How to do the right thing

Posted April 19, 2010, at 5:30 p.m.

I used to think that if I knew what I should do I would just do it. Remember this, don’t do that, eat right, yada yada — it’s not that hard when you know what you’re supposed to do, right? Wrong, about me, anyway, and probably about you, too.

There is growing evidence that knowing the right thing to do, and wanting to do it, does not get most of us to do the right thing. Knowledge and nagging are not enough; if they were, Americans would be a nation of slim, fit nonsmokers who did not crash their cars while yakking on the cell phone, etc. One answer is hard-wiring — hard-wiring things in your life in a way that makes it harder for you to do the wrong thing and easier for you to do the right thing.

If you leave open the option for an error that has immediate, harsh consequences, even smart, well-meaning people will occasionally fail to pay attention and make the error, because relying on memory to do the right thing is a recipe for failure. When wrong choices have immediate “positive” consequences, and the negative consequences are way down the road, we are even more likely to choose poorly. Whatever the consequences, we need hard-wiring to help us do the right thing.

The simplest hard-wiring puts a small obstruction between you and the wrong thing to do. That is: Don’t buy your favorite junk food and leave it in the house. If it’s there, you are going to eat it. If it’s not there, you have to drive out to get it and have thereby hard-wired a small barrier between you and favorite extra calories. Every little barrier hard-wired in between you and the wrong decision increases the chance you will do the right thing.

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The toughest and most successful hard-wiring removes the option for the wrong choice altogether. You can warn everyone in the house repeatedly not to fall off the back porch you are building, or just put up a railing and hard-wire out the chance of a fall. You can warn your children not to play with your guns, or you can lock up the guns where your children cannot get them. Removing the option for the wrong choice can make a saint out of a demon or a perfectionist out of an idiot.

Changing lifestyle behaviors is harder to hard-wire, but not impossible. If you are trying to exercise more instead of watching TV, make the only furniture in front of the only TV in your house a treadmill. If you keep spending too much money on credit cards, cut up all the cards but the one with a small limit on it that you must pay off monthly. (If you don’t like those hard-wiring methods, find your own.)

Not every wrong action or right action can be hard-wired, however. When that’s the case, a good alternative is to hard-wire reminders and motivation to do the right thing to the point of choice between right and wrong. If you want restaurant employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom, put a sign on the back of the bathroom door (hard-wired — cannot walk out without seeing the sign) saying that employees must (motivation — do the right thing or face potential discipline) wash their hands (reminder).

If you are training yourself not to talk on your cell phone while driving, when you get in the car put a little sticky note on your phone that asks, “Would my family want me to drive as though I am drunk?” Then, when you pick it up to start yakking, you have to look at the note, which reminds you of your intent and your motivation (family that loves you) to stay safe on the road.

Consistently doing the things we know are right more often, and doing the things we know are wrong less often, often requires hard-wired help. Try it sometime; take some habit you are trying to change for the better and build in some hard-wired support for the right choice and against the wrong choice. You may just hard-wire in the chance for a better, longer life.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and is on the staff of several hospital emergency rooms in the region. He is also the interim CEO at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.

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