November 16, 2023
What can we learn from the parable of the two wolves? What is valuism? Do we choose our own intrinsic values? How quickly do our intrinsic values change over time, if at all? How do values and principles relate to one another? Why is behavior change so hard? What conditions need to be met in order for people to change their behavior? How can people make their behavior changes more persistent and less vulnerable to life's ups and downs?
Eric Zimmer is a behavior coach with 20 years of experience, a Certified Interfaith Spiritual Director, a podcast host, and a writer who is endlessly inspired by the quest for a greater understanding of how our minds work and how we can intentionally create the lives we want to live. He has coached hundreds of people from around the world on how to make significant life changes and create habits that serve them well in achieving the goals they've set for themselves. In addition to his work as a behavior coach, he currently hosts the award-winning podcast, The One You Feed, the title of which is based on an old parable about two wolves at battle within us. Learn more about Eric and his work at oneyoufeed.net.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Eric Zimmer about intrinsic values, personal principles, and behavior change.
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ERIC: We are doing this collaborative episode, but we'll start the way I normally start my show, with the wolf parable as a way of jumping into things. So in the parable, there's a grandparent who's talking with a grandchild. And they say, in life, there are two wolves inside of us that are always at battle. One is a good wolf, which represents things like kindness and bravery and love. And the other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed and hatred and fear. And the grandchild stops to think about it for a second. They look up at their grandparent, and they say, "Well, which one wins?" And the grandparent says, "The one you feed." So I'd love to just know a little bit about how that parable applies to you and your work and your life.
SPENCER: It's funny, I expected you might ask that parable, because you do it in all your episodes. And I was curious what ChatGPT would say. So I plugged it in and had it generate ten different interpretations. [Eric laughs] And then I use that as food for thought as I was thinking, "Well, which interpretation speaks to me the most?" And I think for me, the interpretation of that parable I like is thinking about what are the underlying values that lead to our decisions. When you're operating, are you operating out of fear? Are you operating out of trying to help others? Are you operating out of trying to make yourself happy? And these underlying values that actually guide our decisions, to me, seem incredibly important and relate a lot to my own life philosophy.
ERIC: Yeah, I may have to do that to ChatGPT myself. How did you phrase the question?
SPENCER: I think I just said, "In the famous parable about which wolf do you feed, what are ten different interpretations you could have?" and just generated them.
ERIC: We could probably spend the entire conversation on AI, but I don't think we will. You mentioned values, and you've got a philosophy you call valuism. And I think values are really interesting because, as you mentioned, we often don't think about them. And then also, often, they are in conflict with each other. And the other problem I often find with them is that I have too many of them. I went through and took your values test and I'm going along fine until it's like, "Well, pick the most important one out of my list of (like) 40," and then I'm just stumped. And so when you are at that point, how do you narrow?
SPENCER: That's a good question. And for anyone interested, we have our Intrinsic Values Test that you can take on our website, clearerthinking.org. Yeah, so people tend to have quite a lot of values. If we look at the most important values they have, they usually will have something like ten to 15 of them, which is still quite a decent number. But then people might have dozens more that are somewhat important to them. One thing that I think about is that the values won't all equally be activated in your life. You might find that some of them come up a lot, and others maybe don't come up that much. One thing that I feel in my life is that I'm trying to balance three things a lot of times: one is my own happiness, which is one of my intrinsic values. Second is the well-being of my loved ones, which is another intrinsic value of mine. And the third is reducing suffering in the world broadly to all sentient beings. And so sometimes they come in tension because, well, do I spend another four hours working or do I go relax? Do I spend more time with my girlfriend or do I take on that extra project? I'm wondering, for you, when you think about your own values, do you feel that certain ones come up more for you?
ERIC: Yeah, I think the core tension is the one you've just illustrated, which is that I've got certain values around things I want to do in the world. Reducing suffering is one of my top values, just broadly speaking. Obviously, our loved ones — I have a son, I've got my partner Ginny, good friends — and then wanting to have pleasurable experiences and enjoy my own life. I find that core tension between what I would call, on one hand, my time, and then the time that I give to the world, is the core tension I feel in values. And I feel like it's just, once upon a time, I would have dreamt of a state where these things get resolved. But I actually think the act of being a human is continuing to be something I have to think about and live into and wonder, "Is it shifting? Am I too far over? Oh, yeah, I am a little too far over that way. Okay, I need to move back this way." And so yeah, I think that's my core challenge.
SPENCER: Yeah. And I think that's probably one that many people face: work versus self versus family or loved ones. But I think a lot of people also will have additional ones, too. For example, I have an additional intrinsic value that's really strong around truth. So whenever there's something where it's like, "Well, I could lie to protect someone, but then I'm lying, and that really bothers me." Or like, "Oh, if I said this thing perfectly accurately, it wouldn't be as persuasive." But then that's gonna bother my intrinsic value, like, "No, no, I need to say it accurately." So I'm wondering, besides those three, do you see other big intrinsic values yourself that come up?
ERIC: I think freedom is one that comes up a lot. But as I think about freedom, I actually mean it on a couple of different levels, which then I just go, "Well, since I value both of these things, I'll just group it and say freedom's a big value." One is the freedom to be autonomous, to do the things that I want to do, assuming they don't harm other people. But then more is an internal freedom from being shackled to the ego, the part of me that's very focused on protecting and enhancing Eric as a character, in a sense. I want freedom from that. In the AA big book, they call it 'bondage of self.' So that's one for me; that's an important freedom to me.
