Have you ever done something and then asked yourself, “Why did I do that?” Or perhaps you’ve wondered why other people act in the ways that they do, or how you can change your own behavior.
In his new book, Your Behavior: Understanding and Changing the Things You Do, Richard H. Pfau answers these questions and many others, and asserts that behavior change begins with first understanding the hard science behind it.
We are autopoietic beings, designed to adapt to our environment in a continuous, self-producing way. Our behavior, while often triggered by the environment, is regulated by our own internal structure and organization.
Much of what we do, however, is a result of survival pressure.
“Why you do the things you do is mostly a result of your ability and urge to survive,” writes Pfau.
How we perceive the environment can often influence the way we respond to threats to our survival. Factors like the attributes and expectations of others, our appraisal of our context and situational cues, inferences about social situations, our perceived efficacy, and physiological states can all contribute to our perceptions.
And when our perceptions don’t match with our reality, we often act in ways to reduce the disparity. Pfau introduces the perceptual control theory, developed by William T. Powers, which focuses on the idea that we do things until our perceptions are more in keeping with our references.
“The model basically indicates that if you perceive things to be different from your goals, and the difference is important enough, you try to reduce or eliminate that difference if you think you can successfully do so,” Pfau writes.
While many situational and physiological factors can influence our behavior, it is the brain and nervous system that are especially important, affecting everything we do from our thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, goals, plans, dreams, and actions. Through learning and the reorganization of our behavior, we improve our ability to cope with the changing environment, rather than act in fixed and rigid ways.
While much of our behavior is routine and automatic, there are three times when we act more consciously: when what we are doing is not producing the results we want; when we are facing a new novel situation for which our usual behavior is not working to produce the perceptions we desire; and when we are learning to do something new.
Ultimately our behavior is an effort to control our perceptions. However, we receive constant feedback from the environment in the form of indications about how well we are doing, cues that help us learn or form references, norms or roles that we should respect, resources or opportunities that are available to us, things that are essential to our survival, positive and negative feelings, and even factors that can prime future behavior.
“The control-theory version of human nature — or the nature of organisms, for that matter — can be put succinctly. Organisms control. Whatever we see them doing, at whatever level of analysis we prefer, we see them controlling, not reacting,” Pfau quotes Powers.
Different from many other views of behavior, the perceptual control theory offers the unorthodox view of behavior as controlling perceptions through our control of the environment. Behavior change, then, must result in a shift in perceptions that are important to us. Changing habits, for example, must produce perceptions that are more or equally desirable and likely require a change of the environment that triggers those perceptions, behavior, and habits.
“Changing behavior that is not a habit may simply involve setting a behavioral goal, obtaining information, or otherwise educating yourself so that you know what to do and have the confidence to do it, and then behave accordingly. Changing your habits, though, will usually require more thought, effort, and perseverance because your habits have been learned and performed over a long period of time and are done automatically,” writes Pfau.
To change behavior, Pfau offers many helpful steps, such as deciding and committing to change, deciding on a general goal to achieve, gathering information, clarifying the goal, and making a plan to achieve the goal. In the case of sticky habits, Pfau suggests making desirable behavior easier to perform by removing environmental triggers, using cues, prompts and nudges, and removing obstacles.
Undesirable behavior, on the other hand, can be reduced though removing objects that are required to do the behavior, avoiding the people, places and things that trigger the behavior, and making ourselves more aware of what we are doing.
Ultimately, we must believe that what we are doing can work, that our behavior can be changed, and have patience to persevere.
“Remember it may take months before what you are trying to do becomes habitual or is otherwise achieved. Keep persevering,” writes Pfau.
An insightful, well-researched, and empowering perspective on behavior, Your Behavior demonstrates just how much our perceptions affect our behavior, and how through changing them we can dramatically improve our lives.
Your Behavior: Understanding and Changing the Things Your Do
Richard H. Pfau
Softcover, 392 Pages