Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

How the built environment influences our ability to sustain personal and environmental commitments

Posted 07 Jan 2016 / 0

“exercise is good in principle, but it’s almost never the case
that it’s the best thing you could do right now.” -Dan Ariely

There’s a really interesting experiment being conducted by behavioral economist Dan Ariely and the new WNYC program Only Human. Called “Stick to It!“, the experiment allows listeners to the show to volunteer to download an app that will allow them to state an exercise goal and report how well they have stuck to that goal. The app will randomly assign a particular “exercise approach” to each participant, basically creating different motivational treatments. In theory, if enough people sign up, this citizen-science experiment could shed light on what are the most effective approaches to maintaining an exercise regimen.

I think that this is a really valuable project on a number of levels. It allows people to participate in science and thereby become invested in and more knowledgeable about the methods by which behavioral science is conducted. It also gets participants to be more mindful about their exercise regimens, and might even help them exercise more. All this is good stuff. But the experiment — and Ariely’s contextualization of it — got me thinking about how we approach exercise.

The standard perspective of behavioral sciences — especially psychology, which is arguably the science of human behavior — is that of the individual. We consider why and how individuals behave in particular ways, paying close attention to how those individuals respond to their environments. But that environment is often considered a fixed object, and what we wonder is how might we change the behavior of the individual from within?

This seems to be the approach of this study. It wonders what motivational approaches will best allow participants to maintain an exercise regimen? I wonder if this is the right question.

It was Ariely’s description of why we don’t exercise that really got me thinking. It’s true that exercise is mostly about delayed gratification: we don’t generally exercise for the purpose of accomplishing something right now. Rather, we exercise so that we can have long-term health, which is a very abstract and distant goal. Generally there’s a shorter-term goal competing with the long-term goal accomplished by exercise. We tend to attend to immediate goals first, and that’s why we don’t exercise as much as we would like to. This all makes sense to me.

The kind of exercising that many people do is particularly pointless at the time it is performed. To me “working out” is the best example of this pointlessness: people run on treadmills, ride stationary bikes, lift weights, or move about in order to get the proverbial work-out. All these activities are facimiles of actual productive activities. No wonder we have a hard time maintaining an exercise regimen: what we do for exercise only has value in the long-term. In the short-term, working out is beyond pointless.

I guess the goal of the Stick to It! experiment is to figure out the best way to motivate people to do something immediately pointless on a regular basis. This involves re-shaping individual psychology to respond differently to the regular environment in which we get exercise. This seems to me like a venture destined to fail.

If exercise is usually hard to perform because it is usually of no immediate value, perhaps what we need to change is not our internal motivation to exercise but the external environment in which exercise might take place. Rather than better teaching ourselves techniques for performing immediately-pointless activities, perhaps we should be thinking about ways to make exercise valuable at the time it occurs.

I am referring, of course, to productive activity, the kind of thing that our ancestors did all the time. If there were a way for me to transport our very recent ancestors into the modern suburban gym, I would love to see their reaction. Perhaps such time travel is not even necessary: delivering a few dozen Amish folk into the local gym would probably produce the reaction I anticipate. What in the world are these people wasting their time doing?

In urban environments where many people no longer work the land or even perform work that requires movement of any significant kind, finding a way to get exercise out of daily life can be difficult. But not in the right environments. In a well-designed city, people naturally get exercise going about their days. And to me that seems like a far better arrangement for assuring that people get sufficient exercise.

So while I respect the motivation to get people to better control their short-term instinct for gratification, I am far more motivated by the idea of creating environments that elicit valuable behaviors because those behaviors seek short-term gratification.

In a well-designed city with great public transportation, one that does not honor the “needs” of the automobile too much, people get sufficient daily exercise walking from place to place. They walk because walking is the best thing they could be doing if they want to get from one place to another. Sitting in a car would be far less productive than walking to the subway station or busstop. In a well-designed city with safe spaces for cycling and plenty of bike racks, people get sufficient daily exercise riding from place to place. They ride because riding is the most efficient way to reach their immediate destination. In the well-designed city, exercise is the by-product of people pursuing their immediate goals.

The environments that we create for ourselves often dictate how well we can make good on the promises that we make to ourselves. All too often, I think we assume that we must learn to behave better in our found environment rather than finding an environment that makes behaving better the best option.

Oh, and productive exercise also makes us more sustainable by substituting human activity for the consumption of fossil fuels. By changing the way we design our environments, we can meet our collective environmental goals while we meet both our immediate and long-term personal goals. No special psychologically-sophisticated approach to exercise required.

2016-01-07Bicycle commuter race photo courtesy of Paul Mison via Wikimedia Commons
A Minor Post, Behavior, Behavioral Ecology, Cultural Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Human Nature, Mismatch theory, Psychology, Public Policy, Radio & Podcasts, Sustainable Transportation, Sustainable Urban Design

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