SPENCER: Could you unpack that? Because it seems like there's a lot there, freedom from self. What does that mean to you?
ERIC: Well, in the Buddhist tradition, there's an idea that's known as anatta or no self, which posits that this thing that seems really solid in us — Eric — is a collection of all these different things. We're just a collection of processes that are running. Being too attached to Eric, and I primarily mean ego-wise... Some of the biggest freedoms I've had in my life have been when, all of a sudden, through one mechanism or other, the concern about how I am perceived in the world — about how others see me, about how much my self is being protected — when those have fallen away, I've experienced a great deal of freedom. But also — and you talk about this in your values work — there's these different things that impinge upon our values: our traumas, and even if we wanted to talk about lowercase "T" trauma, just the conditioning, our families, some of freedom of the bondage of self is being free from any of that, that I have been dragging around with me
SPENCER: I had an interesting experience where a friend of mine was feeling very depressed. And she had a sense that it had something to do with her partner, that there's something wrong in her relationship. And she's like, "I don't understand. I'm so unhappy. But he's such a great guy." And so we did this little exercise. I had her sit down, and I had her list out the ways that he's a great guy. And then I had her list out her own values. And the funny thing is that there was no overlap. And she was right; he was a great guy, just not a great guy according to her own values. And then I had her write out her parents' values. And he was just perfect according to her parents' values. [both laugh]
ERIC: Yeah. Such a great point. And I'm curious how you think about this because our values, we want them to be as much ours as we can, but we are just a combination of all the conditioning that we've had before us. Everything we are is a result of past causes and conditions, countless ones. Figuring out the me in all that, what do I really believe, I find to be an interesting exercise. How do you think about that?
SPENCER: Yeah, I don't think we choose our values. I think we have values. We can go through this process of understanding them better and exploring them. But I think that they're something that is a part of us, like our personality, for example. And I think they come about through a combination of genetics — our genes make it possible to have values at all and may make it more likely to have some versus others — and then obviously, our upbringing, and then our culture and all these things. And I think by the time people reach mid-adulthood, I think their values have often solidified pretty strongly. They could still shift a little bit, but I don't really think of it as like, okay, you're gonna go try to change your values to something else because, well, why would you do that unless maybe you had a meta value of changing your values or something like that. But normally, it's more about, okay, let me try to figure out my values and then try to live according to them, and this gets to my life philosophy, which I call valuism, which is a very simple life philosophy, but there's a lot of interesting implications of it. Very simply stated, it says, try to figure out what your intrinsic values are, and then try to live in such a way as to effectively create more of the things that you intrinsically value. By 'effectively,' I mean using effective methods. And just to add a little clarification here, why do I say intrinsic value? What do I mean by that rather than just a value? Because I think value, intrinsic value, it's actually an important distinction. There are tons of things that we value, for example, cash. Almost everyone values having cash because you can do a lot of stuff with it. But you don't value cash intrinsically, because you wouldn't value it if you couldn't do anything with it. Intrinsic values, we value for their own sake, not as a means to an end; whereas values are just things that we care about for any reason, just to clarify for the listeners.
ERIC: And I think that's an important distinction because, often what we think we value, if we go a couple levels deeper, starts to transform. I think part of the freedom in that is... My partner, Ginny, said it well in relation to food and emotional eating. She said, "If I think that what I want is a cupcake, there's only one answer for that; it's a cupcake. If what I recognize that I really want is not to be bored or not to be sad, there's a lot of ways to get to that." And I think, to your point, if we can get underneath to what the intrinsic value is, there's lots of different strategies there versus being stuck on, "It's money." Okay, well, why? "Oh, it's freedom." Okay, there are other ways towards freedom. So I think that's a really important point.
SPENCER: That's a really great way to say it. And I think that goes to one of the reasons why it can be useful to think about your intrinsic values, because they're the underlying why of why you want the stuff that you want. And then that means that you have the diversity of strategies to get them. And I think it's very common for people to anchor on a particular life strategy. Maybe they learned when they were young, "Oh, you should go get a degree because that's the way to have a good life," or, "You should get this type of career because that's respectable," or whatever. But then it's like, "Wait, but why are you doing that?" Because if you realize why you're doing that, maybe there's a different strategy that gets you even more of what you want.
ERIC: Yep. And I do think untangling some of our — I'll use the word because you used it — traumas (but we could just say psychological baggage) is really helpful, because I've been driven in my life a lot of times towards certain things that felt like that's what I wanted more than anything in the world, heroin being one example of that in my life. But it could be women, it could be anything where that's just the whole focus. And it seems so clear and real, but it's being driven out of a wound. I think it can be difficult as we are all on some part of a healing journey to separate those things. What do I really value versus what am I being pushed towards valuing because it makes me feel better, safer?
SPENCER: Yeah, I'm glad that you brought up heroin as an example because I think it's such an interesting example. People might want to dismiss it, saying, "Oh, it's completely out of line with your values." But I think in practice, what's happening is it's taking one value, like pleasure, or another value, like the alleviation of your own suffering, and putting them in front of all your other values. So giving you something that you want is just destroying everything else in the process.
