Thinking for Yourself in 2015

I don't like new year's resolutions. Every year, the ball drops and people tell themselves that this year, things will be different. This year they will lose weight, stop smoking, get a better job. And by January 23rd it will all be forgotten, mainly because people resolve to change behaviors instead of changing the way they think.

The way you think -- your attitude -- has a big impact on the way you live your life. It motivates you and colors the way you interpret information.

In psychology (and marketing), the ABC model of attitudes posits that attitude is made up of three components:

  • Affect - Your feelings/emotions about a subject. Example: I'm afraid of flying in an airplane.
  • Behavior - How your attitude affects the way you act. Example: I will drive instead of flying.
  • Cognition - Your beliefs/knowledge about a subject. Example: Airplanes are dangerous.

These things are all part of your attitude about a subject. You would think that addressing your fears or learning some facts about the subject would change your behavior, but it isn't that simple. Pointing to statistics that say you are 19 times safer flying than driving may not be enough to overcome the fear or get a reluctant flyer onto an airplane.

Why? Because your attitudes are often guarded against change. Attitudes are typically shaped over time through family upbringing, personal experiences and social norms. They can become part of your identity, making change a scary prospect.

Also, your mind is wired for consistency over objective truth. It's inconsistent for you to believe airplanes are dangerous while also knowing that flying is statistically safer than driving. To resolve the conflict you could give up the idea that airplanes are dangerous or you could rationalize away the pesky statistic that is threatening your belief. And our brains are quite good at rationalizing.

In essence, the amount of persuasion needed to change an attitude becomes relative to that attitude's strength. Long-held attitudes can be practically impenetrable.

So, how do you change your behavior if attitudes are so hard to change? There are some steps that work for me. We'll call it the SOAR method (because I wrote up a list and the acronym serendipitously appeared).

  • Self-examination - Examining the feelings and beliefs that shape your attitudes is the best way to break down their defenses. Let yourself question the validity of your beliefs. It will weed out the ideas that don't truly fit in with who you are and strengthen the ones that do.
  • Outside observation - Talk to other people about the subject. Seek out people who have different attitudes and give their beliefs equal weight as your own. Do any of those beliefs make you reconsider or modify your approach? 
  • Appeal to the right authority - Look for experts on the subject, people who have specialized training in the area, and listen to what they have to say. Consider both sides of controversial subjects.
  • Research the facts - Read up on studies, reports and statistics about the subject. Check the sources to weigh the strength of the information and look for results that are supported by multiple, independent sources.

By going through these steps, you challenge the attitudes that are behind your behaviors and open your mind to other points of view. You begin to separate the beliefs that you were taught from the beliefs formed through your personal experiences. You discover which beliefs truly fit with who you are.

Most importantly, you learn how to think for yourself and be open to change. And that may help you reach your goals in the new year.