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Why do we do what we do? Well, a number of answers spring to mind ‘Because it is the right thing to do’ or ‘Because we like it’ or ‘Because we have to’. All these explanations are reasonable of course, but what if there is another one? What if the reason we do something is that we just happened to do it at some point in the past?!?

Imagine this scenario: you are walking down the street, you are a bit tired, you are in a bit of a hurry – you are also badly in need of caffeine. Normally you have coffee at ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’, but this is a few blocks away and you happen to walk past this place you have never been to before – ‘Starbucks’… I will let the great Ariely continue the story…

This simple observation is one of the most profound discoveries in the field of Social Psychology: Our brain is lazy; we don’t want to seriously sit down and think about each and everything we do every day. Instead, we rely on heuristics. One of the most potent heuristics is this: ‘What did I do last time?’ Never mind that last time I was in a hurry and ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ happened to be away; we don’t remember these things – instead we remember what we did. And then what do we do? We ‘line up behind ourselves’ and do the same thing!

Not only that; according to Psychologist Daryl Bem, we also change our beliefs and attitudes so that they are consistent with our new behaviour pattern! ‘For many things, our attitudes come from actions, that led to observations, that led to explanations, that led to beliefs’ (McRaney 2013 – p. 60). Common sense says the chain of causation is: ‘I like films = I go to the cinema’;  Bem says: ‘I go to the cinema = I must like films!’

This of course has huge implications for us: if we can get our students to act in certain ways (e.g. be responsible, punctual, participate actively, behave in a pro-social way) initially, chances are they are going to carry on acting in the same manner and they are going to adjust their self-perception accordingly!

Consider the following study which is a classic in its simplicity: Psychologist Jack Brehm asked a number of children to rate how much they liked a long list of vegetables. He then told them that he wanted to see whether they might think differently after they had eaten them. So he asked them to eat, say, broccoli three times a week for the next few weeks. Each child was served with the particular vegetable which they had listed as the one they hated the most. A month later, Brehm again asked the same children to rate the items on the original list. Sure enough, the ‘despised’ veggies had moved up in the students’ preferences! Cognitive dissonance theory allows us to reconstruct what might have gone on inside the children’s head ‘Here I am, regularly eating this stuff – without being forced. Either I am a fool, or it’s not actually so bad’. Which of the two options would be the more appealing to them?

In fact, there are countless studies which show we all tend to act consistently across time – regardless of how carefully we considered our original action was (e.g. Ariely 2010 – Ch. 10). So here is the Moral: ‘If social psychology has taught us anything is that not only do we think ourselves into a way of acting, but also we act ourselves into a way of thinking’ (D. Myers) Brilliant!


Ariely, D. “The Upside of Irrationality” HarperCollins 2010.

Brehm, J. W. (1960) “Attitudinal Consequences of Commitment to Unpleasant Behaviour”  Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 60, 370-383.

McRaney, D. “You can Beat your Brain” Oneworld 2013.