Change Anything The New Science of Personal Success
By Patterson, Kerry
Business Plus Copyright © 2011 Patterson, Kerry
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780446573917
THE SCIENCE OF PERSONAL SUCCESS
Escape the Willpower Trap
Any book that claims that it can help you change anything in your personal and professional life—from increasing your disposable income, career options, and physical fitness, to decreasing your smoking, food intake, and relationship struggles—had better be based on careful scientific inquiry. It had better report results—to three decimal places. Most of all, any recommendations it makes had better come from careful study of human subjects—not just rodents or simians.
With this in mind, we’ll start our journey down the trail of personal success with a rather engaging piece of scientific inquiry into the habits of real people. This particular experiment was conducted at the Change Anything Labs nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. It is in this lab that we conduct research, pore over contemporary social science findings, and interview people we call Changers. Changers are individuals who once faced enormous personal challenges, wrestled them to the ground, and have remained successful for at least three years. These Changers and this research provide us with both the practical advice and the scientific results people need to not only change, but change for good.
This particular day, we used the Change Anything Labs to conduct a rather fascinating study. There, in a room by himself, sat a four-year-old boy named Kyler. We were examining his ability to resist temptation, and from the strained look on his face, it looked as if he just might lose. To test his ability to delay gratification, we seated Kyler across the table from a formidable foe—a scrumptious marshmallow.
Five decades ago, the legendary psychologist Walter Mischel demonstrated that kids who could sit down with a marshmallow in front of them and not eat it for a full fifteen minutes did better in almost every area of life than more impulsive kids who scooped up the treat and ate it right away—in spite of the fact that they were all instructed to wait.
As Mischel followed his research subjects for the next two decades, he learned that children who delayed gratification eventually scored hundreds of points higher on standardized school tests. They also had stronger relationships, were promoted more often, and were happier. Mischel showed that the capacity to delay gratification is, indeed, a big deal.
THE WILLPOWER TRAP
Unfortunately, to this day most people draw the wrong conclusion from this study. They fall into what might best be called “the willpower trap.” They assume that the only reason (among many possible reasons) certain kids were better at delaying gratification than others was that nature had endowed them with more willpower. Period. The research subjects who withstood temptation showed more moxie or strength of character. It’s little wonder that their lives unfolded in happier and more successful ways. They were innately stronger.
This is the same simplistic assumption most of us make when explaining why we fail to change our own bad habits. When we fall off the wagon, go on a shopping spree, give in to our hair-trigger temper with a co-worker, procrastinate over work tasks, or binge eat, we blame our failure on a lack of willpower. We obviously just don’t want it badly enough. We don’t push ourselves to the limit. Of course, when we succeed, we brag about our grit, tenacity, and commitment. Either way, when explaining why we do what we do, we see, think about, and eventually blame or give credit to one thing—our willpower.
This simplistic view is not only wrong; it’s tragically wrong. It’s wrong because it’s incomplete. And it’s tragic because it gives us nowhere to go when we struggle to change our own bad habits or improve our lot. When people believe that their ability to make good choices stems from nothing more than their willpower—and that willpower is a quality they’re either born with or they’re not—they eventually stop trying altogether. The willpower trap keeps them in a depressing cycle that begins with heroic commitment to change, which is followed by eroding motivation and terminated inevitably by relapse into old habits. Then, when the built-up pain of their bad habits becomes intolerable, they muster up another heroic but doomed attempt at change. We feel as if we were ascending a summit when in fact we’re simply walking a treadmill: lots of effort, no progress. That’s the willpower trap.
Fortunately, Mischel’s research goes further than most of us realize. A few years after his original study, he and Albert Bandura (another titan of psychology) asked a crucial question. They wondered if what appeared to be will might, in fact, be more a function of skill. The two scholars suspected that the kids who controlled their cravings weren’t simply more motivated than those who gave in to their temptation, but were more able. They had learned a skill or two along the way.
This was an important issue to settle, because if Mischel and Bandura had it right, it would mean that failure to harness one’s impulses is not fixed at birth. Although grit and its close cousin character may be genetic, skills can actually be learned. This alternate explanation offers hope to all of us. It’s also the reason we were studying Kyler and twenty-seven of his four-year-old peers in the Change Anything Labs. We wanted to know if we could teach contemporary children skills that help them actively delay gratification rather than sit back and hope they won the willpower lottery.
To test our theory, we replicated Mischel’s original experiment. We asked a group of kids to sit in front of a marshmallow and promised them that if they resisted eating the treat for fifteen minutes, we’d give them a second sugary treat. These kids made up the control group, and to nobody’s surprise, they performed just as the original subjects had in 1962. About a third of the subjects gutted it out for fifteen minutes. The other two-thirds lunged for the sweet.
