It seems we really do desire to be clearer, more in control, more organised. Even if we find ways to do that, we’ll surely need to change ourselves if there is to be any real difference. But changing people, especially ourselves, is hard. Mustering all our will power often results in only modest success – if you are like me, then in all honesty a lifetime personal best for self-change is “eating slightly fewer cheesy snacks” [1]. This unfortunate truth is discouraging. It explains why we don’t get far with the latest management fashion, leadership style,  or the newest trend for improving ourselves. Behavioural economics anyone? It’s why there’s so much good advice written, spoken, talked about, thought about, gets a series on TV and an App… yet once the dust has cleared it’s made no discernible difference to most people’s lives, even when they really (really) wanted it to. Instead we move on, having learnt new words and conversation topics to advise others, but otherwise we ourselves remain unchanged. Discouraged, the next offering catches our eye, “maybe this time….”  The Apps and books change, but so often, little else does. Technology changes, but the people don’t. The App is not the territory.

Our distorted understanding about what really causes behaviour

There is hope. Trying to change ourselves may not be the kind of problem it seems to be. We’ve evolved to believe the cause of behaviours in a situation as being the ‘people’ involved. But this is a distortion we’re prone to. Listing just a few of the most famous results from the field, points to the hidden enormity of this self-deception.

  1.  Stanley Milgram’s electrocution experiments [2] in the 60’s surprised everyone. Before the experiment a panel of 39 psychologist predicted that, when asked by a ‘scientist’ to administer lethal electric shocks to another person, only 1 in 1000 subjects would comply. In fact 65% of them did. Yet few people believe they themselves would behave that way. It’s hard to think of a bigger disparity between people’s conscious beliefs about themselves, and what they actually do in practice. Simply putting people in a contrived situation gave rise to those shocking results.
  2. Phil Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment [3] had to be stopped after just a few days because they found if you allocate people the roles of ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ they start to behave just like they did in the notorious Iraq prison – Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo in fact went public about Abu Ghraib saying “I know how this works, it’s not a few bad apples (the guards), it’s the barrel makers” – the people who’d set up the situation. Again, a dramatically unexpected change in behaviour from what people were expecting of themselves, simply by changing the situation they were put in. Even though the participants knew is wasn’t real, it was a simulation, they still behaved in ways they would never have predicted of themselves. Quite a change.
  3. Bill Bratton became famous for extraordinary achievements reducing crime on New York subways [4]. He did it by diverting effort from catching ‘criminals’, and putting it into small things such as cleaning up graffiti, and “fixing broken windows”. Reduction in crime was dramatic, yet the people inhabiting the underground were the same people as before. The strategy has become known as “fixing broken windows” (‘nudge’ is similar). Again, a dramatic change of behaviour for a whole population, by seemingly small changes to the environment. Changes that wise people and leaders would surely predict as inconsequential had that dramatic ability to affect change.
  4. Jim Reason, a psychologist at Manchester has built a career from investigating industrial accidents, and why they happen. In his opinion individual human error by the operatives is seldom the cause. When investigated deeply, the attribution of ‘human error’ isn’t appropriate. The seemingly human behaviour is in each case something inherent in the situation the operator is put in. Each situation was already an accident waiting to happen.

Changing the map: the power of situations

This truth alone explains why our projects and plans go awry. We’re all too likely to put failures down to people, saying, for example “if only Fred had been more on the ball…”, but as we saw, in the cold light of day it’s more likely that the accident was waiting to happen.

The unexpected power of the ‘situation’ to dominate behaviour surely does not explain  everything: sometimes it really is down to people. But what these points do show is overwhelming evidence that we unthinkingly assume people are the problem, and that we are stunningly blind to the power of the situation to affect behaviour. We’ve utterly failed to take this knowledge on board. “Well! I’d never electrocute someone just because a man in a white coat told me to”.

A different way to see what’s going on is to remove people from the equation altogether and see what changes. In computers we have machines doing the work. They don’t get tired or hold grievances, and they don’t need to be ‘motivated’. The only things they can do at all are simple instructions, adding and moving numbers, and they do that flawlessly. Yet computers get overloaded and give us ‘unreasonable’ delays (while the disks on your laptop rattle away for no explicable reason) and exhibit many of the bureaucratic behaviours of an office full of people. Given too many tasks to do, computers get bogged down spending all their time switching between tasks and not actually doing anything productive – just like we do. But crucially we don’t blame the processors for being lazy saying “they should work harder and be more focussed”, we just say they’re overloaded, or that we’ve not properly thought out for them the right procedures to cope with the situation they’re handling. But in corresponding situations with people, for sure it would be the people we’d be blaming. We ask people to behave like computers in work environments sometimes, and expect them to get on and “just do the job”. Yet it turns out that even computers, which can only do precisely what they’re told, end up exhibiting seemingly human failings – tardiness, confusion, lack of focus and distraction. The inescapable conclusion is that these behaviours are far more a property of the unappreciated complexity of situations, than of the assumed human failings of the individuals involved. At least, far, far more than we’d expect.

The real way forward


What’s the positive side of this, and how does it give us hope when it comes to doing things differently ourselves?

When we’re telling ourselves “I can’t change…”, or “they should change…”, or even “I can’t do that”, we’re likely to be over-focusing on people as the cause. Changing people is hard, but changing situations, or our ‘procedures’ for coping can sometimes be easy. And this opens up many more hopeful options.

