Letting Go

A short musing on the nature of attachment.

This blog is part dissemination of psychology and part philosophical musing on behaviour.

Our behaviour is not driven by an objective reality but by our history and perception of that reality.

To whit; if you try and change the world you will inevitably fail. Even those people who DO make big changes (think Zuckerburg and Facebook, Einstein and Nuclear Technology, Bill Gates and Microsoft etc…) inevitably fail to change everything.

Changing the world is pretty much impossible. Yet we are tricked and goaded into seeing ourselves as the essential cogs of a giant machine where we are absolutely unique and necessary for the world to survive.

You aren’t. We aren’t.

Let go of that burden. Stop trying to change the world. Just change yourself.

You’ll be happier.

Motivation vs. Intention

In the linear-rational world we all like to think we inhabit behaviours routinely follow well formed intentions.

We say we want to do something, we then go and do it. Simple.

You might say “I’m hungry, I’m going to go eat”, you might then go eat and thus confirm to yourself the logic of Intentions –> Behaviour.

This a delusion. 

We’ve crafted a very clever cultural narrative around teleological behaviours and we are singularly convinced that there is something inside us – we call it free will – that drives our behaviour. This view is so deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche that to question it is to reveal yourself as a raving lunatic. Yet the idea of some non-physical thing inside our heads directing our actions in response to some ethereal will stands in stark defiance of all known natural laws; biological, physical, and chemical.

You see we intend to do many things. We intend to eat healthier. Go running. Buy that book. Book that holiday. Quit that job. Order that pizza. Buy that shirt. Watch that film. Paint that room.

We spend a lot of time telling ourselves all the things we intend to do.

These intentions are useless. Saying “I’m going to read that book” is functionally equivalent to saying “I’m going to fly to Venus”. The outcome of reading a book and going to Venus are equally unlikely.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating; We behave in response to environmental and historical contingencies. 

In other words we have to be motivated to behave in a certain way. For example all logic tells us eating healthier is better. Yet we sit down and tuck into an XL Bacon Double Cheeseburger more often than we should. Why? We are not motivated to eat healthier. We may have had bad experiences in the past (Tofu…) or spent months starving ourselves only to put on a pound or two (trust me…it happens). Yet every goddamn mouthful of the burger is blissful. It’s always there. Always tasty. Always cheap. It’s a guaranteed good feeling.

We have to be motivated in order to change our behaviour and motivation is derived from the environment, not the stories we tell ourselves.

The dangers of Moral Authority

The bitter battle between Trump and Clinton made me ponder a common problem in business.

Let me explain.

The problem is not so much Trump vs. Clinton. It’s their supporters. The internet has given us a chance to free ourselves from a narrative-driven media. We now have a multiplicity of choices where we get our news and can comfortably confirm our own biases easily.

If you believe Trump is right then you can confirm this easily, safe in the knowledge that Clinton supporters are elitist shills, or globalist non-patriots, or just plain evil.

If you support Clinton you can be safe in the knowledge that Trump supports are deluded racists, angry nationalists, and white supremacists.

The Leader of Your Choice can therefore always remain correct and their opponents can be dismissed as wrong, misguided, or evil.

This is the danger of a personality-cult in business as well. It’s easy to assume that because you like a leader they therefore are always correct. In a business you can easily quell opposition and therefore maintain a narrative.

The solution to this is maintain an open process of decision making. A common practice is to allow people have a fair say – without judgement – before a leader makes a decision.

By allowing everyone with a stake to have their opinion known and considered they feel included and like they contributed.

Now if only politics was that easy to fix…

The Beauty of Nuance

Our modern discourse is sorely lacking nuance. As TheAmazingAtheist pointed out not long ago we are retreating in to a situation where we can’t accept nuance, rather we have to be one side or the other. Black or white. Right or Wrong. Good or Bad.

This manifests in a number of areas, most obviously in politics – highlighted by the Trump/Clinton divide (You’re a racist! No you’re a criminal!) or the Brexit vote (You hate young people! No you hate Britain!) blah blah blah.

It’s driving a wedge between us as we retreat to smaller and small balkanized positions of absolute rightness.

The apolitical world of work is no less immune to this type of thinking.

One of the benefits of a behavioural approach to your organisation is a much needed infusion of nuance. Behaviour approaches encourage organic improvement, increased engagement, and roll back of rigid bureaucracy and a replacement of top-down command-control edicts.

