Why Behavior Matters

Posted on January 14, 2013

Three good reasons why anyone who cares about communication should care about behavior
by Amy Yeager

In my last blog post, I talked briefly about some recent critiques of overhyped, oversimplified neuroscience and highlighted one major benefit of looking beyond the brain: we can rediscover the value of studying behavior. In the work that my colleagues and I do—helping individuals and groups to understand and resolve their communication problems—focusing on behavior is crucial to success, for three interrelated reasons. These three reasons are the subject of this week’s post.

1. Communication is behavior. It’s something that we do.
It’s easy to lose sight of this simple fact because behavior seems so ordinary, and communication seems so very special. Communication is language, arguably the primary factor distinguishing us from “lower” species. We associate communication with deeply meaningful mental content: our beliefs, concepts, intentions, and attitudes. In contrast, behavior is just… doing stuff. And any old animal can do that.

But the reality is that the substance of communication is behavior: the process of saying things, whether out loud, to ourselves, or through writing. If we want to understand why we communicate in certain ways—why people yell at their employees, complain about their kids, or constantly worry about the future—the things we need to understand are behaviors (yelling, complaining, or worrying). And if we want to improve our communication, the way we need to do that is by changing behaviors.

2. Like all behavior, communication is interactive.
We don’t communicate in a vacuum, with our brains spontaneously generating thoughts out of thin air. We’re always responding to something, whether it’s our own thoughts and feelings, questions or comments from somebody else, or external events and circumstances.

If you want to understand why your boss repeatedly shoots down your ideas, you can’t just consider her personality or the inner workings of her brain. You need to look at the interactions between the two of you, including both what you do and what she does in response. Likewise, if you want to understand why you have trouble being assertive, you need to look beyond your personality and brain and consider the specific situations in which you fail to assert yourself.

3. The most direct way to change our communication is to change our behavioral responses.
Say you feel badly that you sometimes lose your temper and snap at your kids, and you want to start acting differently. You could try to shift the unconscious beliefs or attitudes that are fueling your irritation, which might take weeks or months of therapy, reading, and reflection. Or you could try to change the areas of your brain, or the chemicals within your brain, that you think are relevant to managing your anger—maybe by performing mental exercises or taking medication. This may or may not work, and may bring unwanted side effects. 

Alternatively, you could try a behavioral approach. You think about what actually happens when you snap at your kids: What specific conditions are present? What are you responding to? And what exactly do you do? A typical scenario may be that you arrive home from work tired, starving, and frazzled, and as soon as you walk in the door your children run over to you and start complaining. You let out a frustrated sigh and make an edgy comment like, “Why is everyone in this house always whining? Why can I never get five minutes of peace?!”

These details point the way to several specific steps you could take to change your behavior. You could keep some granola bars in your car for your evening commute, so you don’t get so hungry. You could set a new rule that when you get home at night, you get ten uninterrupted minutes to get yourself settled. And you could learn and practice more productive ways to respond to complaints, the behavior that seems to be setting you off.

And in fact, when you do make that kind of behavioral change, you are also changing your brain. More on that in future posts!

In the meantime, we welcome your comments. Let us know what you think, by commenting on this post or replying to @AmyEYeager on Twitter.


January 14, 2013 at 6:28 pm by Karen Ball

Spot on!