it was just a few times) or reshape the memory of it (I didn’t really initiate the conversation), or just repress it (I don’t remember doing that).

Additionally, our various self-schemas can vary in their overall consistency from being rather fragmented to being harmonious with each other (Horawitz, 2012).  If we have a harmonious set of schemas, our self-identity is stronger and we will feel more motivational pull to be aligned with it.  If our schemas are more fragmented, that pull is lessened as our self-identity isn’t as cohesive – people tend to be able to shift to another schema more easily.   For instance, if a behavior is out-of-line with our dominant schema, a person who has fragmented schemas is more likely to be able to find an alternative schema where the incongruent behavior fits than someone who has a more harmonious set of schemas.  Work by Jonathan Haidt reflects that some people tend to view the world more black and white while others view it in shades of gray.  This perception lends itself into our political beliefs but also impacts how we distort facts – the more black and white we perceive the world, the more likely we are to alter our perception of the facts than we are to shift our self-schema’s.

All of this leads to a potential problem where our hack efforts can backfire.  So instead of us reshaping our identity by engaging in new behaviors, we just create angst and further reinforce the old or alternative schema.

Conclusion

Hacking our self-identity is one way that we can help ourselves change more effectively and sustain that change in the long run.  It is a way that we can more consistently tap into the emotions which help propel that change process.  Understanding how self-schema’s impact our behavior and how behavior impacts our self-schema’s can help us emotionally engage.

It is not the magic bullet; however, it is one more tool in our tool bag of change. 

Behavioral Grooves – Coming to a City Near You

For those of you who don’t know, The Behavioral Grooves is both a meetup and a podcast – sort of like a breakfast cereal and an energy drink at the same time.

Kurt Nelson, PhD and Tim Houlihan, Behavioral Alchemist founded the Behavioral Grooves as a non-profit organization to share their enthusiasm for the application of behavioral sciences with a wider audience.

Read along for a brief overview by Tim as he takes us on a ride through the experience:

Day 1: The Minneapolis Meetup

The first iteration of the Behavioral Grooves was the Minneapolis meetup. We gathered 25 people in a pub in Minneapolis to have a little social/networking time, an 18-minute presentation by a speaker, and about 45 minutes of table discussions based on cues from the speaker.

It went well. Really well, to be honest. Everyone walked away invigorated and asking for more. So, we did it again. And again. And again. At this writing, we have held a Behavioral Grooves meetup on the Third Thursday of almost every month since we launched in August 2017.

Day 2: The Podcast

We soon realized that a once-a-month meetup in Minneapolis was not enough. The list of academics and practitioners that we wanted to have in front of our group was stretching out into the year 2029 at this rate. We needed an alternative means of sharing ideas. The podcast was born.

The Behavioral Grooves podcast was launched in December 2017 and we already have listeners in 54 countries! We’ve interviewed guests across the United States, India, Sweden, England, Denmark and Kenya. We also have plans to interview practitioners and academics from Australia in the coming weeks.

The podcast is a long-form informal discussion that comprises of three key parts:

  1. The introduction. Kurt and I tee up the podcast with an introduction of our speaker and highlight key elements of the interview. This is just a couple of minutes.
  2. The interview. As much as is technically possible, we try to ensure that our podcast interviews are published uncut an unedited. The interviews last between 20 and 40 minutes.
  3. The grooving session. Following the interview, Kurt and I groove on the key points that struck us during the interview. We might ramble a bit here or explore rabbit holes that, at the moment, feel like they need to be explored. Our grooving session lasts about 10 – 20 minutes.

Day 3: The World

The podcast opened up all sorts of questions about personal appearances, the Behavioral Grooves Meetup is going on the road.

In April, we held a Behavioral Grooves Meetup in St. Louis at Cortex, the technology barn in the heart of the city’s innovation centers between St. Louis University and Washington University.

In May, we’re holding a meetup in Dallas to coincide with Kurt’s and my presentation at World at Work. (Date = May 22nd, Time = 5:30pm, Location = Del Rio Room at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas)

In June, we’re headed to Chicago – date and location TBD.

What’s Next?