Instead a behavioural organisation can have a system where staff feel as though they can experiment with how they work. Where they can be involved in a system that doesn’t judge them for deviation. Where you, as a manager or business leader, can encourage novel and efficient ways of working hitherto untried because of a rigid adherence to dogmatic “business management” principles.

If you’d like to know how to get these benefits send us an email and we’ll be happy to talk to you about it.

Warping Reality at Work

We are stubborn creatures. We hold to narratives and ideas and let them inform our behaviour even when faced with vastly opposing data. I’ve talked about this before but it’s important to clarify what role this plays in our day to day life.

There is an idea that has been going around for some time called “Warping Reality” or “Reality Distortion Field” and depending on who you read it was either coined in the 80’s with Apple or the 60’s with Star Trek. The basic premise is that through sheer mental force of will you can change the way people perceive things.

I am going to talk about it in a slightly different context. Warping reality in the context I’m going to discuss it means our propensity to base behaviours on ideas/feelings formed in the past and are insensitive to contemporary data.

Whew! What a mouthful.

First Impressions

Let me unpick it a little. The workplace is somewhere were we are forced to deal with other people with whom we may not have very much in common but have to overcome those differences in order to function. We have to interact with people we wouldn’t have a beer with. As such we have no real interest in becoming bestest friends with everyone in the office and indeed social relationships remain largely superficial and convivial.

We make first impressions based on ridiculous things but they are nonetheless important for our behaviour. We don’t take the time to evaluate a person on a case-by-case basis. We decided a long time ago how to deal with a person and we then engage in that “schema” every time we meet someone. This is both advantageous because it frees up mental energy, but it also causes problems because we get stuck in a pattern of responding.

Vital Importance

If you are trying to change staff behaviour – either towards you, each other, or their work – this is vital to understand. People will respond to you, each other, or their work not based on how it is presented today, but how it was presented a long time ago.

This is the Reality Distortion Field in effect. 

Our view of other people and our work is distorted by prior perception. So how do we fix this?

Well the first thing we can do is prime people. Tell people things are going to change, this gets them focused on what is happening now.

Second you have to work on providing explicit consequences for targeted behaviours. By explicitly providing positive consequences for specific behaviours you reset reality and give people a NEW view of how things work.

A warning

Reality distortion will still be in effect. It’s just you’ll have changed the focus. You have to keep on top of these things and guard your own thinking as well.


The paradox of control

Here’s a zen-like thought for you; water – to be controlled – must be allowed to flow free.

Ponder this thought for a moment. To control the flow of water, to capture it, use it, harness it, we have to provide only the shape of the vessel. You cannot grab water. You cannot wrestle with water. You cannot bully or punish water into doing what you want.

People are like water.

Trying to force a person to do something is counter productive. Even if they do what you want they do it begrudgingly, slowly, regretfully. They’ll do it as long as you punish them and the minute you stop – so will they. As an added bonus they’ll have cultivated a finely honed dislike – even hatred – for you.

This is the paradox of the modern working environment.  Some settings, such as factories, require continuous work of a certain type. In this context it is necessary for people to follow strict instructions. Yet the white-collar office work so many people are now employed in is not this type of context. Work is largely self-driven. There is no sense of immediate necessity. A report can be written now or in two hours. A spreadsheet can be modified today or tomorrow – or next week. The whole system won’t break down if one person – or many – is not working at a certain pace.

So why then do we treat office workers like assembly line workers? 

Traditional management styles – even more modern enlightened ones – start with a basic premise; workers must be coerced into working a specific way.

That specific way is typically a high rate of responding. We want people to be always working. Constantly on-task and focused. Laziness, that is to say the act of not constantly working, is looked down on, punished, and derided. A good worker is someone who is in the office at 8am, leaves at 6pm and takes only the mandated twenty five minutes for a hasty lunch. In some places even the sheer temerity expressed by some in wanting to use the bathroom more than once is seen as a punishable offence.

Yet workers remain unhappy. We do it because we have to. We suit and boot ourselves in restrictive clothing, drag ourselves out of bed and trudge to work where we inject our systems with high volumes of caffeine and nicotine laced consumables do some work and then sit, twiddling our thumbs, “looking busy” until lunch time which we wolf down to make sure we are back, promptly, at 1pm to do a short burst of work before sitting and clock watching until we are finally allowed to leave.