ERIC: The value that drugs and alcohol gave me was a value I really have, which was to feel connected to people and the world around me, to have an experience of being alive, of being here, of being present. And that's what drugs and alcohol, at least in the beginning, did. They brought the world to life for me. It was, in the beginning, deeply tied to some values of mine. Carl Jung made the point to Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, that isn't it interesting that the word 'spirits' for alcohol is the same word we use 'spirit' for, this deeper, more meaningful connection to something bigger than us. And so, yeah, I think you're right. But then over time, that crowds out every other value, and that's a pretty good example of what addiction is.
SPENCER: That's really interesting that the motivation was less around pleasure and more around feeling alive. What was that like for you when you were doing drugs originally? And how did that contrast with how you felt not on them?
ERIC: There's a line in an old movie. I think it's called "Days of Wine and Roses;" I could be wrong about this. But it's a movie and there's two alcoholic lead characters, and one of them goes on to get sober and he's trying to get his wife to do it. And there's just this very memorable scene where she's describing to him and she says, "It's like life is in black and white. And when I drink, it turns to color." That's the best way I can describe it. Now, why did I feel that way? I don't know. My guess, if I run it all through psychology and different theories, is that my home environment wasn't a particularly safe place to have feelings or emotions and so I deadened everything. And while deadening the bad, I deadened the good, everything. By the time I was nine, I was a kleptomaniac. And it wasn't because I wanted all these things that I stole. Occasionally, I did, sure, but I felt alive. Something in my life, I think, caused me to deaden, and for whatever reason, alcohol and drugs brought it alive. The tragic cycle of addiction is, after a certain amount of time — as we said that alcohol or drugs crowd out all your other values — you start to feel bad about that. And as you feel bad about that, the only way you know to cope with that feeling bad is to drink or get high, which then causes you to crowd out...and that's the downward spiral. So over time, I think it morphed from connection to just deadening pain, the pain of being the person I was at that point, of having basically given everything that I had once valued over to getting high. Then it starts to cause such feelings of self-loathing and shame that you begin to have to medicate those.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think this touches on a really useful point, which is that unhelpful behaviors almost always are doing something helpful, and to just treat that behavior as totally pointless or ridiculous is to miss the point. No, you're actually doing it for some reason, very likely, and then actually identifying that reason... If somehow, you could identify, "Oh, wait a minute, drugs are appealing to me because I don't feel alive. Otherwise, I wonder if there's another way to feel alive." And so I'm wondering, does life feel like it's in color now for you? And if so, how did you get there without drugs?
ERIC: I will say that it doesn't feel in color to me the same way that certain drug experiences did. But those were, I think, when they talk about the idea of (this isn't the right word) 'superfoods.' That's not it.
SPENCER: Super stimulus?
ERIC: Yeah, super stimulus, right. So it was even beyond. But I would say in general, yes, life does feel more alive and I do feel more connected. But what I realized coming out of addiction was that I think I had depression and my depression shows up, not as sadness, but as deadness. So that's been an ongoing thing that I've worked with throughout my adult life. But yes, I would say that I'm at a point where I'm 15 years sober now, and I had been sober eight years before that, so the vast majority of my adult life. And life feels in color enough that I've not felt any need and I'm not tempted to go back there. And how did I do it? To go back to what we were talking about, I think I tried to live by my values and recognize the satisfaction in that. I think we both share an interesting behavior change. And I think one thing that really helps in behavior change — the maintenance of it — is to recognize that the behavior feels good, whether it's the direct result of the behavior or the way you feel about yourself because you're doing what you said you were gonna do. There's a quiet satisfaction to that, that I think I got better at tuning into. And then I've just learned that things like creating art make me feel alive; being around art and beauty makes me feel alive. So I found the places that it's there for me and learned to tolerate better, the periods where it doesn't feel that way so much, where a depressive mood or episode comes in, and I just don't react to it. And I just go, "Alright, well, for whatever reason, they seem to come from time to time. I think it's gonna pass," not making such a big deal out of it, not making it worse, I guess would be the way to say it.
SPENCER: This reminds me of something I've observed and I wonder if you've observed the same thing where, if one of your really important values is not getting satisfied, it tends to pull more strongly? It can become almost overpowering because it's missing; whereas, if you get enough of it, then it will shut up and be satiated? I'm curious to hear your experience around that.
ERIC: Well, maybe I'll put that back to you a little bit. It seems to me that that phenomenon is very real. And what can happen, what I've seen happen in others and in myself, is this big pendulum swing. So it gets over-prioritized and the pendulum swings way over and then the other one, and it swings back. And I think for me, a lot of it has been, how do I not have that pendulum swinging so much from one extreme to the other extreme of my values, but that I'm honoring them all a little bit. That's one of the key strategies that you talk about is, you gotta keep them all in mind, and you gotta recognize where the conflicts are. I think that's often what we miss. We aren't conscious of the value conflict that's coming up. We're not making it explicit enough in our own minds so that we can take it head on.