Want to get involved? Interested in hosting or sponsoring a meetup in your town? Give us a shout – we’d be happy to have a conversation about it.

The Behavioral Science of Socks!

Socks – really?

No, this isn’t one of those government studies where you wonder how it ever got approved (i.e., how long can shrimp run on a treadmill or does playing FarmVille on Facebook help people to make friends and keep them?*).

Socks and behavioral science. The two do not seem to fit together, yet I consistently use my socks as a personal behavioral modification tool.

Here’s how.

I have a penchant for different types of imaginative socks.  It started 11 years ago, when one of our Au Pairs from Poland gave me a pair of very colorful, bright blue and green striped socks for Christmas.  Before that, I was a bland brown and black sock kind of guy.

But I liked wearing the colorful socks she gave me – I always seemed to smile when I put them on in the morning.

As the years went by my colorful sock collection grew, both through my own purchases and through gifts from family and friends.  As I collected more socks, they began to go beyond wild colors. They started to have pictures and statements –  I had green socks with little footballs on them, red socks from Canada with drawings of little beavers on them.  My kids even got me a pair of “I’m kind of a big Dill” socks with a picture of a large dill pickle on them. I often can’t distinguish my Thomas Jefferson socks with my “the Thinker” socks (that have an outline of the Rodin’s famous thinker) when they are folded up in my sock drawer.

As my collection grew, there were three pairs that have led to my belief that something as simple as socks can be used as a powerful behavioral hack.

The first are my Einstein socks.  These black socks feature colorful caricatures of Einstein with wild colored hair.

The second are my blue socks – punctuated by menacing sharks.   

The final pair are my unicorn/ narwhal socks, emblazoned with unicorns battling narwhals horn-to-horn.   

I’m not sure when it started, but over time I realized that I was wearing each of these socks on specific days to help build and sustain a mindset for myself.

Mindset and Socks

On days when I thought that I needed to be particularly smart, I would put on my Einstein socks.  If I was giving a presentation, needing to do an analysis of research data or brainstorm ideas with a client, I would purposefully put these on in the morning.  They framed the day, acting as a gentle reminder. Whenever I looked at them that I was smart and ready to refocus my energy.

The shark socks were worn on days when I needed to be tough and direct.  If I was working on a contract or in need of a tough conversation with a client or employee, I would pull out the shark socks.

Finally, the unicorn/narwhal socks were used when I thought I needed a little bit of magic in my life.  When I needed to feel lucky -the days I had a meeting with a new potential client or when I was flying.

The interesting thing is that each day I wore the different socks, I had a different attitude., I exhibited different behaviors.

I started to wonder:  was this just me, or if was there something more to this?

Research

So, I looked for some research.

Alas, there was no research on “socks’ impact on behavior” that I could find (if anybody knows of any, please let me know).

However, there was plenty of research on the effects of attentional selection, pre-loaded associations, influence cues, and priming.  These psychological components have been shown to influence our behaviors – often without us being aware of their influence.

Robert Cialdini, one of the preeminent researchers on influence, says this in his book Pre-suasion, “…exposure either to simple words or simple images can have a pre-suasive impact on later actions that are merely associated with the words or images.”  He uses an example where fundraisers who were raising funds for a local university were placed into one of two groups.  Before their shift, each group was given a sheet of paper with information “designed to help them communicate the value of contributing to the cause.”  The only difference was that one group received the information on a plain sheet of paper while the other group got the information on a piece of paper with a watermarked photo of a runner winning a race.   

We would think that this difference would have no or little impact on performance, the information is the same for both, yet those with the picture had 60% more donations than their non-picture counterparts.

Another example, this one that shows how priming can influence behavior was done by Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996).  In their study, Bargh et al., primed people with words that were related to being old.  When they subsequently measured their walking speed, the people primed with old age words walked slower than those who had not.

Dijksterhuis and van Knippernberg, two Dutch researchers did an experiment similar, but this time, using a quiz and priming people either to think of the attributes of “professors” or “soccer hooligans.”  They found that those participants primed to think about the attributes of a professor answered more general knowledge questions correctly (mean score of 23.4 out of 42) than the soccer hooligan primed participants (mean score of 17.9 out of 42).**

Back to socks

In essence, the socks I wear prime my behavior.

