From Dan Ariely and Shane Parrish's chat on The Knowledge Project:
Dan Ariely: Having rules actually protects us. Imagine you invited me to do something and I said, “I’m sorry. I have a rule. I don’t give more than 10 talks a year, or I don’t do X, or Y, or Z.” You would not feel good saying, “Oh, would you please break your rules once for me?” The moment you have a rule, you basically are elevating something for yourself and for other people. You are creating a standard from it and it helps you protect yourself.
If you think about religions—religions basically create rules and that’s incredibly important for the survival of the decision. So, I think we do need to think about the areas in our life where we don’t behave well and try to create rules for them.
Shane Parrish: Why rules and not habits?
Dan Ariely: Actually, you can think about habits, rules, and rituals as a continuum. Habits are those things that we do without thinking. When you think about the standard definition, a habit is something you do without thinking. You bite your nails, or slouch, or whatever it is. You can’t have a habit of running. You don’t go running and then you say, “Oh, where am I? I have no idea. I was running.”
So, for things that are deliberate and take action, you need something more than a habit, but now you have rules and you have rituals, and there are differences between them. Rituals basically create a higher order meaning. Actually, both rules and rituals have one nice feature, which is that violating them one time, violates the principle. Right?
So, imagine you have a rule that says, “I always recycle.” If you always recycle, one day not recycling is breaking your rule. Or think about somebody like a vegetarian. If you are vegetarian, you never eat meat. It’s not that you say, “I mostly don’t eat meat.” You create this rule that says, “I never do, I always do.”
That helps you understand better where you are on this range. It helps you live according to your standards.
If you said, for example, “I’m going to eat dessert on only one out of every four days,” odds are that you would cheat yourself. You will end up eating more dessert that you wanted. But if you have the rule that says, “I never eat dessert,” or, “I only eat dessert on Saturday,” that would be easier for you to keep.
Then the most interesting one is rituals. Where rituals are, it’s not that they’re—the behavior itself becomes rewarding. If you think about ritualistic handwashing, for example, or whatever it is. You don’t have to wait for the outcome, but the ritual itself makes the behavior better.
Shane Parrish: I think I’ve seen that with just anecdotally with friends, the difference between people who say, “Oh, I’m trying to eat healthier,” versus, “I don’t eat dessert.” Then, so if you’re saying, you don’t, you’re trying to eat healthier then every time you have to make this decision to eat healthier. Whereas, if your rule is, “I don’t eat dessert,” it’s almost like the decision is made for you, and then your default path changes and you have to make the exception to it.
Dan Ariely: Exactly. That’s why it’s so much easier. Right? Whenever you can create the rule for behavior, and even if you give up some flexibility, it’s probably a good idea.
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