Not too long ago I was watching a YouTube video by Better Ideas, a self-improvement channel making content on, well, unsurprisingly, self-improvement. Mr. Better Ideas (Joey) doesn’t have a background in behavioural science per se, but did come up with some killer concepts that I would like to address and dive into further here. Because they lay at the very foundation of behavioural change. In his video, Joey outlines how our brain tells us a story about ourselves and our life. It tells us how we do things, and as a result of those actions, who we are as people. It’s not that you just don’t exercise, it’s that you’re not the type of person who exercises. Or, more commonly even: it’s that you are a person who’s not good with money, as a result of your actions that resulted in the financial position you are in now (or the lack of action). To explain our current situation to ourselves, we build a narrative around ourselves. This narrative however, can be quite toxic, because this then drives the confirmation bias: we look towards ourselves to confirm the narrative. You are in overdraft again? Of course, it was to be expected, you’re just not good with money. This negative thinking is the opposite of the self-serving bias: the belief system in which positive outcomes are attributed to ourselves and negative outcomes are attributed to external forces (situational, or others). We might want to call this the self-negating bias. Because why not? We’ve got 180+ biases anyway, might as well add another one. It can’t come as a surprise that the thought pattern behind the self-negating bias is just setting yourself up for failure. It feeds into the voice(s) we have in our heads telling us that we won’t amount to anything ever anyway. Because if you’re bad at one expect in your life, well, that’s only a stone throw away from just being a shit person overall. This is also the thought pattern often associated with the onset of depression, and several forms of non-object/situation specific anxiety.
Stepping back from clinical psychology and moving back to the confirmation bias. We only look for things that confirm what we already believe. This is one of the most robust biases in the field (ironically and paradoxically, that evidence may still be partially driven by the confirmation bias itself). We don’t tend to look at instances that reject our view: the fact that you do have some savings; the fact that you are able to pay for the rent/mortgage. Sure, it seems like you always have some month left at the end of your money, but it’s not like you’ve let multiple business gone bankrupt because you don’t understand the bare minimum of how money works (Trump, anyone?). The more confirmation we find, and we will find it, don’t you worry, the stronger this narrative becomes. And as a result, the more difficult it becomes to get out of that narrative through actions that would change, distort or simply do not fit the narrative. If you think you’re a fat, lazy fuck, because you eat junk food and don’t exercise, then suddenly getting up and running 5k is rather implausible, according to you. If you suddenly were to start exercising your brain would experience some serious cognitive dissonance: “the uncomfortable tension that can exist between two simultaneous and conflicting ideas or feelings—often as a person realizes that they have engaged in a behaviour inconsistent with the type of person they would like to be, or be seen publicly to be”. This term is coined from Social Psychology, but can be applied to individual reasoning as well: “… as a person realizes that they have engaged in a behaviour inconsistent with the type of person they think themselves to be”. Now cognitive dissonance is a tad uncomfortable, but it does present an opportunity. Unfortunately it also presents the foundation for why most “sudden” behaviour change doesn’t work, but let’s look at the silver linings too. Once your brain is starting to doubt the narrative it has been telling you for a while, it’ll have to restructure some thoughts. It might strike back looking even harder for confirmations of you being lazy (this is not a personal attack, just an example) and as a result trying to provide you with excuses for why it would be okay to fail: “you’re just a naturally lazy person, of course the goal to hit the gym 4 times a week was never going to last. But you did try!” However, there’s a little hope there too. If you can push through the fact that your brain is already making up excuses for your imminent failure (which hasn’t even happened yet), you could also challenge the story and change your narrative: why do you think you’re a lazy ass? Because you don’t exercise. Well, you’re exercising now, so clearly, something’s gotta give! In line with my last article on trends vs. events, it’s important to not attribute a single thing to overall development and massively take it out of proportion. This works for our narrative too. Just because you like to eat crisps doesn’t make your fat or lazy. Just because you prefer sitting on the couch watching Netflix to running 5k every morning doesn’t make you a person who could never run 5k. It just makes you someone who likes crisps, the couch and Netflix. Having those preferences doesn’t mean you are a person who could never exercise. The framing of looking at actions rather than your whole persona is important, because the latter drives complacency: we don't deviate and become stuck.
Now in addition to the confirmation bias there’s another very robust bias in behavioural science: the status quo bias (or just a default preference): once a default (status quo) is set, we do not deviate. We don’t opt-out of something that has been set for us, and we don’t opt-in of things that we haven’t been given. We’re quite an inertic bunch. How’s the default relevant here? Well, the story your brain is telling you is the default. We have it confirmed and now automatically default to it. What are we: a lazy ass who eats crisps whilst sitting on the couch binging Netflix. So what are we going to do tonight? Exactly… A change of narrative needs to happen. A change of default needs to occur before we might be able to do that. How do you break a default? By recognizing and changing the behaviours and the context leading to that default behaviour. In terms of the crisps, don’t buy them in the grocery store. In terms of Netflix, cancel the account. In terms of the couch, maybe make it more difficult to sit on it (don’t get rid of the couch, I’ve been waiting for weeks to finally get mine, I’ve never been so desperate for a piece of furniture). One way of avoiding the couch is to have plans in the evening with someone else (an accountability buddy), who knows what you’re trying to do. If that’s a step too far, why not sit in a different spot in your house. It might seem a bit weird and small, but we’re trying to break a default here, not solve world hunger. Any change to the default will make an impact. So once you’ve been hanging out in your bedroom rather than your living room, or you’ve been hanging out at a friend’s place, or even better, going for walks with said friend (the accountability buddy), the default will slowly shift. Maybe you do still sit on the couch sometimes, that is what it’s for after all. But you no longer sit on it every evening eating crisps and binging Netflix. And that’s exactly where we wanted to go! And as is often the case with behavioural change, one thing leads to another. Once your out of a toxic and negative thought spiral you can slowly reshape your perception of yourself; who you are and what you want to be. And also quite important: how you’re going to go about it. And once you’ve made up your mind that you want to change certain behaviours and feel empowered to do so, well there’s a plethora of written work, guides and tools out there to help you!
You are not the story your brain tells you that you are. You are not your brain. You are a person engaging in certain types of behaviours. And if you don’t like those behaviours, you can change them. Because the one thing you have to always believe yourself to be, is capable.