Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (1)

St. John: "Repent!"

Christianity is based in the call from Christ that we should repent – change our hearts and minds and go in a new direction in life.   Yet most of us recognize how difficult it is to change.  We are creatures of (bad!) habit.  We also tend to listen to those who say things that agree with our worldview rather than listening to people who challenge us in our thinking (see my blog Cultural Cognition: Why Talk Show Hosts Will Always Have an Audience).  We don’t like to be proved wrong and often are not open to facts that would show us why we need to change our thinking or even show us a better way for doing things.

So I found the NPR story, What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits   by Alix Spiegel, to be interesting because it spoke about people, in this case soldiers in Vietnam, who largely shook a (very bad) habit – addiction to heroin.  The U.S. Government ordered a study to see what became of these addicted soldiers when they returned to the U.S.  The soldiers were kept in Nam until they dried out.  What the researchers discovered was that 95% of the returning soldiers who had been addicted to heroin did not return to heroin use once back in the U.S.  This was astounding because in the general population 90% of heroin addicts who are dried out return to using heroin.   For many years many people assumed the researchers just got the data wrong since the data didn’t fit the assumptions of those dealing with addiction.

Basically in those days counselors assumed you need to change the motivation and goals of people to get them to change their behavior.  Such modification did have limited effects in changing behavior, or was effective in certain limited cases but not in others.  What researchers have come to realize from the studies of the soldiers who had become heroin addicts while serving in Vietnam, were dried out, and then returned to the US is that

“People, when they perform a behavior a lot — especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting — outsource the control of the behavior to the environment.”

In other words environmental clues contribute to us maintaining habits, good or bad.  Environmental clues help us drive a car for example.   We do the right things while driving without thinking about them, out of habit.  The environment of the car gives us clues that determine our behavior.

And what the researchers have come to realize is that this “outsourcing” the control of our behavior to the environment contributes to people re-engaging in bad/addictive/unwanted behaviors when they are in the same environment.   Without thinking about it, we take clues from the environment and then engage in the same behavior we wanted to change.    This “outsourcing” the control of behavior to the environment is similar to what geneticists have come to realize about genetic effects on behavior – there is also epigenetics, factors beyond genetics/biology which not only effect behavior but become heritable characteristics in our genetic makeup without changing our genes.

In other words, our behavior is affected by many things which are in a complex relationship with us, some of these things are external to ourselves.

“We think of ourselves as controlling our behavior, willing our actions into being, but it’s not that simple.

It’s as if over time, we leave parts of ourselves all around us, which in turn, come to shape who we are.”

And, the good news in this is that if we make even small changes in our environment, we can help change our behaviors;  this is especially hopeful for those with “more socially accepted” addictions such as food or shopping.  The article mentions that even doing something as simple as switching eating ice cream with your left rather than right hand can cause you to reduce the amount you eat (not to mention most of us are totally clumsy with our non-dominant hand!).   By changing simple things in our lives, we might be able to overcome some of our sinful addictions to food, gambling, spending, the internet, pornography, etc.   Moving furniture or other external “clues” might help us in our struggles to overcome these passions.

So there are simple helps that can lead to behavior changes, or to help us learn to control certain behaviors.  Note: our behaviors are shaped by many factors, and to this day we don’t clearly understand all of their effects or the interrelationships.  So while changing environmental things can help lead to changed behavior, it isn’t a magic cure-all for ridding ourselves of unwanted behaviors.

The effort to change behavior, to exercise some control over our behavior was also the content of another USA article, Why We don’t Really Have Free Will by evolutionist Jerry Coyne, to which I want to turn in the next blog.

See also my blog, AH, HUMAN REASONING.

Next:  Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (2)

5 thoughts on “Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (1)

  1. Pingback: Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (2) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Free Will and Biology (1) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  3. Pingback: Free Will and Biology (2) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  4. Pingback: Christ, sin, free will, and determinism. « Near Emmaus

  5. Pingback: Free Will and Biology (PDF) | Fr. Ted's Blog

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