Due to excessive consumption of internet, video gaming and pornography boys are increasingly developing arousal addictions, according to research. They are becoming so used to constant stimulation provided by IT that their attention spans are withering away. Analog teachers in classrooms pose no serious competition to digital Facebook in the marketplace for children’s attention. This is particularly relevant to boys who tend to be keener on video games and pornography (which I have never watched myself).
In this short and entertaining speech acclaimed psychologist Philip Zimbardo shares that:
- An average boy watches 50 porn clips a week
- By the time a man is 21, he has spent 10,000 hours playing video games
- Boys are 5 times more likely to have ADHD than girls
- Boys’ brains are being rewired for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal. They are totally out of sync with traditional classes at school and in romantic relationships
This time I will spare you from discussing my own romantic relationships but I can share that I can totally relate to the addictions bit. When I surf the web for my own pleasure, I notice that I don’t have much patience for anything. Almost always there is this nagging feeling that there is something more interesting out there. Something more interesting than what I am reading now. More interesting than this clumsy blog, perhaps. And I click, and I click, and I click… This never ending craving for novelty… In fact, internet, and especially checking my email, can be so addictive to me, that I had to set rules for myself. I have rules for when I allow myself to check my mail and when I can surf the web. Otherwise, before I know it, I get sucked into this black hole with ever intensifying gravitational pull. And even when I know I am being sucked in there I keep telling myself “one more article” or “well, this will be the last one”. And it rarely is the last one. In the same way I have also struggled with quite serious video gaming addictions when I was in my teens.
I consider myself to be a recovered IT addict. I am clean now. Hopefully I will stay that way a bit longer. As much as I love the freedom provided by IT, I am convinced that any pleasurable freedom can turn into a prison if not handled carefully. Thanks for checking this blog and by all means please enjoy your next Twitter read.
Today we release a new report detailing our attempts to apply Steer behaviour change principles to police work – Reflexive Coppers: Adaptive Challenges in Policing.
Journalists seem to think the report is worth knowing about. It was picked up by the press association and has been written up in several national papers, including The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Daily Mail (with typically trenchant comments below the main article). Earlier this morning (zzzz…) I was speaking on The Today Programme (where Evan Davis asked me to ‘keep it practical’ and ‘try to avoid too many big concepts’ before we went live) followed by Nick Ferrari (who was very friendly before and after, but asked the pertinent question on air: how much did this (taxpayer-funded) report cost?) on LBC Radio, and I just heard I’ll be on Five Live at lunchtime.
So what’s all the fuss about? I am beginning to understand three things about media coverage of think tank reports:
1) Timing is everything. The quality of writing, insight, evidence, sample size, policy recommendations, design, title and so forth are considerably less important than timing the release of the report so that it coincides with topical issues and questions that the media are already exploring but haven’t yet exhausted (in your control) and so that it doesn’t coincide with a massive unforeseeable news story(alas, not in your control; with previous reports I have twice received cancellation calls from the Today programme around midnight the night before because something bigger has happened that they need to cover instead- in one case a major breakthrough in cancer research, in another an interview scoop with a disgruntled army general).
2) The press release matters. Questions asked by the press tend to be fairly direct: What is this? Why does it matter? What happens now? Your answers to those questions have to be clear and concise, but they don’t have to be particularly compelling- you are looking for a nod of recognition rather than a euraka moment of insight or a hug of solidarity. Moreover, many news outlets are covering so much content that there is little time for a detailed analysis. News stories tend to quote directly from the press release, and on radio the questions you are asked tend to arise from it, rather than the the much longer report that few people would have read, or, let’s face it, ever will read.
3)You need an injunction. Press seem to like it when a report says “Do X” or “Don’t do Y” and the issue then becomes- well, will they do/not it? And the ‘they’ in question is usually some sort of authority – teachers, parents, governments, police….
Press seem to like it when a report says “Do X” or “Don’t do Y” and the issue then becomes- well, will they do/not it?
