The network effects in human behavior

Actions come before thoughts.

I make coffee for my roommate everyday. It felt really awkward at first, as I don’t really have a lifelong habit of cooking for others. In fact, I felt a strong revulsion at first. I didn’t really have to do it. It’s not like anyone else was making coffee for me. I’d have to clean the coffee strainer, find a clean up, etc. Every morning. Before they woke up. But I pushed myself through this. Expectedly, this became easier with time. More surprisingly, it make my outlook towards them much more positive in almost every other facet of our interactions. I now notice more clearly when they are uncomfortable, or want something that I can help them with. I am more forgiving of bad interactions, and, in some cosmic sense of the word, have more “empathy”.

Let’s explore this further.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was a man of many talents, not the least of which was giving pretty good advice. When asked how to convert a hater into someone who likes you, Franklin have the following counter-intuitive advice to offer (paraphrased):

When someone doesn’t like you, ask them for their help in something. Decency will compel them to help you. And after helping you, their demeanor towards you will improve.

I have long pondered this surprising piece of advice. I once heard on a podcast that this is an example of “cognitive dissonance”. Your thoughts only rarely lead to action. It is your unconscious habits and patterns that lead to most of your actions. Thoughts only serve to justify those actions to yourself. There is a lot of scientific evidence to back this up. When patients that had just come out of a coma were told that they had done certain things (which they had not), and asked why they had done those things, they could instantly come up with reasons. We are unmatched in offering justifications, real or imagined.

Now suppose you force yourself to do something good for someone. Your brain will feel a compulsion to justify why you did that thing for them. Most often, it’ll come up with “that person is good, and is deserving of the help you offered”. Hence, you are now more motivated to help them out the next time they need your help. This becomes a positive feedback loop, which may lead to you offering your help to that person for the rest of your life and maintaining a high opinion of them.

Relevance to my life

I’m not a completely garbage human being. I donate 10% of my earnings to charity. I volunteer my time and effort to raise funds for some organizations. I also almost always lean towards radical honesty. However, I can also be extremely selfish and short-tempered, hurting people close to me in the process. This duality is easy to understand: the charitable person was born out of the need to copy people I admire. The selfish and short-tempered person is, in some sense, who I “am”.

I slowly realized that in order to change “who I am”, or change my thoughts, I had to first change my actions. I started small. I started by making coffee. Forcing myself to plan gifts for loved ones on their birthdays. Calling people who I hadn’t talked to in a long time. Although these are things that come naturally to most people, they didn’t come naturally to me. At all. I had to fight against my natural instincts to do these things.

Slowly, these things became easier to do. It became less awkward to give my roommate a cup of coffee, order some surprise takeout food for my parents, etc. More importantly, I started to feel a compulsion to do other things for the people around me that I wasn’t actively practicing. My mother told me about a bad interaction she’d recently had, and I sat on my sofa feeling bad for hours for her. My roommate expressed some frustration with me, and I didn’t feel like arguing back because I understood their side. I was slowly developing empathy.

There is some “I am growing into a better person” side to this article. But there is also some interesting science behind this self-experimentation. If empathy can be thought of as a network of habits, composed of many nodes, we don’t need to activate all nodes to become empathetic. Lighting up only one of those nodes was also enough to bring all the nodes alive. For instance, I wouldn’t need to make a habit of wishing people on their birthdays, calling people regularly, helping them whenever I could, etc all at once. I would just need to make a habit of one of those things, and the other things would start coming naturally to me.

Are all human habits parts of networks? Does making your bed every morning make you a more responsible and independent person in general? Does becoming good at the piano make you a better musician in general? How else can we exploit these network effects to metamorphose into less crap version of ourselves?

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Graduate student

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