Because I have a pre-association of Einstein with “smart” or sharks with “mean” – they have primed my mind to respond in this way.  They also act as a vivid reminder of my intentions, refocusing my thoughts throughout the day whenever I catch sight of them.

Now does this mean that I’m a completely different person when I wear different socks?

No.  I’m not a completely different person.  My behavior is going to typically fluctuate around some behavioral norm that is my baseline.  This norm is based on a number of factors that impact me including things such as the weather, how well I slept, what others in the room are doing, how I feel, etc.

But at some level, the socks I choose are having an influence on me.  They nudge me to behave in a manner based on the association that I have with them.  It may be a slight change in my behavior, but that slight change could have large impacts on the overall outcome of my day.

A word of caution, you better be careful if you are playing a game of trivial pursuit with me and I am wearing my new Einstein socks.  You’ve been warned!

References:

Bargh JA, Chen M, Burrows L (1996) Automaticity of social behavior: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype-activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71: 230–244.

Cialdini, R. B., (2016) Pre-fluence: a revolutionary way to influence and persuade.  Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Dijksterhuis, A., & Knippenberg, A.V. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior, or how to win a game of trivial pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 865-877.

Other stuff

*I think that these studies get a bad wrap because the researchers do a horrible job of explaining what their study is about.  For instance, the shrimp treadmill study looked at how long shrimp would move on the treadmill in different water pollution conditions – trying to understand the impact that pollution had on their ability to flee predators and thus help predict how this would impact shrimp farmers in the future.  

**Many priming studies, like a lot of psychological studies, have a hard time being replicated.  The studies listed here have a mixed bag in the replication world – with some replication studies finding the priming effect and others not.  As with all research, we need to be careful in how we interpret their findings and how we apply those findings – often, the specific nature of the research isn’t easily generalized to other situations.  Unless we are talking about socks with images on them – then we know the applications hold true

 

 

 

Behavioral Grooves

Back in September,  I partnered with Tim Houlihan to start “a monthly gathering of curious minds” which we called Behavioral Grooves.  We thought it would be interesting to get like-minded people together to talk about applying behavioral science to life and work.

We had no idea if others would be interested in this…

We announced the meetup and were hoping to get at least a few of the friends that we had contacted to show up.  We ended up with 24 people for that first session where we talked about habits – how they are formed and what people can do to improve them.

We were thrilled!

From there, it took off.  We have over 180 members signed up to our meetup group and it is growing fast.  We have had three monthly sessions as of early January 2018 and our fourth is lined up for two weeks from today.  We have over 20 people who have made it to two or more of the sessions.

I guess we struck a nerve.

For our second session, we invited Professor James Heyman to speak and thought, hey, since he’s here, why don’t we interview him and make a podcast out of it.  Thus, our Behavioral Grooves podcast was born.  Tim and I both loved that so much that we decided that we didn’t want to wait for the next Behavioral Grooves session to record our next one – so we started to invite people and interview them – both live and over the internet.

To date, we have seven interviews recorded and three more in the works.  These podcasts mirror the Behavioral Grooves sessions in that they are conversational in nature where we geek out over behavioral science and how we can apply behavioral science insights into our daily work and lives.

They have been a blast!

In reflecting on this, it appears to me that these two outlets provide us with a way of both learning and sharing.  We want to be advocates for good, ethical use of behavioral science.  We believe that there is much to learn and we can improve our work and lives by understanding and by applying these principles in a thoughtful and deliberate manner.

We also realized that we love the community that this is creating.  A community of curious minds who are interested in science and the application of that science.  A community of people that we can bounce ideas off of.  A community of people that can push us to think about things from new perspectives.

This is ultimately what we have been building and hope that it grows and provides a place and outlet for others, as well as ourselves.

If you are ever in Minneapolis on the third Thursday of the month – please come and join us at our meetup (find out more info here) and if you can’t make that, please listen in to our podcasts (click here to find the latest).

Come and join our community of curious minds!

Thanks!

Kurt

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