Friday, June 7, 2013


Behavior has consequences.  Everyone knows it.  Hinduism and other eastern religions call it karma.  Colloquially it’s said, “What goes around, comes around.”  Christians have the concept of heaven and hell as recompense for actions on earth.  The Old Testament is filled with warnings about bad behavior: “But I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 21:14).  When bad things happen to good people we look for some rationale to explain and justify it, because it’s universally accepted that like consequences should follow like behavior.

Another well-accepted truth is that people don’t change unless they are unhappy enough with the status quo to overcome inertia.  It takes more energy (physical, mental or emotional) to move out of your comfort zone than to continue along the familiar path of old habits and routines.  One of Dr. Phil McGraw’s favorite questions is:  “How is that working for you?” as he tries to get people to acknowledge the pain that comes directly from their choices.  Unless they hate what’s going on, they will not change.  They aren’t motivated enough to commit to a new plan.

In most cases, the problem is not a lack of understanding of these two fundamentals.  The real problem is the time lag between them.  If I touch a hot pot on a stove, I quickly learn to use a potholder.  I am motivated to change behavior because the unpleasant feedback is immediate.  If I smoke my first cigarette at the age of 15, knowing that continuing to smoke may lead to a painful death at 55 has minimal motivational value.  If I am living from paycheck to paycheck today, the prospect of retiring in poverty in 30 or 40 years has little power over my decision.  Remote consequences, though well understood, provide less incentive to change.  To quit smoking or save for tomorrow means giving up today’s pleasure and gratification for some vague promise of a better future.  It is easy to disregard distant repercussions.  Change is hard work, and thirty years is a long way off!

Some people do it; most do not.  What is the mechanism that connects the idea of remote consequences to the need for immediate-term change?  What reminds some people to do the hard work today, striving for a brighter future?  It may be a general aversion to risk.  Perhaps it’s maturity or wisdom.  This article suggests that it’s merely a strong imagination to see more clearly a happier self in the future.  Whatever you call it, America needs more.

Our past behavior has developed into today’s problems.  Failures in perspective, critical thinking, discipline, responsibility, and economic understanding have long-term consequences for America,  Examples of these consequences are found in our obesity epidemics, unpreparedness for retirement, frivolous lawsuits, action based on impulse rather than values, wasting money on unproven cures, buying more house, toys or vacations than we can afford, a failing education system, out of control healthcare and college cost.  Meanwhile we expect the government to solve all our problems with money that appears out of thin air.  Clearly poor choices by the many sabotage the overall direction of the country.  We need better choices, not more laws, regulations and bailouts.  We must unite around this behavioral model to find the real solutions – other approaches continue to fail.

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