So almost all the coverage today will be about one tiny piece of the report: our suggestion that police officers should take twenty minutes a week to reflect on the tensions and dilemmas in their role, viewed through the lenses of brains and behaviour that we shared with them.
And that now is the story, even though it was added right at the end of the report, when we were thinking about the ‘so what?’ question and the obvious operational and funding constraints that might work against scaling up our suggestion in a more ambitious way. The hope, of course, is that all this coverage leads at least some people to take a closer look at were such a suggestion might come from.
The research was conceived by my predecessor Dr Matt Grist as a practical follow-up to our work with the general public in Steer. Our qualitative feedback from the 24 members of the public who took part in this research was that learning about their brains and behaviour, and discussing its role and relevance in their lives was not only of interest, but also lead to them thinking and acting differently, at least in the short-run. Eventually we hoped to get a more empirically robust measure of the approach, but first we wanted to do another pilot test of the approach with a target group with a clearer set of operational challenges, and decided to focus on the police service.
Our initial advert seeking participants attracted a huge response of about a hundred officers and support staff so there is clearly a huge appetite for this kind of approach
Our initial advert seeking participants (posted on the intranet of the Metropolitan Police, with the assistance of their research division) attracted a huge response of about a hundred officers- so there is clearly a huge appetite for this kind of approach- although this number reduced to below twenty once dates were fixed. The five principles we discussed with the participants were:
1. Use your habitat to shape your habits.
How does the working environment shape your automatic behaviour?
2. Trust your gut, but remember to pay attention.
Your intuition, based on professional experience, is powerful, but how can you remain vigilant in situations where something genuinely new is happening?
3. Take your time, literally.
There are three main decision speeds – automatic, reflective and ‘mulling’ – which do you use most and why?
4. Be influenced by others, but know your own voice.
You need others to help you think, but how can you guard against groupthink?
5. Don’t let consistency get in the way of learning.
The desire to reduce cognitive dissonance often prevents us from understanding what really happened – how can we avoid this?
To find out more about these ideas, why they were selected, how police responded to them, and more, please take time to read the report and let me know what you think.
I am grateful to colleagues Gaia Marcus, Benedict Dellot, Janet Hawken and others for helping to deliver the research, Steve Broome for helping to design it and second author Dr Emma Lindley for restructuring and rewriting large parts of the penultimate draft of the report, making it, I believe, a much more user-friendly document.
Today is my 99th day of working at the RSA and I have just realised that a new habit seems to have formed in this time. Until now, I hadn’t thought of my lunchtime behaviour as either habitual or particularly routine. In my head, there’s all manner of lunching possibilities on my doorstep, and really I’m only temporarily buying lunch every day, as what I usually do is bring lunch from home. I tell myself I just haven’t got into the habit of it since I started this job and relocated to London but I’ll get back into the rhythm of it soon.
But, today, I have to admit that my old habit of bringing lunch from home may have had its day, having been usurped by a new one. When I went to get my lunch today, the woman behind the counter said two things which took me by surprise: “You’re a bit late today,” and “See you tomorrow”.
Ok, I’d already recognised that I tend to opt for that particular establishment, and the woman in question is a lovely, smiley person who at some point not long ago started recognising me and greeting me as a familiar customer. So, her talking to me was no surprise. What I had not realised that is that, from her perspective at least, I have a ‘normal time’ for going for lunch, which is sufficiently predictable for her notice and comment that I was ‘late’. And, although, like I say, I recognise that I go to the same place more often than not, I wouldn’t have thought it was regular enough for a member of staff to expect to see me every day.
Habits are behaviours which we perform automatically because they have been performed many times in the past. The repetition of a particular behaviour creates an association between a situation and an action. The situation acts as a cue which prompts a behaviour to be performed automatically. Doing something automatically means doing it without thinking.
Phillipa Lally and her colleagues at UCL found that breaking habits is very difficult. The easiest way of breaking a habit is to control your environment so that you don’t encounter the cue which triggers your habit. They also know that being highly motivated to change a habit doesn’t help much, although it is even harder if you are ambivalent.
