My wife, Michelle, came downstairs with weary eyes. She had every right to be miffed.
I’m a morning person and she’s a night owl, so every day I wake up before she does. As I go through my morning routine in the kitchen, grabbing pans, bowls, and spoons, I tend to loudly slam the cabinet doors.
At first, I wasn’t even aware I was being noisy, and when Michelle brought it to my attention, I immediately resolved to stop. But the next morning, as I was rushing to get out the door to teach an 8 a.m. class, I completely forgot about it. The following days were a mixed bag. Sometimes I remembered to daintily shut every cabinet. But more often than not, it would slip my mind.
I was disappointed in myself. Why did I keep getting it wrong? Did I just not care enough?
Research shows that we often underestimate how much our behavior is driven by habit. This misjudgment is especially likely in the United States, where our individualistic culture emphasizes personal agency. Instead, we tend to interpret actions as intentional. But in a world where much of our behavior is happening on autopilot, that belief can lead to arguments and hurt feelings.
After I accidentally woke Michelle up early yet again, we realized that counting on me to magically change my behavior wasn’t working. So we printed out a bunch of pictures of baby turtles and taped them to the cabinet walls. From that day on, every time I was about to slam the cabinets shut, I was reminded to close them instead with the slow, gentle pace of a newborn turtle.
Don’t assume that people are acting intentionally or even carelessly.
Do pause and consider whether your child or student (or spouse!) might be doing something out of habit, despite their best intentions. Then talk about it, and together, you can come up with an adjustment to cue a change in behavior. What might be your own version of a baby-turtle photo?
Asaf Mazar is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
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