SPENCER: Yeah, I've been using this technique a lot lately, both in my own life, as well as when a friend brings a problem that they're grappling with and asks my thoughts on it, is to try to just sit down and say, "Well, what are the values at stake here?" And then, once you figure out the values at stake, — and they have to be the values for that person, because different people have different intrinsic values — once you figure out the values for that person that are at stake, then you can say, "Okay, so really, this choice you're making is a trade-off between value A and B versus value C and D." And I found doing that for myself and others, it can be incredibly clarifying. It's like, "Oh, wait, that's why this is such a hard decision, because I actually really care about both of those sets of things." An example of this would be a friend of mine came with a challenge she was having with a friend of hers. And basically, she could either help that friend with a project, which she wanted to do, because she cares about her friend and she wants her friend to succeed. But in doing so, it would be giving up on one of her own goals that she cares about. And that's like, "Oh, yeah, of course, that's a hard decision, because you genuinely really value both of those things." That doesn't mean that the decision's automatically made, but at least now, you know what's at stake. You've really clearly identified it and now you can say, "Well, in this particular case, which of these do you value more on the margin?"
ERIC: How do you, in your own life and in people that you're talking to, then go about trying to resolve that conflict? Because even after clarifying it, it's still like, "I don't know."
SPENCER: Well, the first thing I like to try to do is say, "Hmm, could there be some third option that's missing, that actually satisfies both sets of values at stake?" It may be that there's not as much of a trade-off as it seems. We've actually done some research on this. We run a lot of psychology studies, and we were building this tool called the Decision Advisor. It's a tool on our website that will walk you through a difficult life decision. And in developing it, we ran some studies, and in one of those studies, we asked half of the people to just use the tool as normal and we asked the other half to come up with an extra option for what they could do in their decision that they had never thought of before. And we just said, "You're not allowed to proceed until you come up with more options." It was a small study so I wouldn't generalize too much. But something like 20 or 25% of the people ended up choosing that new option as their preferred one. And it just really got me thinking, "Wow, we often just get stuck on our first two options we're considering."
ERIC: Yeah. I talk about this in the spiritual habits program. I talk about two scenarios in my life, where a third option was the right choice. And the first was when I wanted to start a solar energy company but I still worked full-time in the software business. And I felt like my options were either to start the solar energy company, or give up that dream and stay in the software business. Neither of those choices felt palatable to me. The third way was, okay, I'm gonna just have to find a way to do both, which is gonna have its own set of sacrifices and challenges. But it was a path forward for me; whereas before that, I got stuck in that dichotomy, in that apparent only one or two choices, and always defaulted to the choice that there was the most pressure on me to do, which was to stay in a job. But then the other thing was, in a really difficult marriage, I was so fixated on go or stay, go or stay, what we eventually did — I don't have the foggiest idea quite how we got here. I feel extraordinarily fortunate — we got to a point where we said, "You know what? We value the home we have for our kids, her son and my son. We value this home. They're in high school, and we want them to get through high school. So we're going to remain as a family unit. But we're not going to be a couple anymore." And I'm not saying everybody can do that. But we were able to, and it turned out to be an incredible solution that got me out of the stay or go, which we had been mired in for years because we didn't see that there was any other option.
SPENCER: Yeah, that's such a good example. I think most people wouldn't even consider that, because it's so standard; you're either with the person or you're not with the person.
ERIC: Yeah, it turned out great. We got the kids through high school, and everybody did well. And then we completely separated and went on with our lives. The boys are good, We're good. Again, I don't quite know how we made that happen. It feels very fortunate. But it was a way of getting out of what had been a very stuck place for a number of years.
SPENCER: And so coming up with a third option, obviously, that can be a great approach. And I think people underuse it. But another interesting approach is that you could say, "Well, in this particular case, maybe I will sacrifice some of one of my values for another. But there's a larger game here. And maybe I can promote that other value in a different way in my life." So you can view it as part of a bigger picture. It's not just, "This is the only decision in my life."
ERIC: Yeah, yeah. As I was looking through your writings on valuism in this conflict, one of the things that struck me was taking a longer view of it because, at the moment, there may not be a resolution right here. There may be a resolution down the road. For me, eventually, the problem went away between solar company and job, or podcast and job where, "For now, it's the podcast and I'm gonna do that full-time," that went away. But it took a while of doing that sort of third thing.
ERIC: One of the things I admire about the work that you do is, you are very good at categorizing things. We were talking about this before the interview. You've chosen to take this applied mathematics background, PhD, and apply it to psychology. And so on the topic of values, you've got your Intrinsic Values Test. There's a lot of different ways that people propose going about finding out what your values are. Did you, when you created that test, go out and look at a lot of the different ways that people do and try to boil it down? And what's salient about trying to figure out our values? Because there are lots of different ways in there.
SPENCER: Yeah. We started that project looking at the ways that values have been categorized before. We looked at the way philosophers have categorized them, because they think about them with regard to ethics. We looked at the way political scientists had done it; they think about it in terms of different countries having different values that they tend to promote. We looked at how even human resources and career counselors categorize them, because they want to think, "Well, what job would be appropriate based on what you care about?" We looked at all of these, we tried to merge them together, and then we ran our own study. And the way it worked is, we put people through a little mini module that explained to them, what is an intrinsic value, how is it different from an instrumental value. And then we said, "Okay, just generate some of your values, just write them down." And then we went through, and we ended up with 3000, and we duplicated them. We tried to find ones that were unique. And then we started trying to categorize them, and say, "Well, how many different categories of them are there?" and we came up with 22 categories. It's a lot. It's not the sort of thing you can just say in a sound bite but, yeah, we have 22 categories, everything from caring about longevity — living a long time — to pleasure, to justice, to quality, and so on. So there really are a lot of things that humans value. And it really helped me appreciate just what a wide range of different sorts of people there are in the world because, for any one of these, there are people for whom that is their big, most dominant value.