If, in this scenario, a worker cannot work constantly, then it’s their fault. They have a bad work ethic. They are lazy. They are disrespectful. The idea that 5 days a week, 8am-6pm, confined-to-the-desk setup might somehow be flawed is not questioned.

We worship at the altar of this modern work routine.

But should we?

It’s a well known secret that our ability to concentrate is limited to short bursts. Our capacity to work creatively and successfully drops off sharply with time. This is something you can validate yourself. If you actually kept a diary of your day you might be horrified to see how little work actually gets done “on company time”.

I want to offer you – Mr and Mrs. Manager or Employer – a radical solution; stop trying to control your staff. 

This solution requires trust and a certain degree of steel cajones but if you are prepared to buck the conventional wisdom you will be rewarded more than you can imagine.

The first thing you can probably do is relax the dress code. Seriously. Wearing a tie or uncomfortable polyester/cotton blend business clothing is antithetical to proper thinking. Trust me.

Second shorten the work week. Seriously. Allow people a “free day”, usually Friday, to work from home, or work on their own projects, or just do nothing. The value of a three day weekend is highly underestimated and you’d be stunned at how productive people can be when given free reign to be so.

Third and this is so so so essentially. TRUST your employees. Trust that they will do the work. Trust that they can engage with the tasks they are set without constant oversight.

A colleague of mine remarked once that in a previous life they had a job in a call centre and their office manager was so overbearing and strict that everyone in the office misbehaved and messed around whenever the manager wasn’t breathing down their neck.

Trust goes a long way to remedy this.

For the love of it

I have recently re-read the fantastic book “How to be Free” by Tom Hodgkinson.


A wonderfully poignant book that actually feels more like a collection of essays wherein which the author explores an idiosyncratic philosophy of part Medieval, part anarchist-utopian, part Therouian transcendentalism with a chummy sort of wit and easy-to-read writing style.

I’m not a book reviewer so I wouldn’t know where to start when writing about this book but I thoroughly enjoyed this easy reader, not to mention his other book “How to be Idle” and the thematically similar “In Praise of Slow” by Carl Honore all of which espouse a philosophy – although that’s perhaps too grand a name for this, it’s more a point of view or sense of life.

All these books – and many more – describe a way of living where we “unplug” from the mainstream, consumerist society we inhabit and pay closer attention to the things that are more important like family, laughter, good food, ale etc… It’s an appealing image, utopian really since it’s probably impossible to 100% achieve.

I won’t criticise the problems with this outlook, you can work them out for yourselves. For example where would medicine be without consumerism? Instead I want to look at how the rise of this way of thinking in the 21st century parallels our hyper-consumerist society and how behavioural psychologists have been talking about this stuff for years.


21st Century Breakdown

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.”

                                                                                                               – Morpheus, The Matrix

I don’t want to get too hippy dippy here but it’s clear to everyone who’s even half plugged in to the world around them that something is rotten in the state of Denmark – and pretty much everywhere else. The seismic shock of Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, these things are not random occurrences. The incessant desire for a globalist world, coupled with a breakdown of traditional family structure, social institutions, and practices have left a lot of people feeling…well…forgotten.

We spend our days working hard to earn money which we can spend on things we are told we need by the people we work for who give us money to go out and buy the things we make. It’s all a bit cyclical. People know it’s cyclical. This leads us to what I call the punishment society, a way of living that is characterised by a relentless focus on avoiding negatives. 

Avoidance vs. Achieving

We avoid negatives. Relentlessly. We avoid poverty. We avoid bad fashion. We avoid the horror of having a smart phone that isn’t the latest model. We avoid looking stupid. We avoid looking poor. We avoid being judged by our bosses and co-workers.

We avoid it. Constantly. We spend all day keeping the proverbial wolf from the door. We exhaust ourselves and look toward to that brief glimmer of two weeks in the summer we get off before we do it all over again. And again. Our activities, such as they are, are meant to distract us from this. 5 hours of TV a day makes for a good sedative. It keeps us calm, plus, added bonus, it lets us be influenced by hypnotic-like adverts selling us more things to spend our hard earned money on.

It’s a bleak picture, isn’t it? But of course we avoid thinking about that as well. We tell ourselves over and over “If I can just get X” where X is the new promotion, new house, new car, new watch, new fridge etc…

“How to Be Free” and the others I mentioned, are a reaction to this pattern. They offer a solution in the form of achieving not avoiding. 