The plot thickened as we brought in the experimental group—Kyler and thirteen other four-year-olds. We made Kyler’s group the same offer, but this time we taught them skills they could use if they wanted to wait. Rather than simply instructing them to hunker down, we taught them to use distance and distractions to influence their own behavior. (To watch these rather charming subjects as they face down their marshmallows, visit ChangeAnything.com/exclusive.)
Here’s where it got interesting. Six minutes into the experiment, Kyler knitted his brow as he appeared to imagine the first delicious contact between the marshmallow and his tongue. He started to melt into submission. But then the skills we taught Kyler kicked in. He turned his body away from his nemesis and began mouthing the words to a story his parents often tell him before bedtime. He was doing anything he could to distance and distract himself—helping supplant his need for will.
A few minutes later, Kyler exited the Change Anything Labs proudly clutching a marshmallow in each hand. He had succeeded. “I did it!” he proclaimed as he stuffed the two marshmallows into his mouth. In fact, 50 percent more kids were successful at holding out for the second marshmallow when taught a couple of distraction skills—demonstrating that one of the biggest barriers to personal success is not one’s lack of moxie, chutzpah, or willpower, but the mistaken belief that willpower is the key to change.
What do we learn from Kyler and his friends? Mastering temptations is not solely a function of personal motivation. When it comes to changing our behavior, skills also play an important role. That means that the model of human behavior that most of us carry around in our heads—the model we use to figure out how to change our own habits—is woefully incomplete. By relying on our handy but incomplete tough-it-out model, we routinely ignore the many sources of influence that are working for and against us—personal ability to name just one. As it turns out, there are lots of different forces out there that are acting on us all the time.
You yourself may have fallen into the willpower trap. For instance, if you’re currently trying to give up smoking, alcohol, or drugs, wouldn’t simply going cold turkey be your shortest route to success? The same is true when it comes to withstanding the temptation to buy the latest electronic device, or keeping your temper with a loved one, or getting up early to study for a course you’re taking to better your career. Just gut it out and you’ll do fine, right?
The problem here isn’t that you believe in the importance of willpower for creating personal change. Willpower obviously plays a role in our choices. The problem arises when you rely exclusively on a tough-it-out model and ignore the legion of other sources of influence that are working for and against you.
For example, when you walk into a casino in Las Vegas or Macao, you’re practically assaulted by the crass influence methods the owners employ to separate you from your next rent payment. For instance, the hotel registration counter lies at the back of the casino, so you have to walk through a labyrinth of tempting game tables and cool-looking slot machines just to get a room. Then there are the chips you see in such abundance. Social scientists have shown that you’ll lose chips more willingly than you’ll let go of cash, so the casino owners insist that you play with chips. And who can miss the exciting sound of other people winning—Bing! Bang! Cha-ching! Oh boy, maybe you can win too!
These influence techniques are fairly easy to spot, but take care, because there are lots of other more subtle techniques in play—all carefully designed by individuals who have one goal: to separate you from your money. Casino designers manipulate the type and level of the music playing in the background, the colors and shape of the room, the length of the arms of the slot machines, the color and pattern of the carpet (they install carpets that are so visually jarring that patrons look up and away from them and toward the slots). The methods of influence are nearly endless.
When it comes to more routine human activity, such as eating, drinking, interacting with co-workers, and shopping, you could fill a library with books that explain how people are working feverishly to get you to act in ways that bring them billions of dollars in profits while giving you unwanted pounds, a failed liver, divorce, and bankruptcy.
For instance, did you know that the sound that’s most likely to get your attention is the sound of a baby giggling? A baby giggles, and everyone turns to see. Sound experts know this, and they use it to their advantage in advertising. Did you realize that there was a time when the organist at the North Rim Grand Canyon Lodge played peppier music when the restaurant line grew—influencing people to eat faster and get out of the restaurant sooner than they had originally planned? Do you think the patrons realized that they had just wolfed down a meal that they had intended to enjoy at their leisure—because the music hustled them along? It’s doubtful.
That’s why when it comes to personal change, we first think of our own lack of motivation. Our primary problem isn’t that we’re weak; it’s that we’re blind—and when it comes to long-standing habits, what you can’t see is usually what’s controlling you.
Also, since we can’t see how many sources of influence are working against us, we blame our setbacks on the one source of influence we can spot—ourselves. This particular source of personal influence is obvious, handy, and simple to consider. Plus, if our problems stem from our lack of personal motivation, that puts us in the driver’s seat. We can whip ourselves into a motivational lather and head off in search of change—for a while.
Fortunately, when it comes to combating the myriad forces that encourage us to overeat, overreact, overspend, lounge too much, smoke, drink too much, sleep too much, and play video games too much, we don’t always respond with a call for more willpower. We try other influence methods as well. We tinker with an exercise bike, try a stop-smoking patch, put up a motivational poster, take training courses, and so forth. The bad news is that more often than not we bring these influence tools into play one at a time. Little good that does. The forces that are working against us are legion—and they work in combination. So when it comes to solving personal problems, people are not only blind; they’re also outnumbered.
