Steering the elephant in the room, not just nudging it

Scientists have used the “brain” of an unidentified Springfield man – after a year-long search inside his skull to find it – to highlight how doughnut and chilli-dog-related pleasure appear to dominate all human thought.

In between helping my lad complete The Usborne Book Of Things To Spot out of the Flybe plane window back from Belfast at the weekend (or Fly Maybe as they are sometimes known) I caught up with Matt Grist’s paper, “Steer”, for the RSA from a couple of years back. The report was part of the Social Brain project he led for them. Here it is: Steer: Mastering Our Behaviour Through Instinct, Environment and Reason. It’s worth a read for anyone who’s read any of the Thaler and Sunstein, Ariely or Lehrer popular science books on behavioural economics and the new understanding of decision-making. (The Social Brain project is now continued under the direction of Dr. Jonathan Rowson, who brought out an equally interesting paper as the next stage of the RSA’s Social Brain project in November 2011: Transforming Behaviour Change: Beyond Nudge and Neuromania. More on that in a future post).

The purpose of the Social Brain project is for the RSA to explore how knowledge from behavioural science might help people practically to improve their decision-making and guide their own behaviours in ways that enrich their lives.

If elephants could support football teams, would they cheer or boo the Ivory Coast? Only they and Cheick Tioté know.

Grist makes some interesting points about the limited sphere in which “Nudge” operates. He calls it “the Contextual Automatic Model” (one of six behaviour change models he identifies) and sees it as applying to our automatic brain system alone. This limits what Nudge can do:

The Nudge approach can only work on very simple behaviours: ones where the automatic system can be guided without any input from the controlled system … Very few behaviours are simple enough to be influenced in this manner …

Grist champions instead what he calls “The Reflexive Holistic Model” of behaviour change – or “Steer”, if you prefer something catchier.

It is “holistic” because it spans both the automatic and controlled systems. Its great strength is that it is “based on a degree of understanding about how the two systems interact.” The “reflexive” part of its name refers to the fact that awareness of behaviours starts a dialogue rebounding between the behaviour and the awareness of it, which over time affect both sides. In short, once people become aware of the governing principles behind a behaviour, they are better able to change that behaviour.

So Grist challenges the idea that there is a simple dichotomy between the controlled system (System 1) and the automatic system (System 2). It is one holistic system, with controlled and automatic aspects:

Each ‘rational’ choice is in fact imbued with ‘irrational’ emotion, and also relies in some way on automatic processing. So it is not even simply a case of two systems working together. There is one self-organised system that operates at different levels.

This holistic system that governs behaviour is best thought of, Grist contends, as having three levels and not two:

  1. automatic responses (e.g. fight or flight). These can be conditioned to some extent, but not readily trained.
  2. habit-based behaviour – there is no particular goal in mind but we repeat patterns of behaviour that have been shown to work. Habits can be guided and trained. “The vast majority of human life consists of just such training.”
  3. the controlled and goal-directed system designed for deliberating and thinking.

Say no more …

He brings focus onto habits. Looking at how to work with the automatic system alone is great so far as it goes: but when we’re talking about habits, the key is that they span the automatic AND controlled systems. Habits are guided and refined by controlled deliberation, but the automatic system is what dominates at the time of action.

Grist borrows Jonathan Haidt‘s metaphor (he wrote The Happiness Hypothesis in 2007) of the elephant and its rider, to help explain what “Steer” is about:

The elephant represents our basic automatic responses and habits. The rider is our goal-directed and controlled decision-making capacity.

The rider can train the elephant and ride it, but only up to a point; he has to work around the elephant and its needs. The rider can guide the elephant but if it’s hungry, the elephant will go and eat; the rider can do little to influence it. We are the rider AND the elephant, of course, not just the rider.

But the picture is not complete, because there is also the forest that the elephant is walking through:

Changes in this setting affect how the elephant behaves and what he is able to do.

Nudge, Grist contends, focusses only on making changes at the environmental level; but the Steer approach can do this AND look also at how the rider trains and rides the elephant. This image of steering an elephant through a cultivated forest is the one that really captures the whole cognitive-behavioural picture.

If you’ve seen one stupa, you’ve seen them all … Starting to regret quitting my job for that logging company. What’s she doing with an umbrella on my back anyway? It’s neither raining nor particularly sunny. Still, if this metaphor helps humans work out their own brains, I suppose I can live with it.

The Steer paper is about empowering people to take more control over their lives – not by reverting to the old ‘rational decision-maker’ models, but by acknowledging the constantly shifting and looping relationship between the conscious and unconscious, the central role of habitual behaviour in our lives and our ability to change that behaviour through reflection. But it is not about willpower, it’s about re-ordering social and physical environments in order to facilitate more deliberate habit change.

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About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
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