Changing Behaviours

. Changing one's behaviour is hard, eg only around 10% of people who underwent heart surgery made major modifications to their life-style. Yet these people had the ultimate motivation, ie possible death. Changing other people's behaviour is even harder!!!!!! Changing a group's behaviour is harder still!!!!

For example, with the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the world in 2020, officials have suggested behavioural changes required to reduce the impact of the pandemic. Some changes include thoroughly washing hands, social/physical distancing in public, limited number of people meeting, wearing facemasks, downloading locational apps, movement restrictions, quarantining, isolation, etc. Despite repeated assurances from technical experts and official enforcement, many of the public have ignored practising these behaviours despite the possibility of catching the virus and even dying from it. This demonstrates how hard it is to get group and individual behavioural changes even when there is a strong sense of urgency, ie becoming sick and even dying.


. The "stick & carrot" approach is seen as a threat. It is better to use attention, ie when we focus on something, different maps across the brain start to work together; they copy one another, forming a pattern (can include an insight).

. While human change appears hard, the brain has unlimited plasticity & connectivity. Also, when cells fire together, they wire together (Hebb's Law). This re-enforced by the importance of repetition. To help this process, need to focus attention on sensory inputs (sight, sound, smell, etc) to strengthen, or start, neural connections and best to build on strong, in-place connections as harder to start with new connections

"...paying close attention to an idea, activity, or experience helps create networks in the brain that can stay with you, wired together, sometimes forever..."

David Rock, 2009

On the other hand, too much focus means that we can miss things that are not in the focus area but this state allows us to respond quickly to threats or opportunities to improve the chance of survival

  • Need to appreciate people's emotional states when you want to initiate or facilitate change; only try to influence people when they are in a suitable emotional state

. Attention should not appear as a threat. By focusing attention away from threats, you can create new connections with the right questions.

. Practise using solution-focused questions that focus people's attention directly on the specific circuits you want to activate. This is better than using the most common default approach to help others by just giving advice on 'what to do "or "what not to do"

. Some questions that may help include

"...If you stop and think more deeply here, do you think you know what you need to do to resolve this?

What quiet hunches do you have about a solution, deeper inside?

How close to a solution are you?

Which pathway to a solution would be best to follow here?..."

David Rock, 2009

These questions should help a person understand their own thinking, ie finds the gaps and raises their confidence (status)

Free will under challenge by neuroscience
This assumes that we can freely choose between right and wrong, eg Christian notion of righteousness or moral liberty (the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires). We can overcome our circumstances and genes to become the authors of our own destiny.

The concept of free will is one of the pillars of Western society and permeates many aspects of our lives like criminal law, welfare provisions, popular culture, etc. It assumes that no matter what your start in life is, you have the choice as to how you handle it.

Yet fields like neuroscience are challenging this belief. There is evidence to suggest that the ability to determine our fate is not free. It is based on biological inheritance and how our brains function. This has added to the debate on nature (genes) v nurture (environment).  The firing of neurons in our brain determines our thoughts, hopes, memories and dreams. Changes in brain chemistry can alter our behaviour, eg impact of drugs like alcohol, anti-depressants, etc. There have been cases of individuals developing brain tumours that have drastically changed their behaviour.

Research has shown that electrical impulses build up in the brain before the person consciously makes a decision
"...the conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurred after the brain has already set the action in think of ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control..."
Stephen Cave, 2016

This type of approach has been used in court cases by defendants arguing that their brain made them do it!!!!!
This is sometimes called "determinism", ie we are not responsible for our actions and our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect.  Free will becomes a delusion.

Neuroscience suggests that the brain is more accurately described as a physical system, like the heart, which we have little control over, ie
"...human behaviour is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain which stretches back to our birth and beyond.  In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If  we could understand any individual's brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual's response to any given stimulus with 100% accuracy..."
Stephen Cave, 2016

Research has shown that people who believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally, ie not responsible for their actions.  On the other hand, belief in free will is a better predictor of performance (job and academic) than traditional measures like work ethic, IQ, etc.  Furthermore, believers in free will are more likely to volunteer their services and/or give money to the community. Other studies have shown that a diminishing belief in free will increase stress, unhappiness and less commitment to relationships, less sense of life's meaningfulness, etc

Those believing less in free will are less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes and less grateful towards each other.
If free will is an illusion, this has large social and psychological consequences, ie people are not to be blamed for actions as they are beyond our control, etc. This will weaken our morals, our ethical standards, our ideals, our motivation and our sense of the meaningfulness of life. To stop bad behaviour we need to change the brain.


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