To see how your typical change effort takes form, consider the following metaphor. Your rather large SUV runs out of gas a half block from a gas station—just over a gently cresting hill. You decide to push the beast to the nearest pump, but this isn’t your old, tinfoil-based VW bug that you could easily push by yourself; it’s the Sherman tank of soccer moms. So you wave down a half dozen rather large and muscular strangers to help you. Each puts in a full effort. Each grunts and strains and pushes against the massive bulk—one person at a time. In response, your SUV just sits there with a smug look on its grille.
Now, as hopeless as this example sounds, it’s about to get worse. Imagine that in addition to the fact that the people assisting you are working in isolation rather than in combination, there are six hefty strangers all pushing together to propel your truck back down the hill. Now you have an accurate image of why your change attempt feels so overwhelming. Our problem is not just that we’re using only one source of influence at a time; it’s also that those who aren’t pushing for us are usually pushing against us.
This is precisely why we fail in our attempts at personal change. There may be half a dozen sources of influence sustaining our old bad habits, and we muster just one clever strategy at a time to offset this overwhelming combination. Then we act shocked when our anemic idea falls short—and set out to punish the “slacker” who authored it: ourselves. It’s a hopeless, discouraging trap.
IF YOU CAN SEE IT, YOU CAN CHANGE IT
So how can you get both vision and numbers working in your favor? Kyler and his marshmallow-resisting friends give us a hint of what can happen. After learning a couple of simple skills, 50 percent more of the experimental subjects were able to resist the temptation. When they added a little skill to their existing will, their odds of success shot up substantially. Could the same thing work for adults? When it comes to fighting our own personal demons, what if we could match the multiple sources that are working against us with multiple sources of our own?
To answer these questions, we’ll return to the Change Anything Labs. In this experiment we’ll collaborate with a teenage scientist named Hyrum who wondered whether older kids could be as easily blinded and outnumbered as adults. His research team blitzed fifth graders with six sources of influence to see if this affected their behavior. The team also examined the question of whether the kids were aware of what had happened to them.
To test the power of multiple sources of influence, the research team designed an experiment to tempt kids to do what many adults routinely do—spend themselves into bankruptcy in spite of their best intentions to save for the future. The study started on a Saturday morning as a group of nervous parents watched their preteens on a closed-circuit TV monitor. The adults knew that the researchers would be attempting to influence their children to save or spend money—depending on the luck of the draw—and were anxious to see how they would fare. Would their child be a spendthrift or a fiscally responsible money manager? Inquiring parents wanted to know.
As each child entered the lab, Hyrum explained the upcoming activity. Each kid would be given a “career” that would last ten minutes and include four simple tasks. The kids would be paid ten dollars for completing each task. If they did as they were told, they could earn up to forty dollars. Hyrum also warned them that they’d be offered opportunities along the way to spend their earnings. To help them resist these temptations, he invited them to think about what they would like to do with forty dollars once they returned home.
As the kids talked about the money they could earn, it was clear that they all had exciting plans for the loot. They all seemed motivated to resist the temptation to spend.
Then, one at a time, the kids began their careers. They were surprised at how simple it was to make money. In the first task they ranked assorted candies from least to most favorite. That was a no-brainer. For their second task they alphabetized toys. What could be easier?
After each task, Hyrum paid the subjects ten dollars and invited them to have a look at the Change Anything Store. The store consisted of a countertop covered with inexpensive candies and toys. The first thing the shoppers noticed was that prices were five to ten times what they would pay in a regular store. For example, a bag of Skittles was marked at eight dollars. Not only were the prices outrageous, but the kids knew they were outrageous.
So, here’s the situation. The research subjects had big plans for their money. The only temptation they faced was the opportunity to buy sweets and toys at ridiculous prices. And here’s what we wanted to know: Would their choices be affected by six different sources of influence? And if so, would the kids even notice it?
The answer to the first question—Could their spending actions be influenced at all?—was an unequivocal yes. The first fifteen kids in the study emerged from the lab with less than thirteen (of the possible forty) dollars in their pockets. A couple of the kids left with only the shirts on their backs and a handful of overpriced goodies.
One excited buyer spent his entire fortune on Silly String. His mother later reported that as they left, the boy stared sadly at the cans in his arms and lamented, “I’m so stupid! I could have had forty bucks! But now all I have is this dumb Silly String.”
But not everyone spent lavishly. A second group of fifteen kids saved an average of thirty-four of their forty dollars. This group of subjects completed the same tasks in the same room with the same store offering sweets and toys at the same prices, but they took home two-and-a-half times what the first group did! What happened? Were they genetically blessed with more willpower? Did they see the forces working against them and take steps to counteract them?