What does this mean for my lunchtime behaviour? Well, I can’t really remove the cue from my environment, however you conceive of the cue – which could be my need to eat at lunchtime, my being at the office at lunchtime, or the specific food outlet that I habitually go to. I need to control the environment in a different way. Maybe if I consider the cue as the combined situation of my needing to eat, being at the office and not having brought anything with me, there is scope to change. Essentially what I need to do differently is to bring my lunch in from home.
However, Lally’s team point out that new habits don’t stop old habits from existing. Although new habits can trump old habits once they become stronger influences on behaviour, the old habit is still in place. So, for fear of getting lost in a habits hall of mirrors, my old habit of bringing lunch from home must be lurking somewhere, and although it has latterly been replaced by this new habit of buying lunch, it’s still the older habit, and therefore might stand a good chance of displacing the new one and getting back into pole position.
The season for making resolutions is almost upon us, so after Christmas I’ll have a go at reinstating my old lunchtime habit. We’re back in the office on 3rd January; 66 days after that takes us to 9th March by which time I’ll be able to say whether, in the case of what I have for lunch, new habits die as easily as old ones.
(If you are feeling impatient, go straight to the report)
“The world’s top climate scientists are now ringing the alarm bells at a deafening volume because the time to act has virtually passed, yet it is as if the frequency of the chime is beyond the threshold of human hearing.” – Clive Hamilton.
In the late autumn of 2011 we learned that the world pumped about 564m more tons of carbon dioxide into the air in 2010 than it did in 2009, an increase of 6%. Levels of greenhouse gases are now higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts four years ago.
Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for decades, and for every year that we increase emissions like this, we will have to reduce them even more drastically, and therefore with even more difficulty in the future. Such increases are not merely a sign that we are failing to adapt to the challenge of climate change, but also a signal that relying exclusively on technological and market-driven fixes is foolhardy.
Bluntly stated, we are not getting it. As John Reilly, the co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change put it: “The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing.”
So what do we do? As I have argued here before, Climate change is a multi-dimensional global challenge, raising profound scientific, technological, political and ethical questions. Yet the mismatch between the scale of the challenge and existing efforts to address the problem point to something more troublingly prosaic. For those who are not working directly to address the issue, Climate change lacks salience. While it may be viewed as significant in general terms, for most of us it is not important enough, immediately and personally enough, to compel us to change our behaviour because of it.
These are the first few paragraphs of an RSA report, released today which frames the challenge of raising the salience of an issue that the recent social attitudes survey suggests is very far from public concern.
One of the main points of emphasis was to shift from generalised behaviour change to a focus on changing habits. One suggestion that follows is to make fuel efficient driving a pass/fail criterion in the driving test. Given how hard it is to change driving habits(often called ‘an overlearned behaviour’) there is an economic and environmental case for obliging people to establish good ones in the first place.
While the context of the report is the increasingly urgent ecological challenge of climate change and the economic challenge of rising fuel costs, the content of the report is our attempts to work with a particular sub-set of energy users- Hackney carriage (Black cab) drivers - to help them drive more fuel efficiently, thereby helping, or so it would seem, to protect the planet while saving them money. There is an important counter-argument to this simple equation that says by reinforcing me-first materialist values, you perpetuate the causes of the climate problem. Whatever your view on that, the cabbies drove 20% better than their baseline, saving over a thousand pounds a year per cabbie on average. Perhaps some of them will use the monies saved to plant some trees?
I don’t want to steal too much thunder from the report, but I think you will enjoy reading it. One of the main points of emphasis was to shift from generalised behaviour change to a focus on changing habits. One suggestion that follows is to make fuel efficient driving a pass/fail criterion in the driving test. Given how hard it is to change driving habits(often called ‘an overlearned behaviour’) there is an economic and environmental case for obliging people to establish good ones in the first place.
We learned a lot from the process as a whole, about cabbies, costs, and climate change. I hope you will too.