Remember the computers which can only obey those simple instructions? We provide them with procedures (software) to follow, which transform their simple abilities into sophisticated skills – like playing chess or co-operating with other computers around the world to deliver your email, tweets and likes, or to navigate spacecraft.

People are actually in the same boat. Our raw ‘hardware’ has limited abilities and powers of attention that is difficult to change. But rather than berating ourselves for not being clever enough, or having a good enough memory, or having enough will power, we can look at the procedures or habits we’re using for the situation we find ourselves in, and see what we can change there. That’s much easier, and as we’ve seen above, is counter-intuitively effective.

In fact we’ve all had ample experience achieving life-changing results by learning artificial procedures. Reading, writing, riding bicycles, driving cars and far more. We didn’t evolve with those abilities – cave men had no bicycles and cars. And we don’t say “What! I have to keep to one side of the road when I’m driving? Always? I’d never be able to keep that up *all* the time”. Because we grow up with driving as a ‘familiar’ thing to do, the environment encourages us and supports changes in our habits. Otherwise driving would seem an impossible discipline to learn, yet most people manage it and then forget it ever seemed a challenge. Like learning our native language, driving is an artificial ‘discipline’ that becomes ‘natural’ and a source of freedom. ‘We’ are hard to change, yet paradoxically we adapt to situations far more than we realise, even though ‘we’ (the ‘hardware’) stay the same.

In that regard, Tony Buzan makes a conjecture I find sobering. “There’s no such thing as intelligent, or unintelligent children. Just those children who happen to stumble across effective learning strategies, and those who do not”.

In-habiting new territory

So once we know what we want, and find new effective strategies for the situation, how do we change our ‘software’? – a number of researchers point to the simple act of repeating one thing, once a day for about a month. That’s the time it takes for a surprising range of experiences to go from seeming awkward, clumsy and unnatural, to start to seem ‘familiar’, ‘natural’, ‘easy’. And that’s important because we confuse ‘liking’ and ‘comfortable’ with ‘familiar’. For example, it’s emotionally wrenching to change jobs, and the new place is strange and unfamiliar. Yet within a month or so of “in-habiting” the new situation it starts to become familiar, and the memory of the old begins to fade. Confidence and belief are powerful factors too, which is why the environment of social support makes learning to drive possible. Older people, it turns out, are no less able to learn new things than children – it’s just that we expect children to spend much of their day practising learning new things, and that adults rarely get that luxury. We no longer believe people can learn nothing new after their late teens – that was just people with white coats and clip-boards saying so [5].

This gives us two hopeful routes for doing things differently when we want to. First is to force ourselves to look harder to the situation, rather than ourselves or others, for causes and remedies, and the small things we can change to make it powerfully easier. And the second, higher dimension, of adopting procedures and habits that just like the computers transform our simpler core abilities into clever and ‘sophisticated’ skills – given some time for familiarity. Learning to scratch marks in clay is a simple enough idea, but a simple idea that has had a colossal impact on the human story.

To give one personal example. I found remembering academic papers, especially their dates, something I couldn’t do… all my life. Then I came across a procedure for remembering dates that just works magically for me. It’s a very ancient trick, and took a bit of learning. But it works. The crucial point here is that it turns out it wasn’t ‘me’ that was the problem.

If the startling results of Milgram, Zimbardo, Jim Reason and the like are true, then we should expect to be continually surprised by how dramatic a change we bring about through changing the situation and our habitual procedures for coping with it, when it matters, rather than always trying to change ourselves and others.

Bright futures and pleasant surprises

As for our topic of ‘getting more organised’, achieving astounding success with lasting effect may be just a little effort away, some processes, practice and familiarity to get to a point where we surprise ourselves, and learn to cope far more effectively than we ever expected ourselves capable of. After all, how much effort have we actually put into finding more effective ways of managing ourselves to date? It’s certainly less effort and persistence than it took to learn riding a bicycle, and it’s surely more effective than to keep telling ourselves “we should be more organised”. Would that be desirable? “What! drive on one side of the road, for ever! impossible!”.


A summary of the argument:

  1. We sometimes want to do things ‘better’, and that implies changing ourselves. An example might be a desire to be more organised and in control.
  2. Changing ourselves, (and others), is hard.
  3. The “situation” has far more impact on our behaviour than we’ve evolved to understand. “Situation” includes small changes to the environment, to our roles, or to the methods we’ve learned for coping.
  4. This means a bright future. Though we believe we need to “change ourselves”, yet cannot,  what’s easier and effective is changing the situation or the procedures we’ve adopted for coping.

Adrian West


  • [1]  Quotation from Dylan Moran in “Monster” comedy stand up show.
  • [2]  Stanley Milgram’s legendary experiments, originally published in 1963 as “A behavioural study of obedience”. The most extensive commentary in a popularly available book is in Chapter 6 of “Influence” by Robert Cialdini.
  • [3]  Philip Zimbardo’s equally legendary work, originally published in 1973 as “A study of prisoners and prison guards in a simulated prison”.
  • [4]  “Fixing Broken Windows”, Kelling G., and Coles K. Touchstone, 1996.
  • [5]  See “New Scientist”  25th May 2013 page 32-35, “Old Dog, New Tricks” by David Robson, for a recent round-up of the changing landscape of age and learning.