The Central Idea

Imagine if you can a world where you jump out of bed, happy to greet the day. You go about your business purposefully because you want to. You don’t feel cheated or swindled. You aren’t exhausted at the very thought of having to spend another day trying to stop people thinking badly of you.

This is the world behavioural psychology can help you achieve.

The work we do at Change Design Co. is in fact founded on this idea. We help people in businesses realise that you encourage people to positively engage with their work when you reward them and allow them the freedom to flourish. If you crack down. If you try and control. If you try and punish your way to a better workforce you’ll only drive people further and further away.

Facts don’t matter – Feelings do!

Remember when everyone gave up smoking when they learned it was unhealthy?

Remember when everyone put down the burgers when they found red meat / carbohydrates  / fat / salt / etc… was unhealthy?Red_Robin_burger

Remember when all the alcohol companies went bust when it was announced alcohol is a toxin?


Funny that. 

We understand, on a personal level, that facts don’t really matter to our decisions. Broadly they do of course. We wear a coat when it rains. We drive at the speed limit (mostly…). We follow rules. Yet we still smoke. We eat burgers. We drink to excess. We do bad things because they feel good. 

If you want people to stop doing something make that something feel bad. 

Telling people eating burgers is bad for their health is marginally effective. Telling people eating a burger is morally wrong and they will be judged for it is highly effective.

This taps into social proof and, more importantly, feels bad. You feel guilty. You feel ashamed. And you stop doing it.

Similarly if you want people to eat healthily make eating healthy feel good. This is the premise behind the highly successful Food Dudes program at Bangor University which teaches kids to feel good about eating healthily.

I have a theory that this is why so many people who eat restrictive diets become fanatical about it. By creating an almost religious fervour around something you are more likely to follow through.

So. To summarise. Changing behaviour is all about making people feel differently.


You Get What You Incentivise

This is a quick one.

It’s the basic law of behaviour change. One of the most fundamental ones there is.

You. Get. What. You. Reward. 

That’s all.

Meditate on it.

You get more of what you reward and less of what you ignore.

The next time you are berating someone or ignoring their good work remember that.

The next time you are wondering why your staff don’t seem to care about deadlines try and remember the last time you actually thanked someone for handing their work in on time.

Perceptions Matter

What is the nature of reality?

Are we living in a giant, computer simulation? Are we puppets of an indefinable force? Are we alone in a vast, barren expanse of nothingness? Are we just the swirling atoms of a grain of sand on a giant desert?

Does it matter?

Let’s leave metaphysics behind for a second. If we want to change behaviour then you have to realise that there is a fundamental difference between what is true and what people think is true.

Let me explain; we perceive the world through our sensory organs. This input, as it were, is reflected back to us through our language. We talk about the world and mistake that talk for reality.

We say a thing is red but red is merely the agreed upon way to talk about certain light waves. Even the word red is merely something given to us by an accident of our birth. Had we been born in France we would say Rouge. If we had been born in Turkey we would say kirmizi.

Interestingly research does suggest that the language we use colours our perception of the world – hence the rather odd translates of Homeric text which refer to “the wine coloured sea”. Of course the sea is not wine coloured but oddly enough Homeric Greek did not have a word of deep blue. So he had to use an odd linguistic approximation that made sense to other Greeks but doesn’t really make sense to the modern Anglophone.

So our language changes the way we see the world – which incidentally is the premise of the hugely complicated Relational Frame Theory – but what does this have to do with changing behaviour?

Well our behaviour is driven by our environment – but more specifically it is driven by our perception of the world. To whit one person may enjoy chocolate and so be reinforced on the receipt of chocolate. Some suffering from intense lactose intolerance may find the gift of chocolate somewhat less rewarding and therein lies the rub.

It is virtually impossible to change a persons behaviour by imposing our view of the world on to them from afar. We need look no further than the Brexit debate to see that you may as well be yelling across the grand canyon for all the good it does trying to argue your point with the opposition.

We perceive the world in a certain way and that perception drives our behaviour. if we want to change a persons behaviour we have to change their perception of events or reality. There are a number of ways you can do this and I’ve discussed them before on this blog and my other blog (The Behaviour Guy).

The central technique is this; avoid logic and rhetoric. Instead focus on changing salient consequences in the environment so people contact the important things in their reality.