I just came back from the launch of a new positive social movement (it’s not every day you can say that.)
People were queuing outside to get in, and the launch has been so successful that the website of Action for Happiness have been overwhelmed by the traffic (which is why I am not linking to it).
Rather than give a detailed and worthy account of what it’s all about, I thought I would give a kind of phenomenological pastiche instead:
I saw that Geoff Mulgan(Young Foundation) Lord Layard(LSE) and Anthony Seldon(Wellington College) were involved and I expected a seminar.
…instead I walked into a massive hall with a huge screen and lots of stalls of people who, if not quite selling happiness, were certainly promoting it in various ways. I was too late for the sandwiches but I grabbed an apple and tried to eat it discretely, while feeling a bit guilty not to be networking.
The talks began, hosted by the BBC’s Sian Williams. She did a good job, but I couldn’t help but think that BBC presenters are still a bit monolithic. I hope this can be viewed as a compliment, but if I had heard her speak on stage and had been asked to guess what she did I would have said: BBC broadcaster.
Andy Puddincombe from Headspace led a five minute meditation. In a hall of at least two hundred people, I was on the front row of the upper deck, overlooking the hall. One minute into the meditation, the phone of the retired church going lady sitting next to me went off, and although she looked embarrassed, it appeared she didn’t know how to turn it off, and just waited for it to ring out…meanwhile I was asked to concentrate on my in-breath and notice the sensations in my body….While doing so I honestly felt a degree of compassion for my neighbour, and almost touched her shoulder and said: “It’s ok”, but decided discretion was the better part of valour, and gave her my RSA card instead.
Lord Layard began with an amusing but perhaps over-used joke about a search engine reporting back “Your search for happiness produced no results.”…but proceeded to impress- he embodies his message of happiness, and reminds me of the grandfather in the Worthers Originals adverts.
I felt a pinch of envy on hearing Geoff Mulgan’s biography, and became even more intrigued when I learned that he trained as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka.
Anthony Seldon was impassioned, and launched an excoriating attack on meaningless league tables and suggested that neither Ed Balls (ex Education secretary) or Michael Gove (current) ‘got it’ on wellbeing in education, and argued, to great amusement, that they both needed more hugs.
I was very impressed by Siobhan Freegard’s discussion of family life, especially the stat: 62% of couples with children live away from extended family, and only 60% of them compensate by actively forming new support networks-this felt very close to the home for me and I texted my wife to share the statistic. She texted back: Does more information make you unhappy?
Henry Stewart spoke on the workplace and mentioned a great survey question from Gallup: Did you do today what you are best at? Only 20% answered affirmatively. The obvious implication is that is should be higher, but that means much more proactive Human Resources, and enlightened senior management.
Gail Gallie spoke partly as an advertiser and partly as an advertising reformer-suggesting that images from adverts, sitcoms and films undermine happiness by creating impossible expectations. One of her slides quoted HG Wells saying that advertising was ‘legalised lying’.
I held a large fluffy yellow microphone and asked a question from above, which boiled down to: “How do you turn information into habits?” The point is that the action points in action for happiness: (Do things for others, connect with people, take care of your body, notice the world around, keep learning new things, have goals to look forward to, find ways to bounce back, take a positive approach, be comfortable with who you are, be part of something bigger) are presented in the form of information, and information itself doesn’t change behaviour.
Indeed information is not really the problem and almost all the action points are familiar injunctions that our better selves know only too well. As I have argued before, the key to meaningful change is to make such actions habitual.
Anthony Seldon didn’t seem to get it, thinking that spreading the information is necessary and sufficient, but I was pleased that both Mark Williamson, The Director of Action for Happiness, and Geoff Mulgan responded in a way that suggested they appreciated the centrality of the point. I wanted to reply to them, but the fluffy yellow microphone had gone elsewhere.
