The Six Sources of Influence on Human Behavior

We all face crucial moments. We face moments when our colleagues disappoint us, when our boss treats us unfairly, when our spouse lets us down, or our children treat us badly. Even though we know we need to initiate a crucial conversation, we don’t… or when we do, it goes badly. Why?

Here’s what happens: In our minds, we think to ourselves, “I don’t know why they’re acting that way – that’s the way they are. They’re just an idiot and that’s the way they treat people. They’re selfish, lazy, and arrogant, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Many times, we commit what’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error. When looking at other people’s behaviour, we jump to a conclusion. We believe, in that moment, that people do what they do because they’re personally motivated to do so.

This is a very limited view of human behaviour.

We need to find ways to rethink our conclusions if we want to have healthy outcomes in our crucial conversations. If I decide you act the way you do because you are evil and horrible, it’s extremely difficult for me to have an effective confrontation with you because I am filled with judgment. We need to think more broadly and recognise that there are actually six sources that influence human behaviour – not just the one that we so readily conclude.

To illustrate this, let’s say my neighbour who lives across the street from me has an overgrown lawn. It’s looking really bad. In fact, it’s bothering me to the point that I believe it’s affecting the property value of my house. Let’s take a look at the possibilities of what could be influencing my neighbour’s behaviour and try to diagnose the situation.

Source #1 – Personal Motivation

It would be so easy for me to jump to the fundamental attribution error which suggests that the reason my neighbour’s lawn looks like this is… why? He’s lazy! He’s just too lazy to care. Perhaps he doesn’t enjoy mowing. That could be true. But maybe there’s something else going on here.

Source #2 – Personal Ability

It could also be that there’s a personal ability problem. He grew up in the city and never had a lawn of his own. He never learned how to mow a lawn. He personally lacks the skills – the ability – to maintain his lawn.

Source #3 – Social Motivation

Maybe there’s a social motivation issue going on. He is very upset with his wife and so he is making a point. He has decided not to mow the lawn until she treats him right. So now, my issue is with the wife, right? If I want to see change on my neighbour’s behaviour I need to start talking to the people in his family.

Source #4 – Social Ability

We know that there could be a social ability challenge. Maybe he’s looking to re-landscape and he doesn’t know what kinds of plants are indigenous to the area. He’s already rung the local garden centre but nobody’s called him back. He can’t mow until he gets more information.

Source #5 – Structural Motivation

Perhaps there’s a structural motivation issue. There’s no incentive for him. We live in a neighbourhood where there are no council laws dictating that he needs to maintain his lawn. On top of that, he owns his own business. What’s the best use of his time? Earning a living by doing his day job or mowing the lawn when there’s no incentive or reward there?

Source #6 – Structural Ability

And finally, there could be a structural ability problem. Perhaps his lawnmower isn’t working and needs to be fixed? So as keen as he is on having an award-winning lawn, he lacks the tools to do the job.

Each one of these sources can come into play. We often limit ourselves in moments where it’s so tempting to jump to the fundamental attribution error – assuming people are only influenced by personal motivation.

When you roll a die, there are six possible outcomes. In troubling moments, what if we rolled a metaphorical die just to entertain the notion that perhaps it is not source #1 that is causing us grief. Perhaps there are other potential reasons people are acting badly? This forces us to evaluate what those other potential options might look like. Having more information and a better understanding of what the problem might be put us in a better position to confront the issue effectively.

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