Environment drives behaviour. Still.


That our local environment has such an impact on behaviour is perhaps one of the greatest advancements in our understanding of people and the things that they say and do. And yet our understanding of how this materialises in day to day life, both at home and in our work is still relatively lacking.

Behaviour is a function of the person and their environment. The coming together of a unique person, their genetics and their life history that they bring to the table, with the local environment, the physical set up and the behaviour of others. The environment translates differently to each individual but provides many prompts and sources of reinforcement as each individual perceives them. We can’t do anything about an individual’s genetic makeup or their life history, but we can do something about the prompts and reinforcers that they perceive, in the environment that we create or maintain for them.

This blog is full of simple examples of people designing a new environment to create behaviour change. But just how quickly can behaviour adjust? To what extent can behaviour adjust? How much of it is down to the individual and just not that pliable? Fixed, if you like?

Well to help make the point I’m going to share a rather embarrassing characteristic of mine. Apologies to any clean freaks out there, but some people might actually describe me as being a little bit messy and certainly not very house proud. Yes, for as long as I can remember I have avoided household chores. My badge of honour at university was that the only time I participated in any housework in our student house whatsoever on the day I departed for the real world. Luckily I married a bit of a neat freak and my lovely husband has done more than his fair share over the years. Whilst I have improved a little, my attempts at housework are definitely minimal compliance, with me eventually rationalising my behaviour as being just too busy and employing some help.

Now, roll on to May 2019 and suddenly I too am a clean freak. I’ve done more cleaning in the last 8 weeks than I’ve done in the last 8 years. And what’s more surprising, is that this is no longer minimal compliance, its discretionary, I’m actually enjoying it. So behaviours that only ever occurred under negative reinforcement, when the place was so bad or we had (fussy) visitors due, is now happening more and more frequently without any aversive prompt.

So did I get rechipped back in March?

No, its just that my environment changed, very significantly.

I went from spending my time working, travelling and riding horses to suffering a broken ankle and being unable to drive or travel with work. I was pretty much housebound for most of the day. As a result the prompts and sources of reinforcement in my day to day world changed overnight. Over the course of a couple of weeks my behaviour adjusted accordingly based on what sources of reinforcement were available to me. And that’s because all organisms including humans seek to get control over their environment through their behaviour in order to obtain reinforcers and avoid punishment.

When the reinforcers available to us change, so does behaviour.

Sadly most organisational attempts at behaviour change are the equivalent of my husband sticking up posters telling me a clean house is a core value to our family, briefing me on the benefits of cleaning or perhaps even sending me on a cleaning course. Would that ever have worked on me? No. And yet we expect it to work at work, and then claim people don’t like change or that’s it’s a problem with the worker. If we want to create behaviour change in our organisations, the answer lies in understanding the existing environment and the behaviours that it prompts and reinforces. Based on that understanding we can create a new environment to prompt and reinforce something different.

Behaviour calibrates to the environment, always.

Even for an extremely messy middle aged woman who hates tidying up and cleaning.

So, I’m almost back to full mobility and recommencing my travels this week. Perhaps in another month or two I’ll be back riding horses also. Will I still find cleaning a source of reinforcement with so much competition? I very much doubt it!

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