A Psychologist's Confession: I'm Not Interested in What You're Thinking

18/11/2014 13:44 GMT | Updated 17/01/2015 10:59 GMT

One of the questions I dread at dinner parties (apart from "Do you eat offal?") is 'And what do you do?'.

Because telling people I'm a psychologist gets an uncomfortable reaction, like "I bet you're analysing me right now". Or the slightly defensive, "I bet you can tell what I'm thinking". I have to candidly admit that I'm not analysing anyone, because I'm not a psychoanalyst. And I can't tell what you're thinking because.....well, to be perfectly honest, I'm not interested in what anyone is thinking.

A psychologist not interested in thinking?

My lack of interest stems from the fact that what you're thinking has little to do with how you will behave. Sure, what you're thinking will affect how you're feeling. But it will barely connect with what you do. And what I'm really interested in is behaviour.

Many people assume there is a strong connection between the two. That thinking determines behaviour. That our thoughts get turned into actions. It's an illusion that's understandable. And yet it misleads us into believing that if we think good things we will do them. So if we think we are going to eat healthily, exercise more, be a nicer person, it will happen. Yet the disconnect between thought and action is manifest everyday, in the failed diets, the unused gym memberships, the rash comments and human failings that perpetuate our daily lives.

I would never do that!

When Milgram carried out his obedience experiments and found a high number of perfectly well-balanced people would, under the direction of another, blithely deliver a life-threatening electric shock to another person the scientific community was horrified.

Even psychiatrists, when told of the experimental setup, predicted that no one would go as far as the lethal level of 450 volts. Yet 65% of the experimental subjects did. However, when people are told of the findings and informed what normal people did, they invariably insist that they would not.

Of course people don't think they would obey orders to hurt an innocent individual. It is simply unthinkable. And yet many, many people would do it. So what they think has little connection to what they would actually do.

Change your lifestyle or die!

After a double or quadruple bypass operation patients face a very simple choice: to stop smoking, drinking, eating unhealthy food and over-working, or die. And yet a study from John Hopkins University found that, two years post-surgery, only 10% of heart patients have changed their lifestyle.

I bet, when given the advice, all the patients thought they were going to make the life-saving changes. Their later actions, however, told a completely different story. They went back to their old ways and unhealthy habits. There was no connection between their good intentions, their thoughts, and their actions - even in the face of a death sentence.

I will eat fruit.....next week!

Another example of how our thoughts and actions are mismatched comes from a psychology experiment carried out at Leeds University Business School. They asked people what snack they would like to have in a week's time - a banana or a chocolate bar. Most people made a banana their advance choice.

These people also harboured the illusion that if we think good things, we will actually do them. Yet the following week the experimenters returned and offered the same people a snack to have straight away. No mention was made of their previous choice. Most people opted for the chocolate.

So when we think about our future behaviour, we think in terms of what we should ideally do. But when it comes to our present behaviour - well, once again, that's a different story altogether. Hand me the chocolate bar please!

When training doesn't translate to doing

Companies also fall into the trap of believing that changing their employees' thinking will impact upon their behaviour. Studies into the effectiveness of training suggest otherwise. After training courses only about 20% of people go back and do anything different. Even specialist programs that tackle important issues like diversity fail to change behaviour. Kalev, Dobbin and Kelly (2006) found that:

"Programs that target managerial stereotyping through education and feedback (diversity training and diversity evaluations) are not followed by increases in diversity."

This failure to implement what is learned is mainly due to the habitual nature of human behaviour - people go back to doing what they've always done. Memory too plays a role. People forget up to 80% of what they've learned after one day and 98% after a month, according to Dr. Will Thalheimer of Work-Learning Research Inc, USA.

Change what you do, not what you think

And so, when I'm involved in helping people to get better lives, to work more efficiently or live more healthily, I'm not interested in their thinking. I'm interested in their doing.

At Do Something Different, the movement I co-founded with Professor Ben Fletcher and others in 2010, we help turn what people think into what they do. By providing people with regular behavioural prompts we help them act in ways that match their intentions. That plan to go to the gym regularly may have fallen by the wayside, but a text arriving on your phone reminding you to get up and go for a quick walk right now stands is more likely to be acted upon. And when different reminders arrive with regular frequency you become a Do-ers, not a thinker.

The thinking trap

That's not to say our Do-ers aren't vulnerable to what Professor Fletcher calls the Thinking Trap. It's easy to look at a Do and think, 'I could do that' or 'I'll do that later' but then not do it. There's also the danger of thinking you know in advance the consequences of doing something, when in fact we are very poor at predicting behavioural outcomes. As poor, in fact, as those 40 psychiatrists who 'thought' they knew what Milgram's subjects would do. Or those people who 'thought' they would choose a banana. Or the 90% of people who thought they would go to church last Christmas. Fewer than half actually went.

So we can only ask our Do-ers to make a pledge. To 'not knock it until you've tried it'. To go in with an open mind and place trust the power of doing.

Because thinking, quite honestly, isn't going to change a thing.

Do Something Different programmes are delivered digitally and available online at www.dsd.me.