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Behaviour is context dependent


We all behave differently in different situations. Through the example of quitting smoking this article illustrates how behaviour is context dependent, and how learning to do something in one situation does not automatically transfer to all other situations.

For example, learning to quit smoking during a self-help workshop, is not necessarily the same skill as learning how to stop smoking in the pub. The acquisition of a new behaviour and the transference of that skill to other contexts are not part of the same skill set.

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The importance of context

It is so easy to attend a self-help seminar and during the whole experience feel on top of the world. However for many people it is an uphill struggle to apply these new found feelings of well-being to their life beyond the seminar room. Why is this?

Behaviour is predominantly context dependent which means that you behave differently in different situations.

For example it is likely that you will behave differently around your parents then you would around your peers, and differently at home compared to how you would behave at work.

The environment serves as an ever-changing series of external cues that work to guide behaviour. Think of a smoker that has just been to a self-help workshop and has learnt to form an aversion towards cigarettes.

What happens when the smoker steps into a pub, and is surrounded by individuals happily smoking away? Does the smoker automatically transfer their newly formed aversion to other contexts like the pub?

Unfortunately for most smokers when they re-enter their common smoking environments even after forming a programmed aversion with cigarettes, their old habits still manage to creep back in.

This comes down to the basic fact that behaviour is context dependent.

Even though self-help courses emphasise the premise that behaviour is dependent on the environment that it occurs in, most of time these courses don’t spend enough time teaching effective ways to integrate the information into the lives of the recipients.

90% of the people who walk out of life coaching courses return to old habits within a few weeks.

Generalising the priceless information acquired from self-help workshops to all the other areas of life is a completely separate skill, and, in my opinion, this process is overly simplified and made to look easy.

Learning how to not want to smoke in a seminar room in front of hundreds of people is a different skill from learning not to want to smoke in every other areas of your life. The process of transference is possible, but it is wrong to oversimplify it.

After conducting 9 years of research on the transfer of training the learning theorist Douglas Detterman concluded that “People don’t transfer even for situations that seem very similar.” In line with this stance you can begin to understand why people switch back into their old thinking styles very quickly after leaving self-help seminars.

Onto Part Two

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Click here to read part two of this article.

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