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Tiny Actions for Big Change

Can we predict what kind of person will do the right thing in critical situations?

Can we predict what kind of person will do the right thing in critical situations?
Back in 1973, a couple of social psychologists were feeling stuck when seemingly obvious traits—like social responsibility—were not predictive. So, they turned to the parable of the Good Samaritan and asked 67 seminary students to deliver a speech on that very subject. They were to write the sermon and then walk to a building across campus to deliver it. Students were randomly split into groups. Upon completing their draft, the first group was told that they were ahead of schedule but may as well head on over. The second group was told that they were late—and to rush over. This difference was key.

En route, students encountered a man in distress. He was slumped in a doorway, moaning and coughing. 63% of the unhurried students stopped to help. Only 10% of the hurried students did the same. In several instances, they literally stepped over the man to get where they were going. That destination was, of course, to preach on the value of helping your neighbour.

Good people often fail to take action
There are some obvious parallels between the experiment above and the events of the last 10 days. But the deep unrest we are experiencing suggests something that goes deeper. Black people are asking why it took this long for so many of us to get halfway serious about combatting racism. They are rightly disappointed with everyone else’s shock. For those reeling at how a nation can attack its own citizens, look up the Tulsa Race Massacre or perhaps Canada’s more passive-aggressive legacies like the Komagata Maru. This stuff might be new to white folks but it’s definitely not new.

I don’t want to go back
You don’t need me telling you what to do or how to think. The internet is so awash in helpful advice that things are feeling much like they did in late-March: overwhelming and deeply uncomfortable. Many people are deeply sincere in their efforts to help. Some are less certain of their impact but wish to express solidarity. And others are using this as a marketing opportunity.

So, how do allies go forward?
That’s the tougher question. The collective support shown over the past week has been tremendous. That is the 24-hour fast or juice-cleanse portion of this diet—the most Instagrammable part. The discipline of small daily actions is what comes next. That’s where the real work lives. Not because the actions themselves are more difficult—they’re not. It’s because they need to be so frequent. This is the kind of thing that requires daily practice and actual behavioural change.

New habits need three things: a true desire to do them, a prompt, and a tiny action
The foundational piece of a habit is wanting to do it. It’s that simple. Fitness—and many other attempts at self-improvement—can get sidetracked by things that are nice to have but not truly in-sync with your deepest values. So, know thyself. Once you have that essential component in place, you need a prompt. We’re assuming that the action is within your abilities (more on that in a moment) but that you first have to remember to do it. An example might be when others want to debate the facts surrounding racially-inspired violence—as if certain qualifiers make it more or less ok. It could be whenever you check the news. Or it might be your own discomfort around a difficult conversation. This is what’s called a Pearl Habit. You notice the irritant and use it as a prompt.

In terms of the habit itself, I’m going to recommend that you go—in the words of behavioural research BJ Fogg—tiny. A tiny habit is—by definition—easy. Yet, choosing that habit can be surprisingly counter-intuitive. We live in a culture that prizes big acts. Drama. Fireworks. Those moments have value. However, any habit that you want to implement in the long-term needs to be small. So small, in fact, that it can withstand the times when you are at your least motivated—when you can barely function, let alone take on new challenges. Going small doesn’t mean that you can’t add more; it just sets a minimum standard for daily actions. Celebrate those actions because they mean something. And then add to them if you have the will to do so.