How to enable proximity triggers to work
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How to enable proximity triggers to work

How to enable proximity triggers to work

Start by identifying the character you want to emulate

Our behaviour is shaped by the people we are in close proximity with. I once worked for a trigger-happy executive who was ready to declare war on the competition and ruthlessly remove employees who disagreed with him. Initially, I found myself being swayed by my boss’s character, and I noticed myself becoming less patient and tolerant of others.

However, this was not my character, and fortunately, I was able to redress this. In the same manner, as we grow up, we learn from our parents about how they manage conflict, and this becomes imbued within our own character. We observe how colleagues get results at work and we tend to follow their example. One study tracked 12,000 people for 32 years and found “a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57 per cent if he or she had a friend who became obese.” It works the other way, too. A separate study found that if one person in a relationship lost weight, the other partner would also slim down about one-third of the time.

Elsewhere, research suggested that the higher your best friend’s IQ at age 11 or 12, the higher your IQ would be at age 15, even after controlling for natural levels of intelligence. The proximity triggers around us seep into our own practices and, ultimately, shape our character. One of the ways you can enable proximity triggers to start working for you is to identify the character you want to become. What are the traits and behaviours you want to hold? Are you someone who wants to be defined by what you do? Become a writer, a cyclist. Or are you someone who wants to be defined by your actions, to serve others by showing love and compassion? Clearly, it could be both – what you do for yourself and for others. Once you are clear on this, find people who are following those practices.

Join a group that has the characteristics you desire. Allow proximity, closeness to them, to trigger the behaviours. However, the reverse can also happen – when we inherently disagree with the group, but we go along with what they are doing anyway. One of the classic psychology experiments that demonstrate conformity was undertaken by Solomon Asch. Every experiment began in the same way: a subject entered a room with a group of participants who were all strangers. The strangers were actually actors planted by the researcher, and they were instructed to deliver scripted answers to certain questions. The participants were shown one card with a line on it and then a second card with a series of lines. Each person was asked to select the line on the second card that was similar in length to the line on the first card. It was a very simple task. The length of the line on the first card was clearly the same as ‘line A’.

The experiment always started in the same manner, with some easy trials in which all the participants agreed on the correct line. After a couple of rounds, the participants were shown a test that was as simple as the previous ones, but this time, the actors in the room deliberately selected a wrong answer. For example, they would respond ‘line C’ to the comparison shown in the diagram, even though the answer may have been ‘line A’. All the other actors agreed the lines were the same, even though they were different.

The subject, who was not aware of the deception, became puzzled, laughing nervously, checking the reactions of others. Over time, they became agitated as all the other participants (actors) answered with the incorrect response. After a while, the subject doubted their own eyes, eventually providing an answer they knew was wrong. Asch conducted the experiment in multiple formats, and what he discovered was that as the number of actors increased, so did the conformity of the subject. If it was just the subject and one actor, there was no effect on the person’s choice. They just assumed there was something wrong with the other person. When two actors were in the room with the subject, there was still little impact.

But as the number of people increased to three actors and four and all the way to eight, the subject became more likely to doubt themselves, and by the end of the experiment, 75 per cent of subjects agreed with the group response even though it was incorrect. When unsure, we often default to the group. As human beings, we are tuned into what others are doing around us, and the normative view of the majority becomes our standard. As a result, if we want our environment to positively trigger good practices, we should encircle ourselves with others who have the practices we want to acquire.

Rehan Khan is the principal consultant for BT and a novelist

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