How to Change Your Habits by Changing Your Environment

What would you say determined your voting decisions in the last local or national election? Political references? A party’s stance on a particular issue?

Factors like these will of course influence your decision but researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Business have found that rational thinking isn’t the only thing that will determine the outcome of your vote.

A much more subtle factor may also play a role – the particular type of polling location in which you happen to vote (1).

The Influence of Environment

It’s hard to imagine that something so seemingly innocuous as the location where you happen to vote can have an effect on your voting. Still, this is exactly what the researchers have found.

In fact, they even say that “the influence of polling location on voting found in our research would be more than enough to change the outcome of a close election”(!!).

How can this be? The researchers goes on to explain that ”environmental cues, such as objects or places, can activate related constructs within individuals and influence the way they behave:

Voting in a school, for example, could activate the part of a person’s identity that cares about kids, or norms about taking care of the community.

Similarly, voting in a church could activate norms of following church doctrine. Such effects may even occur outside an individual’s awareness.

As humans we are much more likely to be influenced by our environment than we think.

A Lesson in Human Behavior in Buckets of Popcorn

Dr. Brian Wansink is the director of the Food and Brand lab at Cornell University. In an interesting experiment (2), he gave movie-goers free popcorn that were either fresh or a 14 days old. One group were given a medium bucket and the other a small bucket.

After the participants had finished watching the movie their buckets were collected and weighted. The participants were then asked to rate the taste of the popcorn.

What Dr. Wansink found was that the participants who were given fresh popcorn ate 45% more popcorn when it was given to them in a large bucket.

Even more interesting was that this bucket size influence was so powerful that the even when the popcorn were disliked, people still ate 34% more when eating from a large container compared to the medium sized bucket.

This clever study shows that even when food isn’t particularly tasty, large packages and containers can lead to overeating.

Several of Wansink’s previous studies also show that larger portions prompt people to eat more, not because of a clean-your-plate mentality, but because large packages and portions suggest larger consumption norms:

They implicitly suggest what might be construed as a ‘normal’ or ‘appropriate’ amount to consume”.

How to Change Your Habits by Changing Your Environment

No matter what habits you are trying to change, your environment plays a critical part.

To make sure to give your new behaviors the greatest chance of success you need to tweak your surroundings properly.

You need to change what Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as the “activation energy” of the habits.

The bigger the obstacles standing in the way of your desired behavior, the more activation energy you’ll need to muster up and the less likely you’ll be to do it.

Csikszentmihalyi explains that: “If a person is too tired, anxious, or lacks the discipline to overcome that initial obstacle, he or she will have to settle for something that, although less enjoyable, is more accessible.

So to change your habits what you need to do is:

  1. Make your desired behaviors as easy as possible.
  2. Make you unwanted behaviors as hard as possible.

Here are some ideas:

  • If you want to eat less, store away your big plates and use salad plates instead.
  • If you want to read more books, put your TV remote control in a room across the house and a book right next to your livingroom couch.
  • If you want to write more, have your word processor launch automatically when you start your computer and use a program like Freedom to remove distractions.

Take a moment and think about how you can shape the path to your desired behaviors so that they are as effortless as possible. Also consider how you can make your unwanted behaviors as hard as possible.

In other words, how can you decrease the activation energy needed for your desired behavior and how can you increase it for you unwanted behavior?

Changing your habits is rarely easy, but by manipulating your surroundings to work in your favor you can dramatically increase your chances of success.

”There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.”
–  B.J. Fogg (Tweet that)

Do you want to master your habits? Get my book The Habit Blueprint.


  1. Can Where People Vote Influence How They Vote? The Influence of Polling Location Type on Voting Behavior
  2. Bad popcorn in big buckets: portion size can influence intake as much as taste.

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