Ramón Nogueras
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I want to begin by telling you a story that fascinates me as a psychologist. In 1972, the White House was afraid about an invasion that could take place on American soil. Not an invasion of communists, like in that Chuck Norris movie of the 80's, but an invasion of junkies. And those junkies were the US soldiers deployed to Vietnam. Why? It seemed that drug use by the US Army in Vietnam reached such enormous levels that it became part of their life and culture, like rock and roll or shooting at poor people. US soldiers, before being deployed to Vietnam, showed an almost non-existent consumption pattern: less than 1 percent were addicted or used substances regularly. Most of them had never tried anything. But they arrived in Vietnam and it looked like a drug dealers' village, or an after-hours bar at 5 am. Half of them used drugs multiple times during their time there, often deployed for 13 months. 1 out of 5 were addicts. It caused a big concern in the Government, because they thought: "What are we going to do when they come back? What are we going to do with thousands of addicts out there in the streets, with military training, unable to integrate back into society?" The picture was almost a zombie apocalypse. They imagined, for example, like in this cover of Time magazine, that the most vulnerable ones would be black, poor, uneducated people, but it was not true. The consumption pattern didn't depend on race, social class, or any other factor they could isolate. It affected everyone equally. People would use for combat or not, because of a traumatic experience or not. Some began to use because at the hospital they were provided with morphine for their wounds, but most of them used just because everyone else did. Traditional explanations didn't seem to account for what was happening. So they imagined gangs, like in the movies — Can you tell that I like 80's movies? (Laughter) Like in The Warriors, gangs running in the streets, creating chaos; very dangerous veterans unable to go back to normal life ... a disaster. So, what happened? Nothing happened. After the deployment in Vietnam 1 percent of the soldiers who used drugs kept the consumption habit. This is the same percentage of people before the war, no more, no less. The remaining soldiers stopped using drugs after a year in average. Imagine all the know-it-alls from the TV and the radio completely confused after worrying about it for so long. It was like an anticlimax. You were going to have an apocalypse but you got nothing. (Laughter) What a mood killer. What happened? One possible answer came years later, in 1978, from a psychologist called Bruce K. Alexander, who conducted some well-known experiments, such as the Rat Park. In these experiments, Alexander used Wistar rats, which are the experimental psychologist's best friend after the dog, and he split them into two groups. One was put in something like a jail, and the other in a resort in Punta Cana, you get the idea. This is, group A were rats in regular lab cages, isolated from other rats and at leisure all day long. The other one, the resort group, was in the Rat Park, a very big space full of tunnels and places where rats could play, explore, interact with other rats. Both groups had water deposits with morphine at their disposal and water without morphine. Rats could self-administrate morphine whenever they wanted, total "party hard". (Laughter) And Alexander discovered that rats in jail used to self-administrate morphine more frequently, and therefore develop addiction habits more easily, but rats with other things to do usually avoided water with morphine to play with other rats, explore, do rat things and enjoy themselves. Some rats in this group got addicted to morphine, of course, but just a few of them. That challenged the idea that drugs were addictive by themselves, because it was the first proof that maybe the environment has something to do with it, and it seems like these experiments could be generalized to humans, considering how US soldiers behaved after returning from Vietnam. Of course, drugs can create addiction, but that's not the whole story: the environment seems to be important too. As soldiers left an environment where drug use was normal, came back home, a lot of them back to their families and loved ones, they would find a job, develop healthy relationships, and quit. As simple as that. I've started with this story because as a psychologist, knowing whether people can change and how they change is a crucial part of my my job, of our job, as we psychologists are behavior modifiers, either in our office helping a patient overcome a problem, or in a company developing a team to adopt a new way of working, or in a school as an tutor, trying to make a student adopt study habits. We study how to change people so they can change for the better and achieve their goals. And of course, what people think is happening often is not what it really happens when we talk about human behavior. Popular psychology has little to do with scientific psychology. And one of