ERIC: Yeah, you've got a values wheel on the website. And I didn't feel like there were 22 categories.
SPENCER: There are. There are 22 on there, yeah.
ERIC: There are 22 values, but you actually then further categorize them into like preserve, or...
SPENCER: Ah, yeah, yeah. We do a hierarchical categorization. If I recall correctly, there's four meta level categories. Yeah, then there's 22 categories. And then in each category, there can be multiple different intrinsic values. Take the value of longevity. You might care about yourself living a long time, but you also might care about your loved ones living a long time, and so on. So you can apply that value to different things.
ERIC: This happens to me every time I try and do values. I get a really big list. And this is entirely coherent with my personality. If you ask me to take any test, I just tend to fall right in the middle. I just seem to encompass a lot of different things. And so longevity came up as one for me. I started thinking that that can be an intrinsic value. But I started reflecting on what about longevity feels important? Is it the chance to experience more pleasure, which would then be back to the value of pleasure. Is it to relieve more suffering in the world? Well, in that case, it's more... So even thinking about it in that way caused me to dial deeper into what is an intrinsic value, to try and understand a little bit more about what about that feels important?
SPENCER: Yeah, that's a great point because, while longevity might be an intrinsic value for some people, it might be instrumental for others. If they only care about it because it gets them more pleasure, well then, it's not intrinsic. It's just a means to an end — to get pleasure — so then pleasure would be the intrinsic value. It can be tricky to think about the difference between what our own instrumental values are versus intrinsic because that's not the way our brain naturally codes them. And there's this idea that I like to think of, of a value trap, which is when you pursue an instrumental value as though it's an intrinsic value. A classic example would be someone just pursuing money mindlessly because it was rewarding and they thought of it as how they get ahead, and so on. And they pursue it way past the point where it's giving them the things they care about, because now they're wealthy, but their family life is shit, and they have no friends, and whatever. All these other parts of their life are not working the way they would want. I think that is a useful clarification.
ERIC: Yeah, I think you're pointing to something there which is interesting, which is, we often get our values — I don't want to say 'set' because it's not even that conscious — but that we get on a track and we just stay on that track. Living a values-based life or valuism, as you say, I think does take a certain amount of consistent and ongoing reflection about what really matters. Do you find that true for you?
SPENCER: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it does take a lot of reflection to really parse out your values. We created the Intrinsic Values Test to try to make it a bit easier. But, yeah, reflection is definitely a big part of it. And you can get into subtle situations. You're like, "Hmm, but do I really care about that thing?" like when you were dealing with longevity. Do I really care about longevity? Or do I just care about it as a means to an end? Yeah, there's no way around it. I think a lot of self-understanding can only happen through this kind of deep reflection.
ERIC: Do you think that values change over time?
SPENCER: I think they can shift. Sometimes they shift due to changes about our beliefs. For example, someone who's deeply spiritual, let's say, when they become an atheist, that can cause a sudden change in their values because they had different beliefs about the nature of reality. Sometimes that causes it. Sometimes I think that social forces can change your values slowly over time. Let's say you were isolated on a desert island with people who all deeply cared about equality and that was the one thing they all cared about. Maybe after ten years, maybe you would find that had seeped into your value system, even if you didn't start out caring about equality. I suspect that we will absorb them. And when we're young, we absorb them a lot. I think as we get older, we become more impervious to other people's values.
ERIC: Why do you think that is? Why do you think we, as we get older, (the term I often use is) calcify, which is one of the things about getting older that (just talking about values) feels important to me, which is to not calcify, to remain in a state where life can influence and change me and that I can evolve?
SPENCER: Yeah, and that's something that I care about deeply, as well. And actually, one of the more common intrinsic values we found when we surveyed people, is values around continuing to learn and grow. That's really common, in the US especially, as a value. I think I go back to biology and evolution here. I think evolutionarily, if you're a baby, there's just an incredible amount of stuff you need to learn in order to not die. And then as you get more and more of that knowledge, there's less incremental value in learning relative to doing stuff in the world. And so we go from a baby that's learning constantly and doing almost nothing, to a child who's learning a lot and doing a little bit, and then eventually, we're an adult, who's learning a little bit and doing a lot. From the point of view of the survival of our genes, that probably makes sense. But from our personal fulfillment, I think there's a great deal of value in continuing to learn and grow — not necessarily changing our values because I don't think that's something you should purposely try to do — but in terms of learning about the world, learning about yourself, deepening your self-understanding, and so on.
ERIC: I heard somebody once say — and I'm just curious what you think of this general idea. I'm not going to attribute it to anyone because I think I know who said it, but I'm not going to attribute it because I'm not sure — basically that self-development is about learning to want better things. I think I can interpret it on a couple levels. On the level that we've been talking about, I think it means that I'm getting clear on what my real values are, and I'm seeing through the values trap. I'm seeing the conflicts. I'm reflecting more deeply on what really matters. I'm not on autopilot. I'm not grasping for what's the most easy and satisfying thing necessarily so that, over time, I'm beginning to want better things. For me, with addiction, it was that process of going from, "Well, I want heroin," to "What do I really want?" and then trying to aim at that. What do you think?
