Living in the Candy Store… And Moving Out

Despite wealth and progress, life seems to constantly test us. Want to know why? I can do it in one paragraph, specifically from an upcoming book chapter, The Building Blocks of Motivation, written by myself and Justin Weinhardt:

As civilization advances and prosperity becomes widespread, we remove most of the external maladies that were once major contributors to our misery (e.g., predation, starvation, lack of shelter). By default, the source of our failures increasingly becomes ourselves. Ainslie (2005) argues, “We smoke, eat and drink to excess, and become addicted to drugs, gambling, credit card abuse, destructive emotional relationships, and simple procrastination, usually while attempting not to do so” (p. 635). Stanovich (1999) believes it is even worse; we exist in an increasingly artificial or built environment that has sporadic overlap with the environment of evolutionary adaption. Since, our motivational impulses are fine-tuned to the latter, rather than the former, we increasingly find ourselves motivationally adrift, knowing what to do but not being motivated to do it. Steel (2010) stresses that this built environment is not necessarily motivationally neutral; free market capitalism ensures it is constructed with considerable design, including features that can coax maladaptive behaviors, particularly overconsumption. Putting candy and lottery tickets by the checkout counter is an example of an insidious but common motivational praxis. Building on this line of reasoning, Heath (2014) makes an extended case that this will likely get worse, that “absent conscious guidance, cultural evolution will produce an environment that is more hostile to human rationality.” We need conscious, rational guidance, which must be based on a firm understanding of our motivational foundation.

The world we live in is motivationally toxic and this explains why procrastination and other self-control problems have been reaching stratospheric and pandemic proportions. Almost everyone, everywhere, puts off almost everything every day and, for good measure, ever more every year. And often we are blamed for these failings or blame ourselves. We didn’t exercise, eat right, get that home project or our taxes finished. Though taking responsibility starts with ourselves, it also extends to taking responsibility for the way we are building our world. The built world, the one we live in the way that fishes live in water, has a praxis or purpose to it. In the same way as hackers tame a computer’s operating system to do what they want, we are being trained, guided, shaped for consumption, regardless of whether it gibes with our own long-term best interests. All of us are trying to diet inside a candy store and being blamed for giving in and getting fat. On the other hand, consider the possibility there is really nothing wrong with us, including being the product of a 100 million years of evolution that favored those who knew a good energy source when it came around. What’s wrong is the candy store.

young girl looking in awe at rows of sweets

Think of the candy store as itself an evolving, living machine constructed to elicit buying behavior from us. It constantly refines itself until it develops into the perfect combination of product, promotion, placement and price to get us to chow down. For the rational consumer, it is a great system, ensuring we get what we want. Spock, and other creatures of pure reason, would experience a perfect symbiosis between desires and choices. However, for those with an emotionally driven limbic system (e.g., you), with at best quasi-rational components, the system starts to design itself to exploit seemingly minor flaws and hiccups in our decision making. As it learns more about us, as per Heath noted above, it hacks and the world gets worse, not better. It coaxes addiction, distraction and overconsumption, all to our detriment.

This dystopic observation has progressed through three stages. First came the warnings, such as Aldous Huxley (1958) in Brave New World Revisited. Second came the social commentaries that this is happening, such as Neil Postman (1985) in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Third came the critiques that this has happened and with a vengeance, such as Daniel Askt (2011) in We Have Met the Enemy. Grim but now we are starting to enter a fourth and possibly better stage. It isn’t quite the Age of Aquarius but we do respond effectively and systematically.

I’m not talking about self-help books, though that can be part of the solution too. There are lots of good techniques and, if you are lucky, you will find the sources that will convey effective principles, absorb them and practice them. Still, for all your efforts at self-improvement, you remain in the candy store. A momentary lapse of willpower and there you are stuffing your mouth with truffles and triple berry fudge. What really would be effective is if we could change the candy store itself.

In the same way that your software is frequently patched and you have a good antivirus programming running in the background, we need the same for our world. And as per a recent New York Times Sunday Review article, these patches are finally becoming available for your smart phone. Like an antivirus program, they filter out the temptation ahead of time, allowing you to be here now and focus on the present. For example, “Ringly does this by connecting its rings to a smartphone filter so that users can silence Gmail or Facebook notifications while preserving crucial alerts, like text messages from a babysitter, which cause the ring to light up or vibrate.” Priced at $195, it shows how eager people are to acquire breathing room from the bombardment of notifications.

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, makes a similar observation, writing, “Having written a book on what makes technology habit-forming, I believe technology is becoming harder to resist.”   Hooked is basically a how-to-guide for product developers to make their services addictive (the byline to Hooked is “How to Build Habit-forming Products”), and it is becoming a bible in Silicon Valley. Having helped create the problem, he recommends a solution, Saent, (pronounced “saint”), as per “Saent is a step forward — helping us regain control so we can be more productive.” Saent combines software and hardware to attack the problem of a motivationally toxic world. Consider what it does:

  1. Stop distractions: The Saent app locks users into apps and websites that are productive for their work (based on a predefined list), while blocking out distractions (like social networking sites or app notifications). Over time, Saent will learn users’ work patterns automatically and associate productive apps with specific tasks.
  2. Optimize work rhythm: Studies show that frequent breaks keep the brain agile and creative, so Saent enables users to work in 30, 50 or 90 minute blocks with breaks in between.
  3. Rewards for good work: Just as activity trackers reward users for taking steps to stay healthy, Saent awards you points for each ten-minute block of focused work you’ve completed. The Saent score provides a window into productivity over time and enables competition with colleagues and friends.
  4. Create a physical connection to productivity: The Saent button is a physical reminder to stay focused. Because human memory works by forming associations between stimuli and objects and places, a physical device will be more effective at “locking in” a new behavior than an app alone. As psychology and behavioral neuroscience professor Daniel J. Levitin notes in his book, The Organized Mind, many people find physical objects effective for behavior change. “Place memory evolved to keep track of things that didn’t move,” he writes. “Use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.”

Having looked into it, I am agreeing with Nyal and particularly enamored with these technological assists. With students from my University, we will be testing how well Saent works over the next year and, being science based, the question isn’t whether it is effective but how much. Really, what we want is for good decisions to feel like natural decisions. As this and other platforms expand and refine, rationality is going to be an optional feature you can install into your life. We can all finally move out of the candy store and visit it just when we want to, as a treat.

About pierssteel

Piers Steel is a professor in the human resources and organizational dynamics area and is the Distinguished Research Chair in Advanced Business Leadership at the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business. He is a recognized authority on the science of motivation and is known internationally for his procrastination research, receiving widespread media coverage.

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