the main ideas regarding humans' capacity to change is the idea that it takes a lot of willpower, which is the reason or the excuse why you sign up for a gym, go for a couple of weeks and then spend six months paying but not going, because you'll go next week anyway. Hi to my gym, by the way. (Laughter) It's the reason why you start a diet, but when you have a bad day, you pig out on ice cream and cookies, and drink meatballs. (Laughter) That's why when you're a student you study for the exam the day before, every term you swear it won't happen again, but you always do it again, because you need to go party, because you have no willpower. Other people do have it, that's why they can change, but not you, you don't have it. In fact, that idea has had some predicament in psychology. In recent years, a model developed by psychologist Roy Baumeister was acclaimed, called the Ego Depletion model. This model stipulates that willpower would be a limited resource, like a gas deposit, that dries up the more we take difficult decisions. Habits don't take willpower; decisions do. For instance, eating broccoli instead of a muffin. The more we make difficult decisions, the more our willpower gets drained throughout the day, ending up falling in our old habits, and giving in to the temptation. That's why many infidelities take place at night, diets tend to break at night, and so on. (Laughter) The problem is that this model — don't clap just yet, I'm not giving you an excuse to cheat on anyone. (Laughter) (Laughter)(Applause) This model is being refuted, because it's difficult to replicate. Not because there can be some truth to it, actually I think there is, but because it leaves an important part behind: the context. One thing we behavior modifiers know is that human beings, like any other organism, react mostly to the signs of our context, like, for example, when we cross the street on a green light or when we see a sign like this we don't get closer. We like to think that we have free will and that we make decisions, because we like to think that we are rational beings, but like Siniestro Total sings: "We are rational beings because we eat rations, 'portions', at the bar." (Laughter) So no, most of the things you've done today don't have an inch of rational decision on your side, and often we react to the environment in ways that are determined by our genes, our learning history, our experiences and habits. And that's what I want to talk about today. Some psychologists, to explain why it is difficult to change, have conceived a metaphor — Do you understand what a metaphor is? Behavior is not like that, but it's easier to understand it, a simplification. They imagine the person as a Hindu riding his elephant through a path across the jungle. The rider and the elephant represent the person; the jungle and the path, the environment around. The rider represents the role of the long term plans, the one who makes New Year's resolutions. The rider is very motivated. The elephant is everything else. The elephant is our taste for instant gratification, our habits, our emotionality. The elephant wants to eat the muffin now, even though the rider has decided to eat organic quinoa with boiled salmon from a sustainable fish farm. (Laughter) The elephant wants to call your ex at 2 am drunk out of your mind to beg for a second chance. (Laughter) The elephant knows he needs to study, but the new season of Game of Thrones is out and he wants to sit in front of the TV and watch it all. The elephant doesn't like getting wet, not by sweating or when it rains, that's why we are not able to go to the gym or for a run, because it rains and he prefers a blanket. The elephant likes the things he's used to. He even likes your ex. (Laughter) It's like if Ortega y Gasset had stated: "I am me and my circumstances", but disguised as an Indian riding a five tonnes animal. So, what happens? The elephant is very big and the rider very small, and if the elephant feels like going in one direction, the rider can only let him go, usually ending up in a morning full of hangover and remorse. That's how Jonathan Haidt explains this experience we've all had of knowing exactly what you need to do and doing the opposite. (Laughter) That's how we can explain why usually our habits, often ruled by the environment and reacting to its signs are stronger than our intentions, than the things we need to use as behavioral triggers. The environment does not only include the physical part, with our signs saying "go this way", "stop here"...; it also includes the social environment: people we with interact with, the culture we live in. If you think it's not very important, listen to this: in 2007, a medical study from Harvard University found out that if one of you develops obesity, all of your close friends are three times more likely to get roly-poly (Laughter) and that's not because you all go to a restaurant to pig out together, no. If you live in San Francisco, and your friend in New York, and you keep in touch regularly, your friend gets roly-poly all the same. He influences you, you influence him. The environment