SPENCER: It's interesting, I don't like the phrasing, 'want better things,' because I worry that people will get confused and think, "Oh, want better things like want the highest things in life or want the fancy things," or something.
ERIC: Yeah, I mean it more along a more moral, deeper sense of things.
SPENCER: Right. You want the things that you more fundamentally care about, not the things you superficially care about. From that point of view, I think that makes a lot of sense. One thing we haven't touched on, which I think is quite interesting, is the difference between values and principles. I've been thinking about this recently because, for our website, clearerthinking.org, we actually made a new module where you can explore your principles.
ERIC: I would love to hear the difference.
SPENCER: I think of it as, a principle is like a rule of thumb or like a decision-making strategy; whereas the intrinsic values are the thing that you're ultimately seeking. For example, one thing that I might be fundamentally seeking is helping people and a strategy to do that might be that I always tell the truth or something like that. So the principle would be to always tell the truth — it's like a heuristic — but there's an intrinsic value I'm trying to get at under that, which is to try to help people, not harm them, or something like that. So I think it's interesting thinking about what principles you have. Essentially, they're things you pre-decided so you could go about your life, and every decision, from first principles, you could try to figure out, "Well, what am I going to do?" But it's a lot easier if you have a preset set of principles that are like, "Ah, well, these are rules of thumb to how I live my life." And so some examples, which I think can help clarify, one principle I have is that, insofar as I'm able, I should always be trying to help the world. That's just the life principle I try to apply. Or another example would be that I try to always tell the truth unless I think that it's gonna bump up against my other values too much. I don't infinitely care about the truth. At some point, it would destroy my other values too much. But insofar as it's not bumping up against my other values, I always try to tell the truth. I'm curious if you have other principles that you try to live by, rules of thumb for living.
ERIC: That's interesting because I don't think up till now I made that distinction. I would have thought of principles and values as two ways of saying the same thing. But interestingly, a principle I generally live by (it sounds so kindergarten-ish) is, I try and leave each situation, person or place that I encounter better than when I found it.
SPENCER: That's a great principle.
ERIC: And there's almost always some way to at least make that attempt. I don't think it always happens, like if I made Gotham production studios better for being here this week. I've been friendly, I've been kind. Did I make it better? I don't know. But I tried. I was oriented in that way. I'm trying to think of other principles. That's really interesting, other rules of thumb.
SPENCER: Yeah. And they're essentially decision-making strategies so that, rather than having to deal with all the details and complexity, you can just say, "Well, my principle's to do this." So they allow you to make your decisions faster. But they also actually can often make it easier to live by your values. So for example, if you have a principle like 'don't lie,' well, that's gonna support your value of honesty. And then when you're in a situation, you're like, "Hmm, should I lie? No, I don't lie." You're trying to pre-decide so that temptation and all these other factors don't push you over into doing something that's not aligned with your values.
ERIC: That makes sense. We spent a lot of time talking about values and that living according to your values is really important. The way that we live out many things in our life is through our behavior, and oftentimes, we may have a value that we haven't yet figured out how to live into. I may value physical health but I haven't figured out how to exercise regularly. That leads us into another area that you and I both are really interested in, which is behavior change. Talk to me about what got you interested in behavior change?
SPENCER: As I thought about the effects I want to have in the world, the kind of values I have of trying to increase happiness, reduce suffering, I started to realize that so many of those values actually have to do with behavior, whether it's mental health (which is something that I've worked in), or reducing cognitive biases and irrationality, so many of these things are actually fundamentally behavioral. And then I started thinking, "Well, changing human behavior, that's really hard. People want to go to the gym, and then they don't do it. People want to spend more time with their family, and then they don't do it," and so on. So many challenges we face in our life are because we can't get ourselves to act the way we want to act. So then I started really systematically investigating this. We ended up looking at 16 different behavior change frameworks that are out there, studied them, tried to really understand them. And then we said, "Okay, where do we see a gap here?" And what we realized is that we tended to find a few different types of behavior change frameworks out there. They're really simplified ones, which can be really useful to provide some basic guidelines, but they're not trying to be comprehensive. The Hook framework would be an example of this, the idea that you're trying to make a behavior change. 'Well, here's two things to keep in mind, or here's three things to keep in mind.' That's on the one hand. On the other hand, we found these academic frameworks that are much more comprehensive but they're hard to apply on a step-by-step fashion. So how do you use this? What we wanted to do is try to create a framework that was comprehensive, so all behavior change strategies can fit in it somewhere, but also gives a step-by-step process that you can go through. And so we created this framework we call Ten Conditions for Change; you can find it on our website. But basically, the general idea is, it's trying to identify ten conditions where, if they're all met, a behavior change is very likely to occur. You get the ten conditions in place, behavior change is likely. What that means is, if the behavior change is not happening, the person is not engaging in that behavior, then one or more of the conditions is not met. And therefore you can use it as a diagnostic. You go through and you try to pinpoint, which of the conditions are not met. That's the basic concept.
ERIC: Hold that for a second. I want to jump back to something you just said a minute ago, which was your values around increasing happiness and reducing suffering. Do you see those as the same thing?
