Prescriptive context

Posted: March 1, 2005 at 10:43 pm in people

Picking up on the identity as context post (as an aside, I need to figure out a way to thread posts, like on a bulletin board, except with comments – I’ve got to start doing research on my blogging software options – yes, I know I’ve said that before), it’s time to think about how such ideas can be used. This is part of my new attempt to move away from my typical passive descriptive stance and towards an active prescriptive role, because all the cool pundits offer solutions as well as new ways of looking at the world. And I want to be a cool pundit, after all.

One obvious consequence of the idea that we are choosing our identity by choosing our social groups is that we can modify our identity by putting ourselves in situations where the environment reinforces behaviors we want to encourage. I’m thinking specifically of Alcoholics Anonymous here, where part of the power of AA is the social structure that it provides to help alcoholics quit. It is always easier to do something when other people are doing the same thing around you. Our herd instinct takes over and helps to reinforce the behavior.

We can leverage our social tendencies even more explicitly. For instance, it is drilled into us that it is important to keep promises to others, that trust is the framework around which our society is built. It’s entirely possible that such behavior is wired into us evolutionarily via social feedback mechanisms. So when we really want to change our behavior, we make an announcement publicly that we are planning to do so. Then all of the social feedback mechanisms are called into play, and we are more likely to stick to our resolution. This is the basic idea of the wedding, for instance.

As a specific example, I started this blog in part as a public resolution of this type.
I had all of these interesting thoughts, but I would never get around to writing them down. Putting them in a blog, thereby getting encouragement and feedback from readers, made it easier to motivate myself to write down the next set of observations, which engendered more feedback, and so on, creating a virtuous circle of behavior modification. At this point, I think it’s self-sustaining, where I am enough in the habit of writing that I don’t necessarily need the public feedback, but it took over a year for that to happen. And I don’t think I would have had the self-discipline to write consistently for a year if it were just for myself; as a counterexample, I have tried many times to start keep a personal journal, and always fail. So by leveraging my social instincts in terms of not wanting to disappoint my (few) readers, I was able to change my behavior.

Another example is the importance of teamwork to a project. On a good team, everybody is doing their best, not wanting to disappoint their teammates. The team jells, and synergistically achieves much more than each person would have achieved working independently. From a personal point of view, I tend to be more productive when working with a partner. I am willing to accept failure for myself, but I don’t want to fail somebody else. Again, leveraging our social instincts changes the way we behave.

A further consequence of the “identity as context” theory is the negative connotations. I mentioned how it applies to cults in the original post, but it can be applied more widely than that. For example, expectations play a huge role in determining how we behave. I’ve alluded to this before in the context of education; kids that are told they’re smart will often act smarter. Kids that are told they’re stupid will act stupid. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Part of the advantage that gifted kids have is that they are placed in gifted programs, surrounded by other smart kids and say to themselves “Hey, I can do that!” They are placed in social contexts where they will succeed. Meanwhile, kids placed in a remedial program will think of themselves as stupid, blaming every failure on themselves, leading to a vicious circle of self-unconfidence.

So what’s the upshot of this post? If we believe the idea that social context helps to determine how we behave and thereby who we are, then we can take advantage of the idea that, as I quipped last time, “I choose to be the self that is activated by this group.” By choosing the right group, we can modify our own behavior and create a new self. It’s never easy; changing one’s tendencies is hard work. That’s why it’s so important to use all of the tools at our command to help reinforce such changes.

Man. This post was much harder to write than I thought it’d be. It just never quite came together. But I’ve poked and prodded at it for well over an hour now, so I’m going to give up. I’ll write a clarifying post if necessary. I might take a break for a couple days to let some ideas simmer and see if I can come up with a clearer line of attack.

3 Responses to “Prescriptive context”

  1. The Rantings of Eric Nehrlich || Skinner as self-manager Says:

    […] The basic idea Skinner used was that by changing his environment, he could change his behavior (my post on “prescriptive context” is pretty similar). So to make himself write, he set up his desk such that everything he needed (dictionaries, references, etc.) was within arm’s reach, so he would never be distracted from his main purpose. He even futzed with the foam in his chair to make it more comfortable so that he would fidget less while writing. All of these sound sensible to me. I really want to track down a copy of his paper “How to Discover What You Have to Say” now, where he offers advice to students on becoming a better writer (”Write every day” is the one I need to get back to). […]

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Feedback karma || September || 2006 Says:

    […] I was thinking about this during the meeting, and tying it into my thoughts on the psychological principles of consistency where we try to live up to our public statements of ourselves and thinking that it would be a really validating thing to have a site where people came by whatever you were doing and offered encouragement. It would be similar to the principle behind Team in Training, where it’s much easier to do this ridiculous training when there’s somebody else there doing it with you. […]

  3. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || The importance of feedback || September || 2005 Says:

    […] While reading later in the book, it occurred to me that one of the keys, if not the key, to this transition is feedback. I am a tremendous believer in the power of feedback to effect changes in the world. It’s something I see everywhere, from the importance of aligning company processes with goals in Built to Last, to advocating using the feedback of others to change oneself. […]

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