Building Better Tunnels
Our environment shapes our behaviour to a larger extent than most of us realize or would like to admit.
There’s an underground tunnel that connects my building to the gym across the street. For two years it was closed due to construction. This past winter it reopened.
I went to the gym ten times more often last winter than I did the two before.
Often when we’re trying to make better choices and build better habits, we think it boils down to having more willpower, feeling more motivated, and mustering the strength to choose to do the right thing, regardless of how hard that choice is to make.
A far more effective approach, however, is to make choosing the right thing easier, or to make choosing the wrong thing harder.
I recently removed Facebook from the home screen on my phone. I didn’t delete the app or my account. I merely made it two seconds harder to open.
My Facebook use has plummeted.
A Starbucks recently opened in the subway station I walk through to get to work. My Starbucks consumption has quadrupled.
In theory, I have a choice in each case. I could choose to walk past Starbucks. I could attempt to will myself to stop constantly checking Facebook. I could convince myself that I should go to the gym, even when that means trudging through the snow, removing my boots, hanging my coat in a locker and all the rest.
But in practice, that’s not what happens. In practice, what we choose to do is impacted by ease and convenience. In practice, we're more like water. We take the past of least resistance. When the choice to go to the gym is easier, I go more often. When Facebook is slightly harder to check, I scroll through less often. When Starbucks is the most convenient coffee option on the way to work, that’s where I go. Location. Location. Location.
In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein talk about what they call choice architecture. The idea is that people can be nudged to make better choices simply by changing the way those choices are presented. If you put healthy food at eye level in cafeterias, people eat better. If you put a target on urinals for men to aim at when they pee, there’s 80% less spillage.
The classic public health example in Canada is smoking. If you lock up cigarettes behind counters, put diseased lungs on the package, end glamourous advertising in movies and stop allowing people to smoke in bars and on patios, the choice to keep smoking gets harder.
What happens? More people quit.
If you ask any behavioural psychologist, they’ll tell you the same thing: what matters most to our behaviour is our environment.
Think about how differently you would live if you were born in the desert, or the mountains, or the jungle. Think about how different your life would be without a smartphone, without a car, without the internet, without engines or electricity or the wheel or fire.
We are shaped by our surroundings. They dictate the options between which we choose.
We often lose sight of this fact because we’d rather believe that the freedom to choose is what matters most. That’s the part that’s up to us, after all—the part that we get to control, that we have the power to change, that we can own. So we tell ourselves that it’s the biggest part of the equation, the thing that really matters. We don’t like the idea that we’re simply mice finding our way through mazes not of our own making. We don’t like the idea that our future is any way determined by things outside our control. So we focus on the part that is. We tell ourselves that's all there is.
And often that’s fine. Often that’s enough. It’s useful to feel in control. It’s inspiring, leads to action.
The issue is that it can also undermine our ability to make real and lasting changes in our lives because it distorts our understanding of what determines how we behave. If our behaviour is solely and entirely up to each of us, then we are solely and entirely responsible for improving our behaviour.
But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Our behaviour is largely the product of our environment, of our surroundings, of the architecture of our choices.
There’s far greater freedom, far more power, far better control, then, in having the ability to decide which options are presented and how. In getting to choose the restaurant, not just the dish. When and where possible, that should be your focus.
On an individual level, you should do everything you can to make good choices easier and bad choices harder. Stop stocking pop in your fridge and put some fruit on the counter. Put a journal by your bedside table and a gym bag by the door. Make time-wasting apps harder to open and unfollow people who nudge you in the wrong direction.
On a societal level, we should be doing the same thing, like we did with smoking. When cities have more trees, people walk more. We should plant more trees. We should build more underground tunnels to gyms, so people will go more often.
Above all, we should stop relying on this largely false, endlessly exaggerated, dangerously deluded notion that getting a choice between options is the ultimate expression of freedom and power.
True power resides in the ability to dictate the options between which we choose. True freedom is having the ability to build tunnels that lead exactly where we want to go.
That kind of power, that kind of freedom, is largely collective. It’s something we must build together and use together to make a better world. A world where good choices are easy and bad choices are hard. A world where living a good life gets easier and easier all the time. A world where humans flourish because they've been set up to succeed.