SPENCER: I don't necessarily. I think that some people care a lot more about reducing suffering. For example, they view it as very charitable to try to help alleviate pain of people who have disabilities. But they wouldn't necessarily view it as that important to take people who are neutral and make them really happy. They just view it as, "That's not as motivating for me." I think I'm genuinely motivated by both. I'm really motivated by, when someone's suffering, it's really bad, and I think it's really good to help them not suffer. But I also am really motivated by, "Okay, someone's doing okay, but they could be really joyful," and that's really inspiring to me, too. I care about both of those things and not everyone does. Sometimes people just care about one more than the other.
ERIC: Yeah, it's interesting. I would have said earlier in my life, I was more on the reducing suffering side. Having been an addict, I spent a lot of my early time with other people who were at the low levels of human functioning, lives sort of burned to the ground. But then as I've gotten healthier, I've started to broaden that to also like, "Okay, well, how do we also increase happiness?" Like you, I feel like I value them both. I've tried to tweeze apart: do I value one more than the other? And I end up in a place where I think I value them fairly equally.
SPENCER: Yeah. There really are just a huge number of people who are doing okay, but they're not flourishing, and that seems to me like a very important problem. I don't think it's more important than preventing basic disease or poverty or really bad things that are causing a lot of suffering. I don't think it's more important than that, but I do think it's important.
ERIC: I want to ask a more fundamental question about behavior change and tie it back to values. We said that one of the things that can be problematic is when our values are in conflict with each other. I value health and going to the gym, but I also value the time I spend with my kids in the morning. In your framework for behavior change, I'm assuming there's a way of recognizing that tension between values and trying to figure out which you want to prioritize.
SPENCER: We approach behavior change in the framework, not starting with values, but starting with the behavior. So, okay, you've decided that this behavior is good according to your values, and you'll be better off living with it. Now what? That's the starting point. I think of it as coming in stages. There's like, okay, figuring out what you value, and then figuring out what you want to do based on what you value, and then getting yourself to do that thing, or actually creating the behavior. And so this is the ladder step where you figure out your values, you figure out what you want to do and how you want to behave based on the values, but you're not living up to them. Now we get into the behavior change component.
ERIC: When I look at your framework (I don't have it in front of me), in the early phases of it, there was clarification around why this is important to me and clarification around intention, which seems like it is a little bit of the reflection on values, because I do think that a lot of behavior change problems are competing commitment idea, which could be called competing value idea. And like we've said earlier, I think, the more we can surface that, the better off we are, because they're often unstated, unknown, ununderstood, but they exert a tremendous pull.
SPENCER: And I think one of the points of tension here is that our framework can be used at the societal level, like, "Oh, how do we help people exercise more, who want to exercise more?" or can be applied at the individual level. I think you're coming from more the individual level, self-applied. But I'm also keeping in my mind the societal level. You're trying to create positive outcomes in society. But as you point out, values do come into it indirectly. Because if we go through the beginning of the framework, the framework divides behavior change into three phases. The first phase is about the decision to engage in the behavior. The second phase is about taking a series of actions over time. And the third phase is about maintenance, keeping up with the conditions and not letting them lapse. In the decision phase, when you're deciding to engage in behavior — let's say, going to the gym five days a week, let's say that's the behavior in question — the first condition is, have you considered it? If you've literally never considered going to the gym, you're almost certainly not going to do it. The second condition though, is desiring it and now you're starting to get values coming into play. If you don't desire to go to the gym, of course, you're not going to do it. But well, what kinds of desires are there? And now we unpack that into two types of desire. We've got intuitive desire like, "I want to eat that cupcake. It looks delicious," and a reflective desire, like, "Oh, I've weighed the pros and cons and decided I really should do this thing because it's good for me." A lot of value stuff will come into that second condition, the desires condition. An example of why someone might not go to the gym is that they actually just don't desire it. And then there'll be an exploration there of, but do you desire being healthy, and you could start to unpack that and reflect on that. If you really desire being healthy, and you also believe that going to the gym will make you healthy, and you won't be healthy otherwise, maybe you could stoke that desire, and now you have a desire to go to the gym.
ERIC: For me, part of maintenance particularly — and I'm jumping ahead to maintenance (a little bit) — of a behavior though is, is there a way to shift that from entirely reflective to also being intuitive? For me, a huge shift in my ability to stay consistent with exercise was when I realized the very short-term benefit on my own mental health and my moods. When I made that connection really solidly, exercise went from reflective (it's good for me down the road, it's going to prevent these conditions, etc.) to intuitive (I want to feel better now), this actually works to do that.
SPENCER: That's such a great point. The way we think about this is, you really need that desire condition to be met. There's two types: intuitive or reflective. It's really best to have both. That's the best. An example is, if you're going to go exercise, and you don't like going to the gym, pick a different type of exercise. Pick the type of exercise that gives you the most immediate reward, and also remind yourself that this is making you healthy so you're gonna spend time with your grandkids. You want both the reflection pulling on it, and the intuition pulling on it. Because, with just the reflection, maybe, "Oh, I don't feel like going to the gym today," then maybe you're just not gonna do it.
ERIC: There were a couple of psychological studies. I'm not going to be able to quote them or reference them. And maybe you've heard of this, or maybe you haven't. But I've always wondered about them ever since I heard them, which was that multiple motivations in doing something could actually weaken your overall desire to do it. And that has always felt deeply counterintuitive to me. What do you think about that? Have you ever heard of that sort of research? And if so, what do you think? And if not, what do you think?
