I’ve been thinking a lot about how environment is directly related to action. I think that we are in less control of our behavior than we think, and that most of our action is us simply responding to our environment. No, I’m not going to globally say that free choice is an illusion, but it’s twanged back and forth by a lot of external rubber bands. There are activities that we might do and find very fulfilling, but little hurdles might get in the way of those things. The interesting thing is that environment can be set up in a way that we aren’t even aware of the hurdles, or what is behind them.

Let’s call these not so lovely lumps Incentive Barriers: small things in our environment, whether consciously chosen by the individual or whoever has altered the environment, that are a disincentive for behavior. An incentive barrier is a small “hurdle” that prevents us from engaging in a behavior or activity that might be very rewarding. It is a blockade to the “catalyst.” I think that identifying these barriers and sanding them down a bit might lead to a more fulfilling daily existence.

This idea might best be explained through examples. These are some I’ve taken notice of, and I’m sure you could think of some of your own!

Bike Rides and Stairways: I love riding my bike. At Amherst I lived on a first floor dorm and went for a ride every day. I went on a long solo trip this past Fall, and excitedly brought my bike to Duke. I’ve taken maybe a handful of rides, for the entirety of my stay here. Why is that?

  • Time? Heck no, I always have at least a few hours in the day that I fill with nonsense that I enjoy Plus, things that I want to do, I make time for.

  • Riding Conditions?: Slightly yes. There isn’t as easy access to biking routes here as there was at Amherst, but what is most telling to me is that once I’ve gotten out there, I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and always wondered what was bringing down the frequency of my getting out.

  • The real answer: Is so small, and so simple. The annoyance of carrying my bike down the stairs, or through a door, is enough to not go on rides at all. It’s not so much the lifting, but the turning of corners, and having to hold the door while lifting it up stairs and into a small space. It seems silly doesn’t it? But I dreaded that tiny part of the process so much, that it was a barrier to doing it all together. And I was so concerned about pieces of my bike getting stolen that I wasn’t too keen on locking it up outside. Funny how in an attempt to protect my property, I wind up not enjoying its use at all.

What do I learn from this?

I can make changes in my environment to break down this incentive barrier. On a large scale, what I’ve learned is that wherever I live, I want easy access to biking places, and if I don’t live on a first floor, I want a garage or a safe place to store a bike for which it is also easy to take it out. For next semester, given that I live on the third floor, it means sucking it up and putting my bike out on a rack, and getting all the right locks and such to make myself feel better about it being “insecure.” It’s about balancing the joy I get from my rides with the risk of my bike being tampered with. What is the monetary value that I place on the joy of one ride, and what might it cost to replace a seat? a wheel?

Convenience Eating up Experience:

A lot of little things in life that are “easier” or “more convenient,” that mentally seem light a great idea, might actually eat away at life experience. For example, I would call the Duke buses an incentive barrier from walking through the gardens, or possibly biking or trotting over to central or west campus. When you either are forced to or force yourself to do it, and it isn’t a regular part of your life, it’s usually a very beautiful walk. But since the buses are – there – and the most logical way to get from point A to point B, the other options don’t even come to mind. And how can a busy student justify taking extra time to not be productive and just walk?

When I come back to my apartment and my laptop is open the ease of connectivity or “communicate” with people online makes the alternative not happen. How about having a computer, and internet/email, period? Take that ease a step further with an iphone. It’s so easy, but is it better? When is the last time you wrote a paper letter, delivered it in person, or went to visit a friend to talk over email or AIM (which, thanks to gmail, are one and the same). Remember life when we didn’t have this technology? Is it better now?

What do I learn from this?

Whenever I feel a strong desire to not do something, or a stronger one to engage in a behavior, I ask myself why, and if the reason doesn’t make me squirmy (like no, I’m not going to walk through the gardens at 2:00 in the morning alone, I’d bring a friend to feel more secure) then I might think if there are other ways to “accomplish” the same thing. Then I might pick one of the other alternatives, just to try it out, and compare experience and not “rationality.”

Opportunity: An opportunity is like a leak, or a hole in the fabric of your everyday environment that lets you engage in behavior that might have been harder to do before. Essentially, it is the lowering of a barrier. This is why an open door might be more of an invitation to robbery than a closed one, a dinner date or night out only happens when the invitation or car ride is presented to you, and reading an inspiring book or getting an email about an internship, project, etc, motivates you to engage in it. All of these things are arguably always available to us, but when it is up to us to provide both the thought of doing it, the catalyst, and then the follow through, it’s a lot harder. This is probably why in friend and even work groups you have your “thinkers,” that propose or present the idea, your “engage-ers” that keep the catalyst going until the reaction starts, and then the “do-ers” that jump in, keep the party going and are the ingredients to the entire recipe of experience.

And here are some “decisions” that I mad that were largely reactions to my environment.

Dropped contact lens –> decided that it was a good time to open a new pair

my legs hurt –> time for new shoes

have to go to bathroom –> decide to pack up and leave library

The same goes for moods – someone smiling at me makes me smile –> I feel happy, and then I might attribute it to a choice or something i consciously did.

I have a mental list of these – I’ll hold back from being a dork and including them all, you get the idea!!

The important takeaway is that you might identify and tweak tiny barriers to alter your behavior. And just as there are BARRIERS, there are also TRIGGERS. So create barriers for things you don’t want in your life, because they make you experience what my Dad likes to call a “suckfest,” and knock them down for things that might make you smile. And I think that enough crappy stuff will happen “naturally” to provide that valuable contrast of experience, but it’s OK to be a little selfish and want encourage a life made of more positive puzzle pieces.

For my own life? After making all these observations, and realizing how prominent environment is on everyday behavior, I can imagine that when I make any grand or minuscule choice, I will think hugely about the environment and how I might interact with it on a daily basis. I’ll never take a “dream job” in a nasty city without those running and bike paths, and I’ll cut suckfesters from my life that make me feel crappy. I’ve gotten ahead of myself in mentioning people – you might apply this idea of environment affecting behavior to people as well. People that you choose (or like) to be around have a ginormous impact on your behavior, and consequently, how you view and feel about yourself. For another time.

Suggested Citation:
Sochat, Vanessa. "Incentive Barriers." @vsoch (blog), 13 Aug 2008, https://vsoch.github.io/2008/incentive-barriers/ (accessed 12 May 24).