Let’s pull back the curtain and see what was really going on. We’ll start by exploring the spenders’ thinking. One by one we asked them about their outlandish purchases. Each was quite aware of the retail value of their overpriced goods. They knew they had pretty much thrown their money away. But they didn’t recognize the forces that had caused them to spend so freely. Instead, they fell into the willpower trap by blaming themselves. One child appeared baffled by his own actions, reporting, “I’m not sure what happened. I guess I must have really wanted this.”
And it wasn’t just the spenders who didn’t know what had hit them. The savers were equally unaware of the forces that had propelled them to save. While the spenders took too much of the blame, the savers took too much of the credit. They figured they had shown more discipline because they were strong, motivated, and goal oriented.
Both groups were wrong.
SIX SOURCES OF INFLUENCE
So what actually caused the profound differences in spending? The research team at the Change Anything Labs manipulated six different sources of influence to affect the subjects’ behavior—the same sources of influence that operate on you twenty-four hours a day. With the first group (the spenders), six sources were used to promote spending. With the second group (the savers), the same sources were used to promote saving.
Here’s how the six sources came into play. We’ve already talked about two of them—personal motivation and personal ability. Remember, we helped Kyler and others delay eating the marshmallow by adding distraction and distancing tactics to their existing personal motivation. And we saw results that would be quite a payoff for a more robust change plan.
The next two sources of influence that routinely act on you are equally easy to spot. The people who surround you both motivate and enable your habits. For instance, you may not want to quit smoking, but your life partner does, and that weighs heavily on your mind. Or perhaps co-workers keep handing you cigarettes and asking you to join them at break time. These powerful social forces add two more sources to our model of influence: social motivation and social ability.
Now for two rather subtle influences. If you remove human beings from the formula, the physical world that surrounds you still prods and enables you—for both good and evil. For instance, that refrigerator filled with soft drinks standing next to your exercise bike doesn’t help you stick to your eating plan. The flashy ads on TV aren’t exactly helping you stay on budget. The presence of a flat-screen TV in every room of your house positively distracts from your intention to finish your studies for a night class. But the ingenious new video game that requires you to jump around and swing a paddle has really helped with your exercise plan. You get the point. “Things” have an impact on what you do every day.
By combining these influences (we’ll refer to them as structural motivation and ability) with personal and social forces, we have a full model of why you do what you do. These are the six hulking behemoths that either push with you or push against you.
BACK TO THE LAB
To see how these six sources actually work, let’s return to the preteens who took part in the savings experiment. (To watch the experiment in action, visit ChangeAnything.com/exclusive.) The researchers manipulated all six sources in the following ways.
Source 1: Personal Motivation. First, we tapped into the subjects’ existing desires and wants. After rank ordering the candies, the spending subjects were invited to taste their favorite treat. Yum. By contrast, the saving subjects were asked to think about something they really wanted to buy with their forty dollars. Change Tactic: If you interrupt your impulses by connecting with your goals during crucial moments, you can greatly improve your chances of success.
Source 2: Personal Ability. We next worked on personal ability by teaching savers how to keep a running total of how much they saved or spent on a sheet of paper. The savers all did this easily. The spenders, however, were taught no such technique, so their sinking net worth got lost in the rush to buy now. Change Tactic: Changing persistent and resistant habits always involves learning new skills.
Source 3: Social Motivation. Next, we made use of social forces. As the experiment unfolded, the spenders were joined by three other kids (confederates of our research team) who spent like there was no tomorrow—and encouraged the research subjects to join them. The savers were also joined by three confederates—but while two spent freely, the third said that she was trying to save and encouraged subjects to do the same. Change Tactic: Bad habits are almost always a social disease—if those around us model and encourage them, we’ll almost always fall prey. Turn “accomplices” into “friends” and you can be two-thirds more likely to succeed.
Source 4: Social Ability. Next we used confederates to enable good or bad choices. The savers were reminded by their “friend” that the prices in this store were outrageous and that if they could simply wait ten minutes they’d be able to get more for less elsewhere. Spenders received no such information. Change Tactic: Changing deeply entrenched habits invariably requires help, information, and real support from others. Get a coach, and you’ll make change far more likely.
Source 5: Structural Motivation. Finally, we made use of things. Savers were paid in cold, hard cash. When they spent money, they had to fork over the real deal so they felt the loss at the very moment they made a purchase. Spenders, in contrast, were told their money was in an account. Their money was magically deducted from some abstract bucket. Thus, their spending felt painless—all gain, no pain—until they were in the car on the way home. Change Tactic: Directly link short-term rewards and punishments to the new habits you’re trying to form, and you’re far more likely to stay on track.
Excerpted from Change Anything by Patterson, Kerry Copyright © 2011 by Patterson, Kerry. Excerpted by permission.
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