Given the right temptations, even the most honest people will steal. Remember payphones? To our delight, they would occasionally malfunction and we would get money back, and sometimes more. Nobody I know contacted the phone company to return its money. It was a mini jackpot. Although our actions are controlled by our values and willpower, we are also tremendously influenced by our environment. Behavioral psychologists believe many of our actions are under “stimulus control,” meaning the environment controls our behavior. Therefore we should design environments to avoid personal “crimes.”
We can reduce any number of crimes, some personal, by designing our environment to limit opportunities. Just relying on willpower and intentions may not be successful. Identifying and analyzing our “bad” actions can lead us to redesign our environment and promote positive outcomes.
Personal Crime—Overspending. Millions of people have unnecessary debt. The convenience of credit cards tempts us to buy something immediately because the thought of payment is remote. Why deprive ourselves when we can walk out with a new cashmere sweater reduced from $350 to $175? Then comes the bill with high interest and penalties. Make the minimum payment and the rest will take care of itself, right? Interest mounts rapidly and we begin the downward spiral of debt. Soon we become slaves to the thin plastic idol. If this is a problem, design your spending to eliminate temptation. Cut the damn cards into tiny pieces. Replace them with debit cards, checks or cash.
Personal Crime—Overeating. Avoiding temptation is easier than resisting it. Overweight people have a hard time resisting foods they deem “evil.” If you tell them to eat less or better, it usually increases craving. Forbidden cookies taste better. When these evil foods are available, it is hard to resist eating them. The time to design weight loss is when shopping. Don’t buy ice cream, candy and junk food. My own vice is peanut butter and strawberry preserves. Yum! After watching my waistline expand, I eliminated these beloved foods from the house. Guess what? I no longer wake in the middle of the night to inhale two delicious sandwiches with milk. I hardly miss them.
I have seen conflicts in families with overweight youngsters, too. Rather than chastising youngsters for eating too much crapola, replace these treats with fruit or vegetables. Rather than relying on willpower, keep evil foods out of the house and reduce the opportunity for crime.
TV, electronic games and the computer also lead to weight gain. Many people eat while watching TV. They associate TV with eating and lose control of the amount gobbled. Eventually, TV becomes a stimulus for eating. This is also true of other physically passive indoor activities. Furthermore, just being in the house with food encourages eating. Get the hell out of the house!
Personal Crime—Social Isolation. I visited an Icelandic social worker in Reykjavik. I asked her what their main social problems were, expecting alcohol and drugs. She surprised me and said it was social isolation of the young because of computer games. Not only were the games associated with weight gain, but she also reported that youngsters were not developing social skills. Obviously, the same problem exists here. Those games are so easily accessible and fun. Many concerned parents limit access to electronics because their children become hermitlike. Despite pressure from their kids who see peers with the devices, some parents outright refuse to buy them. Instead they find outdoor activities or join clubs where social interaction is required.
Since crime is related to opportunity, we can significantly augment sheer willpower as a method of self-control by reducing opportunities. Pick an objective, then evaluate whether your personal environment facilitates that objective and make the adjustments. This knowledge, that avoiding temptation is easier than resisting it, can help us design our environments to promote a better life.