Whenever I work with a company or talk to people in the business world, I’m always asked for a model or a set of scientific formulas that can “solve” behavior problems for them. While there are models of human behavior, habit formation, and cognition that can give us insight into our nature, any model is by definition a simplification of the world as it actually exists. Models are also a concretization of our understanding at a single moment in time. Every single day, there is research that adds to and updates our understanding of how the mind works. While these findings might feed back into existing models, they usually sit outside of the canonical explanations taught in textbooks and popular sciences books for some time.
But we’re in love with simple and tidy explanations for complex phenomena. We love it when Malcolm Gladwell tells us about conscious and unconscious thinking or Daniel Kahneman paints a picture of the mind in all its contradictions and quirks. We love how much of our daily experience can be explained by these simple frameworks.
This is great for the popularization of science and for understanding how our mental processes break down and fail us. But it would be folly to take any single model as the sole basis for one’s business, marketing, or life decisions. A model can be an enlightening framework but does not – and cannot – fully encompass the mind’s complexity.
This is why, if you’re serious about making the best business and life decisions you can, you should make it a priority to study the behavioral sciences continuously and thoroughly throughout your life. You need to consistently update and refactor the perspectives they offer to protect yourself against outdated models that offer more error than clarification.
In other words, you need to undo the faulty models that you carry with you through life, starting right now. Each of us has had an immense amount of folk psychology passed down to us through our culture, our parents, and our education. While many of these ideas may be consistent with current research, most of them are not.
For example, most people think that we act according to our “beliefs”. However, study after study has shown that we make our decisions based on a variety of factors, such as ease and placement, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations for the choices we make. In other words, we don’t always buy something because we like it; we also like something because we buy it. We might think we purchase Snickers bars because we think they’re tasty. In reality, though, Snickers might be the only thing available at eye-level at the of the grocery store checkout. But when asked, we claim we were just craving a caramel and chocolate combination. We’re very good at this sort of storytelling.
So many of us are filled with these sorts of misconceptions. But we can’t help it. Cutting-edge behavioral science is not a central component of our education. Instead, we need to take the initiative to build and rebuild our understanding of human cognition and behavior by reviewing the latest research as it arises. The beautiful thing about this incremental approach is that it will change the way we think about our problems, our friends, and our lives as they evolve. It’s like upgrading your operating system to more closely match reality. It’s one of the most important things we can do, and the only surefire way to accurately apply psychology to our lives.
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