Behavioral Engineering —Part 2

Last month I used the term “crime is related to opportunity” as a way to remind us that redesigning our environment can help us avoid temptation. A simple example of this “behavioral engineering” is curbing weight problems by not buying tempting fattening foods at the supermarket. And it can be employed in many areas of life.

Does staff at your cash business find the open till irresistibly tempting? Changing the environment by focusing a surveillance camera on the register will address that problem. So will encouraging credit card transactions that leave a paper trail. Merchants like that aspect of plastic, but it also makes it easier for the IRS to check receipts. You must choose your devils­—and sometimes with rewards. I am convinced that much of Bill Clinton’s success increasing government revenue was due to the advent of frequent flyer miles, which encourage people to use plastic.

If we eliminate cash, crime would certainly be reduced—burglars would find it hard to peddle goods, drug dealing would be traceable and we couldn’t get shortchanged. But it would be at the cost of privacy. Hot sheet motels with rooms by the hour would go broke and spouses would have to defend indulgences. The biggest side effect? It becomes too easy to spend money we don’t have.

Are you worried about you, your kids or spouse spending too much time viewing internet porn? Pornography is ubiquitous, though rarely discussed. I love the funny Avenue Q song “The Internet Is For Porn,” and I was amazed to learn that a Google search led to 1.82 billion porn sites, almost as many as the 1.87 billion devoted to God. Porn is harmless for most, but there are some people who become too distracted by it and others who become addicted. And some, especially children, can get hurt by it. To reduce this temptation, change the environment and put the computer in a more public open space.

Several couples I have seen in therapy report that their relationships have lost zest. They rarely talk anymore. Well, they talk, but only about problems—finances, child rearing, household chores, etc. Dinner is a wonderful time for families to communicate. When I persuade them to adjust their schedules to make sure the family eats dinner together, and insist that the TV is never on during these times, they report big improvements in their relationships. Marian and Andrew is just such a couple. They had drifted apart emotionally. After removing the TV from the dining area, they had many awkward silences, but by the end of the week they were communicating much better.

Take the logic a step further to make the evening lineup a time for bonding. Having multiple TVs is a centrifugal force on family relations. The kids go into their bedrooms to watch their shows. Mom watches Dancing With the Stars in her room while Dad watches the Knicks. How are they going to bond when they deny themselves opportunities to interact? Having only one TV teaches skills of compromise when preferences are negotiated. The family can discuss many of the wonderful shows that they do watch together. It also teaches a vital skill: We can’t always get what we want. And it is not a tragedy.

Using behavioral engineering—a fancy term for making changes at home and work—can empower us to reduce temptation and enhance our lives in a wide variety of situations.