I woke at 5:40 AM today. I planned to meet a group of people for a pre-dawn run. I’d set the alarm on the late side, leaving myself limited time to brush teeth, put my hair in a ponytail, and throw on sweats and fleece and a reflector vest (safety first, people). Still, I stayed in bed an extra few minutes, because I couldn’t help but listen to NPR’s morning edition story on breaking bad habits.
The story is worth a listen; it’s about the critical importance of environment in shaping habits — both good and bad. The nine-minute program begins 40 years ago, with heroin-addicted U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and their “shockingly low” rate of relapse after returning to the U.S. But it speaks to habits and behaviors in general — what actually motivates people to change behaviors.
Surprise, surprise: for most behaviors, certainly the daily ones, it’s not enough to set goals, or to change attitudes. That new year’s resolution you set? It alone won’t be enough to motivate change. That’s because we are creatures of our environment. The physical cues of the spaces we occupy drive our behavior in incredibly powerful, and wholly unconscious, ways. The story notes that 45% of what people do every day is done in the same environment and is repeated. The more habitual something is, the more we “outsource our behavior” (researchers’ term from the story) to the environment in which we do it.
That, researchers say, is likely why soldiers who were treated for addiction in Vietnam had such startlingly low relapse rates – they never used heroin in their home environment, so it was easier to make the break.
When it comes to food, the effect of environment has been powerfully demonstrated by Brian Wansink, who runs the food psychology lab at Cornell. When it comes to food, intention makes almost no difference; people eat what the environment tells them to eat. Nobody seems to want to hear that – we like saying words like willpower and personal responsibility. But his research is unequivocal.
We quoted his research several in our book; his ideas had resonated with us, because they confirmed what we had ourselves seen when it came to food and kids: that simply by shopping a farmers’ market, or staying out of the central aisles of supermarkets, we had magically found healthier food in our carts. We had magically seemed to have fewer fights with our kids. For me, it really did feel something like magic, too; I didn’t even have to think about it. It just kinda’ happened.
The environment-as-driver idea is probably why the billion-dollar diet industry just doesn’t work 95% of the time. And why decades of nutrition education and cries of “personal responsibility!” haven’t seemed to make a damn bit of difference for most Americans. It’s also why I recoil from giving chirpy advice, or setting out to “educate” people about feeding kids. It’s not, I believe, that people don’t know what to do, or don’t want to do it. It’s that as a society, we have constructed environments that makes it darned hard to do it even the things we most want.
Here’s a post I wrote about Wansink’s book, Mindless Eating, nearly five whole years ago. I’d still argue that this psychology book, which is not a diet book, is the best darned diet book you’ll ever find.
Back to this morning: when I finally hopped out of bed and dashed, extra-fast, through my pre-dawn routine, I reflected on environment. I didn’t feel like running; I rarely do before I begin. But I knew that my only job would be to get myself there: to just show up at a specific street corner, at the appointed time, in the dark. Once there — with people I see only when I run, on a street corner I never otherwise visit — the environment would take over. I would just start running. The circumstance itself would do it for me, begin moving my feet for me.
And it did. If we start with our environment, it turns out, the rest — healthy food, our own two feet, whatever we most want to change — will follow.