Dr Karl Morris looks at the impact of a habitual environment on behavior and how changing our environment can have a positive effect on attitudes.
We can all aim to make changes in our lives at an individual level be that personal or business but we very rarely take into consideration the effect our most habitual environment has on us in terms of the way we respond on a daily basis. I have seen time and time again clients trying to change their life around but with the best of intention the glue of the familiar environment keeps them stuck repeating the same old patterns and habits
The great Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted in the early 1970s what has now become one of the most infamous research projects ever. The ‘Stanford prison experiment’ was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted at Stanford University from 14 to 20 August, 1971.
Twenty-four ‘normal’ male students out of seventy-five were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Some of the students were given the role of prison guard whilst others were given the role of prisoner.
The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo’s expectations, as the guards enforced tough measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent permitted the abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days.
How could it be that normal everyday students picked for a university experiment could suddenly change their personality so dramatically? They literally became prison guards and took on their at times tyrannical behavior and in equal measure took on the role of the prisoners and their associated actions and responses.
The Stanford prison experiment has been called one of the most unethical and manipulative exercises ever in social psychology yet the outcome continues to fascinate us to this day. As you can imagine in this current world we would never again (quite rightly) be able to set up such a study. A number of the ‘prisoners’ and ‘inmates’ suffered some significant psychological issues after the experiment was halted.
What was it that made these people behave in such a profoundly disturbing way? The results of the experiment have been argued to demonstrate the obedience of people when provided with a certain ideology. Yet Zimbardo felt the experiment highlighted something called ‘Situational Attribution’ behavior caused by the unique situation or context, rather than dispositional attribution (a result caused by internal characteristics). In other words, it seemed that the situation, the environment rather than their individual personalities caused the participants’ behavior.
The context or environment we find ourselves in the most will affect us in so many direct and indirect ways and the problem is that most of this influence is being affected at the unconscious level. The students who were selected for the Stanford prison experiment did not go in there and think to themselves ‘I am a prison guard so I am going to be nasty to the inmates’ they took on a role the environment supplied them and triggered a complicated set of behaviors that ordinarily would defy logical analysis.
What do we take from this on a practical level? We need to become more conscious of the effect that our most habitual environments and the people within those environments are having upon us.
It is no coincidence when a golf professional creates a successful junior environment that a lot of the kids can get very good very quickly. The successful environment seems to self replicate. So in turn can the environment of being with energetic and enthusiastic kids motivate the coach to keep improving themselves.
It may well be a case of making some tough decisions to increase the likelihood of your success in the future. Take a really honest look at your habitual environments. We cease to notice these effects because they become so automated and unconscious. Take some pictures of the first thing someone would see as they walk into your teaching bay or shop. Look at it through the lens of ‘what is this environment saying to others?’ Does it suggest the likelihood of success and improvement?
On a personal level one very simple step is to look closely at what I call your ‘waking environment’. What are the triggers meeting you when you open your eyes and begin a new day? Are you putting in place aspects of your life to get you started in the right way?
I know from my own personal experience if I want to go to the gym in the morning it is essential that I create the right waking environment before I go to bed. The gym bag needs to be downstairs, towel, toiletries, post shake drink, the whole works needs to be ready. I then make sure I have written down the workout for the next day and the notebook is sat right next to the car keys I am going to need to start the car. Up in the bathroom all of the clothes I need for the next day are laid out and ready to be put on.
So when I hear the alarm and get out of bed my environment provides a series of specific triggers designed to get me off to the gym. Without all of that it would be so easy for the environment to trigger some other activity. What you see when you shave, what is written on the fridge, what is in the fridge, the paper you read or don’t read, the radio you listen to are all triggers that affect your behavior.
Design your environment consciously and look to add triggers you want as opposed to being a passive actor in a play you are not too keen on performing. Zimbardo created a ‘pretend’ prison which in the end became all too real and a testimony to the power of your environment.