Liz Zeidler of the Happy Cities Initiative left a lasting impression with the comment: “We are drip fed just enough unhappiness to keep us buying stuff”, suggesting that capitalism almost depends upon misery to sustain itself…
A curious thought, and one of many I took away…as I decided to leave before the end to get back to write this blog. As I walked back to RSA I couldn’t shake the idea that all of these insights paled into insignificance compared to the simple fact that the sun was shining.
Are there any aspects of social policy that cannot be addressed by a behaviour change approach?
The recently established Behavioural Insight Unit – or ‘Nudge Unit’ – is making wide-ranging recommendations about how to improve people’s lives, and its creation seems to represent a shift away from the New Labour approach of addressing the structural causes of social problems. So far, though, none of the issues it has tackled seem as complex or deep-rooted as the problems that were the focus of New Labour’s fairly self-explanatory Social Exclusion Unit, Anti-Social Behaviour Unit, Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, and others. And yet the current governing parties (the Conservatives in particular, with their depiction of ‘Broken Britain’) were not shy about highlighting social problems such as these when in opposition.
Is there anything that can be achieved by behaviour change models in the face of something as complex and deep-seated as social exclusion?
The government may have changed during the last year, but the social landscape in the UK has not. So if there has been a shift in approach, it begs the question: can a behavioural strategy which focuses on individuals address the types of social issue highlighted by New Labour’s policy units and the Conservatives’ pre-election rhetoric? Is there anything that can be achieved by behaviour change models in the face of something as complex and deep-seated as social exclusion?
This is a question I’ve begun to consider for the RSA, which through its Social Brain and Connected Communities projects has great interest in the issues of behaviour change and social capital. I’d be really interested to get some comments on this, but my early thoughts are that, yes, there is potential for a behavioural approach to be effective – but it’s not as simple as Nudge.
There are perhaps two fundamental sets of factors behind social exclusion. One is structural: low levels of social capital, high local unemployment, poor transport infrastructure, high turnover and diversity of the local population, fear of crime etc. We obviously can’t ignore or deny the significance of these challenges. But there is also a second set of factors: the behaviour patterns or (for want of more sensitive terms) habits and inertia that are established by exclusion, and make it difficult to escape from that situation. It is this second aspect of exclusion that I think suggests an opportunity for a behaviour change approach.
First, let’s be clear about terminology. By ‘habit’ I mean a pattern of behaviours and attitudes that has become so well established as to be carried out without conscious thought. By ‘inertia’, I mean an inability or unwillingness to change in the face of external pressures or a lack of incentives. It is habits that I want to focus on here, because once they are established they are essentially self-perpetuating and isolated from external pressures, and can therefore be addressed in themselves.
As the Steer report from the RSA’s Social Brain project describes, habits direct most of our decisions and much of our behaviour, for good or for ill. They are driven by the automatic brain system, which works intuitively, instinctively and extremely quickly. Habits can be guided by our controlled brain system, which is where we make conscious, deliberated choices (this is akin to the rational, economic model of behaviour change, or the ‘think’ model). But the controlled brain is slower and weaker than the automatic brain when it comes to decision making, and since the latter has an innate preference for what it already knows, the odds are stacked heavily in favour of automatic continuation of things as usual.
Once habits are established they are essentially self-perpetuating and isolated from external pressures, and can therefore be addressed in themselves.
Moreover, trying something different is rewarding at first (specifically, it triggers a pleasant dose of dopamine in the brain), but the novelty and reward quickly wear off after a few iterations, as anyone who has a lapsed gym membership can testify, and the incentive to keep to the new routine is reduced.
Habits can also be influenced by the environment in which the automatic decisions are taken (as in the ‘nudge’ model), but again the ingrained nature of the behaviour means the odds are stacked in favour of the existing routine.
Changing habits, then, is very difficult. As the Steer report argues, it requires first a recognition that habit can be guided deliberately, that the environment can have an influence, and that change is initially attractive, but also that each of these is weak and short-lived compared to the brain’s long-term preference for the status quo. Then it requires an approach that takes all this into account.
