Products of our environment. 

The dominant view of human behaviour in the early 1900s was that of behaviorism, sometimes referred to as Behavioural Psychology. The central idea being that human beings are mere animals, and that all of our behaviours are simply the result of environmental learning.

Fortunately today, this concept of Environmental Determinism is largely rejected by modern Psychologists, who now focus not just on behaviour, but on what goes on inside our heads. However, it remains the case that the environment we find ourselves in, has a significant influence on our behaviour, even when we’re not fully aware of it.


Before we go on any further, I would like you to take a look at the following chart.



What this chart shows, is the percentage of individuals, across a variety of countries, who have decided to donate their organs to medical science, once they die. As you have probably noticed, there is a significant divide between the countries in Gold, of which the majority of people choose not to donate their beloved organs and the countries in blue, where the donation rate is incredibly high.

So what’s going on here? Well as it turns out, this chart was taken from a paper written by the researchers Johnson and Goldstein in 2003. In this paper, the pair wanted to investigate how the decision to opt in or out of organ donation, was influenced by the simply design of the form people completed, when applying for their driving licence.

Looking again at the chart, what could possibly explain the massive difference between the organ donation rates across these two groups of countries? Well here’s the trick; The countries on the left use a form which specifically asks individuals if they would like to “opt in” for organ donation. However, the countries on the right presume everybody will consent to donating their organs, unless they specifically decide to “opt out”.

That’s right. Simply changing the design of the form, so that opting into organ donation was the default choice, massively increased the likelihood people would do so.


How can a study on organ donation, help us form better habits? Click To Tweet


Lazy thinking and the power of default choices.

I think the key point I would like you to take away from this paper, is that even though we might not realize it, the decisions we make are heavily influenced by our environments. I think it boils down to the fact, that at our core we are lazy. We don’t like to waste our precious time and energy having to make constant decisions and thus, more often than not, we simply choose to do whatever was already chosen for us.  

Just for a second, consider how this finding can apply to almost any habit you have developed in your life. Perhaps you want to eat more healthy, but when you are hungry and the cupboards are filled with chocolate, snacking on junk food is the easy, default behaviour. Maybe you want to start writing more, but when you open up your laptop and are greeted with Twitter feeds and Facebook time-lines, you fall back into familiar, easy routines.

Too often in life, it is these unproductive, unhelpful habits which act as our default behaviours. However, what if we could manipulate our environment, so that the choices we made by default, we’re the healthy, productive habits we all want to form?


Designing an environment to help good habits flourish.

To give one real world example, in an attempt to encourage healthy eating, Walt Disney World made the decision to change the default sides and drinks in their children’s meals. Under the new system, kids meals came with juice and carrots rather than soda and fries, as the standard option.

Across all 145 restaurants, 48% of diners accepted the healthy side option with 66% accepting the healthy juice option. This simple decision significantly reduced the total amount of calories, fat and sodium in the average children’s meal. Now ask yourself, how many of these guests would have specifically requested their french fries be substituted for carrots sticks, had they not been the default choice?

So let’s look at few practical examples of how to strengthen your own good habits, by utilising the power of default.


Healthy Eating.

Sticking with the example of healthy eating, a common technique used by bodybuilders, who often need to eat several times a day, is to prepare a weeks worth of meals in advance. That way, after an intense workout, they can simply grab an already prepared meal from the fridge, rather than indulging in a quick and easy Pizza.

If like me, you struggle with sticking to a healthy diet, you may consider adopting a similar tactic. Often when the hunger cravings strike at 11pm, the effort of having to prepare a healthy meal leads us to snack on chocolate and crisps. However, the temptation of Ben and Jerry’s can be limited by having a variety of healthy snacks, already prepared and ready to go in the fridge.



Another major problem that I’m sure many of us face is that of procrastination. Again, the problem often lies in the fact we set up our environments to work against us, rather than for us. It can be difficult to motivate yourself to work when as soon as you open up your laptop, you are presented with a stream of notifications from YouTube, Netflix and Twitter. So here are a few quick tips on how to utilise default options, to help beat procrastination:


1)  If possible, consider disconnecting your work computer from the internet. This can be a great way to remove distraction such as Twitter, by cutting them off at the source.


2)  If you need the internet to work, there are a number of cool apps you can download, which limit how much time you can spend on distracting websites, you can even completely block them during specific times of the day.


3) Consider deleting distracting apps from your phone altogether. Are Twitter, Facebook and Instagram really so important, that you need to have access to them 24 hours a day? At the very least try removing such distractions from the home screen of your phone, perhaps replacing them with alternatives such as audible or an app to track your workouts.



You may have a strong desire to exercise more, but at 7 in the morning, the last thing you want to do is to go for a 5 mile run. So what are some ways that we can make exercising, as easy and effortless as possible? Here are a few quick tips;


1)  Prepare everything you need for a work-out the night before, have all your gym clothes, your headphones and protein shake, ready to go in a bag. Put this bag at the end of your bed, so it’s the first thing you see in the morning.


2)  If possible, choose a gym that you pass on your way home from work. It’s much less tempting to skip a workout, when you literally pass your gym on the way back from the office.


 3)  If you find it difficult to motivate yourself to hit the gym, try working out from home. You can buy some relatively cheap gym equipment from sites such as Ebay. Perhaps install a pull up bar in the door frame of your bedroom, so that you literally have to walk under it every morning and evening.


4)  When starting out, make your workouts easy and simple. Anyone can perform a basic routine of a few push-ups, squats and lunges every morning or evening. Try to pick a time of day when you are naturally most energetic, to perform the routine.


I could go on with multiple examples, but I hope you see the point. What we’re trying to achieve is to design our environments, so that our healthy habits, become as easy and effortless as possible. So often in life we insist on making things difficult for ourselves but as we have seen today, human beings don’t always like making hard choices.

We’ve seen the power that default choices have on our behaviour, even when we’re talking about pretty serious decisions, such as what happens to our organs when we die. If the design of a form can influence a decision as important as that, then we can learn to design our environments so that we choose to go with the carrot sticks , rather than the Pizza.


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