has such a weight on us, that we can change our habits without realizing. The environment can stop us from acting or make us do stupid things, like use heroin while fighting in the Vietnam war, because everyone else does. There is a classic experiment by Columbia University where a group of students are told to fill in some questionnaires. The students can be alone or in groups of three. Whilst they're on it an emergency occurs: from a hidden grille in the wall, smoke starts to flood in filling the room. If the student is alone, there's a 75 percent chance that he'd get up immediately, ask for help and raise the alarm. But when the student is with other people, only 38 percent of the times they get up and look for help. Think about it: 62 percent of the students remained seated like dumbasses, inhaling smoke, (Laughter) because they all were waiting for somebody else to do something, and since nobody did anything, everyone stayed quiet. In an unknown situation, context tells us what to do, and if we don't get any signs from it, we do nothing, like you now, with all this smoke and you stay there quietly looking at me. (Laughter) The context determines and the context inhibits our behaviors. It can also be used for good causes, in fact a small contextual change can trigger huge behavioral changes. There's an example I love, because it can be widely applied, it's an experiment at the Kaiser South Hospital in San Francisco, developed by head nurse Becky Richards. She wanted to reduce nurses' mistakes in drug administration, because a mistake could be fatal. The origin of these mistakes were distracting people, interrupting the nurse by asking her whatever: doctors, nurses, other patients, patients' relatives, the high school band, whoever. So she decided to introduce a small change in the environment so these nurses won't be distracted, and it was to use this: reflective jackets, dingy, ugly as a toad, those you can get from any car repair store, and one rule: if you're wearing the jacket it means you are giving medication, so if you're wearing it, no one can talk to you and you are not supposed to an answer. And of course, the nurses hated it with all their hearts, because they took is as a punishment, as if they were incompetents at their jobs. However, a few months after starting the study, mistakes went down by 47 percent; no one had to make any will effort, or change anything willingly; only that simple rule and that small environmental change triggered a radical change of behavior. We can't always change the environment to start a new habit, nor go to Bora Bora every time you want to learn a new habit, even if it's proven that it's easier to give up smoking on holidays rather than at home, because you don't get the signs of the context pushing you to smoke. So, what do we do to start a new habit? New York University's psychologist Peter Gollwitzer developed a technique called "action triggers", a way of anticipating a situation, triggering a behavior by leaving the control of our behavior to one sign of the context. For example, if I am a student and I can do an optional assignment to get better grades, I have more chances to do the assignment instead of falling asleep, if I write on a paper: "I will do the assignment this Saturday at 9 am at my dad's desk right before they wake up". Why? Because when we do that we are inclining our organism to react to a sign from the environment, so entering that environment triggers that behavior. This technique has had many applications in the health realm obtaining great results when it comes, for example, to elder patients with heap and knee prosthetics adopting healthy habits, exercising, instead of being laid up with pain, speeding up their recoveries significantly. In habits that are difficult, those the subject deems hard to acquire, the creation of triggers of intention multiplies by three the chances of success: from a 22 to a 62 percent average. In my own practice as a psychologist, this technique has proven valuable, because some of the therapeutical tasks that patients have to perform are heavy. For instance, in cognitive therapy, one of the fundamental techniques is to keep track of your thoughts, so you can detect dysfunctional thoughts that are causing you anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions, and switch them with rational thoughts. Most people don't have the habit of keeping a diary; for most of them is difficult to sit down and write. When I agree with my patients some behavioral triggers about when and how they're going to sit down and write, chances of performing the task raise, and therefore chances that therapy turns effective raise as well. So, in short, people can change, and we do it constantly, we do it constantly but most of the times, our changes can happen and be sustained very easily if we take a look at our environment and how it affects us and how we affect it; how the environment makes it easier or harder to do what we want to do. Change is perfectly possible, but opposite to what many believe, it has nothing to do with willpower. Thank you very much. (Applause)