So what does this mean for social exclusion? Exclusion may be caused by structural factors, and those factors may contribute to its persistence, but while it persists an ‘excluded’ pattern of behaviour and attitudes becomes established and normal – and it is this habitual rut, as much as the external challenges, that prevents people from improving their situation. Whatever the challenges they face, individuals may consciously try to become more socially included, but unless they recognise and understand how their habits work, and in particular appreciate the relative weakness of their controlled brain, their ‘willpower’ will either fail to make a difference or they will give up on it before a difference can be made. And if this happens often enough, they will stop trying.
Likewise a change in the environment, such as an improvement in local transport services or an invitation from a friend to do something different, may not be enough to break the habit if there is no corresponding deliberate effort. Neither ‘nudge’ nor ‘think’ will work on its own; but a combination of the two, and recognition of the need for persistence once the initial reward for novelty has worn off, has a chance of success.
While it is of course important to deal with the structural challenges people face, I think this offers an opening for a behaviour change approach as well. If people are caught in a habitual cycle, and this, alongside unemployment, poor transport and other factors, is what perpetuates their exclusion, they stand a better chance of improving their situation if they recognise their habits for what they are, and understand how these work and can be changed. And if they do succeed in breaking their excluded habits, some may even be able to overcome the structural challenges that caused their exclusion in the first place.
Thoughts on how this might work in practice are for another post, but I think the principle has potential. It may sound naïve or unrealistic, or even callous, to argue for something other than dealing with structural challenges, but I think enabling people who are socially excluded to address and overcome one of the main sets of factors perpetuating their situation is both possible and worthwhile. What do you think?
One of the main ideas to emerge from the Social Brain Steering group in year one of our project is that the dynamics of human behaviour are best captured in a three-part rather than two-part relationship.
We are not just a controlled system and an automatic system, in which our automatic and largely unconscious behaviours are supplemented and informed by occasional conscious deliberation. In fact our behaviour is mostly habitual.
Habits are important because they define who we are, but also because they can be changed. You breathe automatically, you see automatically, but you think, decide and act habitually. Confucius captures the point nicely when he says: ’Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.’
Habits are driven by our automatic (principally limbic) system, and often feel automatic due to the way our brains predict events, and reward us when those predications are accurate, principally through the release of the ‘feel good factor’ in the form of dopamine. But habits are acquired and conditioned behaviours rather than strictly automatic. They are second nature rather than first, and therefore amenable to the influence of deliberation and reflection.
However, no matter how much knowledge, reflection, and deliberation you bring to bare, you need behaviour to change behaviour. Thought alone will rarely change a habit, because willpower is scarce and depletable, and rarely sufficient to turn the thought into action on an ongoing basis.
Yet the right kind of thoughts can help you to outsmart your automatic system. By using whatever conscious control you have, you can change your environment, such that your automatic system is not given the fuel of familiarity, and your habitual behaviour is not repeatedly reinforced. ‘Nudge‘ therefore seeks to change what we do by shaping the environment to make best use of what we know about our automatic behaviour.
You can also free yourself from your habits to an extent by shifting your goals and expectations. In this respect, ’Think‘ seeks to change our conscious thoughts, such that we change our sense of who we are and what we should want, and thereby recalibrate our habits by seeking out different kinds of reward.
The RSA Steer approach takes the best of both approaches. We seek to bring people’s conscious attention to the power and strength of automaticity,but we also respect the role of conscious deliberation. Changing habits is the main aim of this endeavour, which is one reason why the first principle of our Steer report is that ‘habit is king’.
We know a lot about how hard it is to change bad habits, but much less about how we form good habits. This asymmetry is perhaps in the process of changing, because a recent study authored by Phillippa Lally at UCL suggests that it takes about 66 days for a behaviour to become habitual, by which she means completed without thinking about it. Commentary on this finding can be found here and some ruminations about different numbers of days for different kinds of habits can be found here.
66 days? In other words it is not easy to form a good habit. You need repeated practice, and need to find a way to keep motivation high. As Canadian Magician Doug Henning once put it:
‘The hard must become habit. The habit must become easy. The easy must become beautiful.’