Generating explanations for human behavior has been a pastime since humans started having pastimes. Theoretical systems evolve as people try to account for individual differences in behavior and beliefs. Why do people behave the way they do? How do our beliefs drive our behavior and vice versa? Attempts to answer these questions have kept social and behavioral scientists busy, but clearly, no definitive conclusions have been forthcoming. In the face of a global pandemic, now more than ever, leaders of every stripe continue to ask, “How do we change the behaviors that keep this virus alive and strong?”
Nature vs. Nurture
Not everyone agrees about how we acquire our talents for coping with disaster. In fact, theorists have been waging the “nature/nurture” battle for centuries. Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Hippocrates, some of the early “nature” theorists, don’t even appear in psychology texts, but each had something to say about the “Which came first?” question.
Each philosopher attempted to do justice to the complexity and uniqueness of the individual. Some emphasized the importance of conscious motives; several focused on the past; others gave more weight to the present. All theories have critics. Some give too much attention to what goes on inside the person and not enough credit to the impact of the environment. Others do the opposite.
The Learning Process
Another school of thought concentrated primarily on the scientific understanding of the learning process. Assuming people learn most behavior, they contended, we concentrate on acquiring a multitude of behaviors that allow us to survive and prosper in transactions with the environment—constantly seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
No universally embraced theory exists. The nature/nurture debate continues with added and complex elements surfacing with each new theory, and no one has arbitrated the dispute about whether the past or present has a more profound effect on behavior. Further, investigators disagree about the uniqueness of the individual versus the uniformity of the species. Some theorists drastically conflict, and others build on each other.
Behaviours and Beliefs
On the one hand, we can choose behaviors based on our beliefs—a headfirst, behavior later bias. Most change-management consultants lead with this approach. They try to uncover the basic beliefs that drive behaviors and to influence or change these beliefs. In fact, much of the work on organizational culture has its genesis in this approach.
That’s not how others tackle it, however. Sometimes we defend behaviors because of our beliefs, and often we rationalize beliefs because of our behaviors. We live in a constant state of flux, seeking always to reduce cognitive dissonance—that annoying state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially related to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
Just as often, we profess to believe something to justify our behavior. For example, I may say that I always buy Maytag appliances because I think they are the best. However, when pressed for evidence, I admit that I buy Maytag because my mother always did, and I’ve been too lazy to find out whether any data support this conclusion. We see this kind of “behavior first” phenomenon in families that vote for the same political candidates, pursue careers in the same vein, eat the same kinds of food, buy the same cars, and celebrate life’s events similarly.
We also see it frequently in organizations that require new employees to fit into the established culture. People may firmly believe that bribing in foreign countries is immoral but engage in this activity nonetheless if their bosses require them to do so. Other people may harbor strong biases against a certain group but behave as though they don’t because they know discriminatory actions would land them in the unemployment lines.
When people behave in ways that contradict their beliefs, one of two things happens: either they leave the environment that created the cognitive dissonance, or they adjust their attitudes to keep their belief system more in line with the behaviors others expect of them. Sometimes this means they become more open to different perspectives, often based on new knowledge. At other times, they have a true conversion—but not often.
The chicken-or-egg question about what comes first leads to interesting psychological discourse but few definitive answers, except one: people change behavior only when they perceive it’s in their best interest to do so.
Which comes first? Doesn’t really matter. By the time people show up to work, they will adhere to certain beliefs and behave in predictable ways—usually. The role of the leader is to identify those whose mindset and behaviors indicate a willingness and ability to cause changes to the status quo that will ultimately lead to an improved condition, which means a reduction in cognitive dissonance if nothing else. You don’t have a disruptive mindset? Behave as if you do until you do.