Behavior Change Myths–Part 7, The Power of Information

As usual, my thoughts come from this presentation by Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab.

I’m running late this week. It’s been a killer, that’s for sure.

The myth here is that information leads us to make choices and therefore understanding will help us conquer our addictions. I’ll admit that this is a very seductive, attractive myth. We hear all the time that knowledge is power (and it is), and it seems logical to us that knowledge should then influence our behavior. And it does, but only so far as we ourselves are actually committed to that knowledge.

Let me make a point about information and behavior: Smoking. Literally everyone knows that smoking is bad for our health. The body of scientific evidence against smoking is nigh unto completely overwhelming. You cannot argue in favor of smoking. And yet millions of people smoke. They know it’s bad and many of them even wish they could quit. Information doesn’t seem to be changing their behavior all that much, does it?

The subtext on this slide points out that humans aren’t really rational. That’s true. We’re far more emotional in our responses and actions, and our behaviors follow suit.

I keep going back to President Packer’s famous quote: A study of the gospel will change behavior faster than a study of behavior will change behavior. This points directly to the emotional, spiritual side of our humanity. Yesterday during our High Council meeting, the Stake President reminded me of something that Elder Bednar said about President Packer’s quote. The gist of the comment was that it’s not just any general study of the gospel that changes behavior but studying the gospel principles directly related to the behavior you desire to change.

In short, if you have a Smoking problem, studying the Word of Wisdom and other scriptural references to health will change your behavior faster than studying a book on quitting smoking. Why? Because the gospel changes your core, your beliefs, and the emotional center upon which you are based. Studying the gospel will indeed change your behavior faster than studying behavior will change your behavior because the gospel influences more than just knowledge. More than just behavior. More than even just emotion and spirit.

Like I said at the beginning, when we are committed to knowledge, knowledge can influence our behavior. But that commitment requires so much more than simple head knowledge. It’s heart knowledge. Emotional. Spiritual. Closer to the core and center of who we are. When we reach that point, our decisions are not based so much on knowledge anymore but rather on character.

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3 Responses to Behavior Change Myths–Part 7, The Power of Information

  1. Emily Heath says:

    To some extent I agree with you. It’s true that many people smoke despite all the scientific evidence about how it kills us. But to play devil’s advocate, far fewer people smoke now compared to say, the 1940s, when no-one knew what the evidence was and doctors were even encouraging people to smoke.

    So the information that smoking kills has made a difference to the behaviour of a large number of people. Those that do smoke still often use different evidence to justify it to themselves – like that they know someone who smoked fifty a day and lived till they were ninety, or that their mum smoked during pregnancy and they still turned out just fine.

  2. daveloveless says:

    Sure, and that makes sense as well.

    I guess the distinction in this case for me is more along the lines of a general inability for knowledge to CHANGE existing behavior as opposed to influencing decisions that lead to new behavior. Certainly the expansion of knowledge about smoking is helping many people make different choices, but for those who already smoke, knowing that it hurts them doesn’t necessarily engage the ability to change. That’s not a universal by any means, but for many….

  3. angeladecker says:

    I definitely agree that “the myth here is that information leads us to make choices and therefore understanding will help us conquer our addictions.” I was helping to proof the audio book of “Visions of Glory” at work today, and I was listening to a chapter where Spencer was going through a very hard trial. He had a vision that worried him greatly and he kept trying to interpret it because he assumed that once he understood it, he could try to fulfill it. Eventually he was told that no, he was not supposed to try to understand it:

    “I don’t believe I was prepared to submit to any more suffering than I was then experiencing at that time…The Lord has been merciful in allowing me to learn in that moment, and then fully embrace when I was prepared many years later. . . .

    “We don’t understand our own worth.The Holy Spirit and the scriptures teach us of God’s glory, but hardly mention the glory that mankind left when we accepted the mortal challenge.

    “I have come to realize that the fall has a profound effect upon us. The fall separated us from the presence of God so thoroughly that we no longer hear the word of the Lord as we could if we schooled ourselves by obedience to Him. Our hearts and our minds are clouded, impaired – handicapped by the fall. We are spiritual ‘Special Needs’ people, quite literally disabled in every possible way. . . .

    “Another dilemma I encountered was that I didn’t know how to reconcile the person I knew myself to be, with the profound nature of what I was shown I could be. I knew I hadn’t earned it, that I wasn’t good enough to deserve it. I didn’t even know how to become the person that Christ had shown me I could become.There was a gulf of darkness in my understanding. I could clearly see who I was then, and I could clearly see who I could become – but I could not fathom how to transition between the two. It was like a caterpillar being shown that it would one day become a butterfly. It was glorious, but I just couldn’t imagine how it could ever come to pass.

    “One of the most difficult aspects of this was that I felt compelled to ‘make sense’ of these visions and experiences. I was an educated man with three advanced degrees, and I wanted to create a purpose, maybe a calling, or a divine mission for myself from all of these things. I wanted to invent or create a way to arrive at what I had seen I could become. So, I went through the process of reasoning, ‘So, this must mean that . . .’ and then I would try to make whatever I had concluded happen.This was a terrible mistake. I found that none of my logic could penetrate these mysteries, and no amount of pondering or deduction could show me how to get from where I then was, to where Christ had shown me I could go.

    “About 20 years later, my apostle friend finally cleared that up for me during a private meeting. He said, ‘Spencer, do not make the error of trying to read meaning into these experiences. Just accept them as they are. Don’t try to put your interpretation on it. Keep your own logic out of it. It is what it is. When you try to interpret it, it will lead you down roads where you should not go. Keep the experience pure. Wait for the Lord to reveal the meaning of it to you. Wait for the Lord to give you the interpretation. Wait for the further light and knowledge the Lord still has to give to you so you can complete your mission.”

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