SPENCER: It does remind me of something I think is true, which is that if someone's trying to convince you of something, and they give you the ten reasons they're right and you should do this thing, that can often be weaker than if they just focus on the two most persuasive reasons and really hone in on those. I think in interpersonal communication, we're talking about motivating another person.
ERIC: But this is more internal. Their point was that, if you suddenly go to the gym because it helps your mental health, it contributes to your long-term health, it makes you look better, when you start layering those on top of each other, you actually end up with a weaker case than if you're just very solidly motivated by one thing. Again, to me, that's always felt deeply counterintuitive.
SPENCER: Let's say you've got five reasons to go to the gym. The first one is a ten out of ten, and the other ones are one out of ten in importance. I don't think having those extra one-out-of-tens is going to make you less likely to go to the gym, as long as you got the ten-out-of-ten there. But if we're talking about comparing one ten-out-of-ten versus ten one-out-of-tens, well, maybe that one ten-out-of-ten will get you to the gym more. So one really strong reason might be better than a lot of weak reasons. But I don't think adding extra weak reasons is gonna demotivate you.
ERIC: Because I've always just found that, like you said, there's these two types of desires — I think that's the term you used — the intuitive and reflective. I've just found that, on different days, I need to pull on different reasons. One day, it might be the fact that, for whatever reason, I've been to the doctor recently, and I've seen my cholesterol levels, and all of a sudden, I'm more motivated than I normally am by long-term health. That's one that drives me and I can pull on that. And then there are other days where I'm like, "Well, it doesn't even seem to matter right now. I know it does, but I don't feel it." But knowing that I'll feel better in an hour does matter. And so I've always found having a menu of them more helpful.
SPENCER: Yeah, I agree with you.
ERIC: So there's the decisional.
SPENCER: Yeah. And maybe I should have mentioned the third and final condition of the decision phase which is intending to engage in the behavior. And this was a really interesting one, and it comes up, I think, a lot in addiction as well. You might think, "Oh, well, if someone's considered a behavior change, and they desire it, they're going to do it." Not so. People often have considered something and desire it but don't actually intend to do it. And why might I not have the intent? "Well, I'm so busy right now. I'll get that next month," or "Hmm, I don't know where to start," and so they just never take that first step. The intention part is when it goes from just an abstract idea to concrete, "Oh, I'm going to start this on Monday," or "I'm going to go to this particular gym."
ERIC: Yeah, in talking with people about behavior change, I often will say, you're not even at the point where you're procrastinating yet, because you haven't actually decided what you're going to do. [both laugh] To your point, you say that you want to exercise more, that that's a value, but we've gotten nowhere near an actual plan yet. I wouldn't even say you're procrastinating on an activity because you're still in, as you would say, that intention-setting phase where I get specific about what I'm actually going to do. And that's one of the things I find so helpful about that specificity — at least in the beginning, of Monday morning, I'm doing this and I'm doing it for this long — it pushes us to that point where we have to make an actual choice.
SPENCER: Yeah. And on the negative side, in cases where a behavior is harmful, we could take suicide where people start to get really concerned when someone says he has a suicide plan. A lot of people have just thought about suicide, almost everyone has thought about it at some point. But what's scary is when someone's like, "No, no, I have a plan to do it. I'm gonna do it on Monday." Okay, that's when you really need to be concerned.
ERIC: Okay. So we get through the decisional phase; now we're into the action phase.
SPENCER: Now you've decided you're gonna go to the gym, you're gonna start on Monday, and so on. Now, you have to take a series of actions across time. You've got to get that gym membership, you've got to go on Monday, you've got to go on Tuesday, you've gotta go on Wednesday, and so on. And there's a whole bunch of conditions here that are important to meet to make the behavior change likely. The first is, you have to remember to do the action. Very simple, but if Monday comes around and you literally don't think about going to the gym, you're not gonna go.
ERIC: The problem of forgetting.
SPENCER: Exactly. And it's a really common problem. Fortunately, there are really simple solutions, everything from getting a buddy who's also going and then you're not going to forget, or they're gonna call you, like, "Where are you?" Write a reminder to yourself, stick it on your computer. Set up an alarm, and so on. A lot of very basic strategies but often, these can actually increase compliance, even though they're so basic.
ERIC: I think they definitely do. I'm curious what you think about when you're trying to... This isn't exactly behavior change. This is where it sort of morphs. But let's say that what you want is to be more self-compassionate towards yourself.
SPENCER: It's funny. We're making a self-compassion module and I was literally just adding it this morning. It's very top of mind.
ERIC: In the spiritual habits program, what I talk about is basically what you're saying here. We need some sort of trigger to actually remember to be self-compassionate. Now, the ideal trigger is what I would refer to as an emotional trigger like, when I find myself being hard on myself, I remember to be self-compassionate, but that feels like a more advanced one. Whereas if, every time I go in the kitchen for the next two weeks, I reflect on self-compassion, it's more likely that it's going to be top of mind when I need it. So it's a way of trying to thread ideas or reflections into our day.
SPENCER: It's a really interesting point. It reminds me of this idea of implementation intentions. The concept is, you're making a plan that, when a certain thing occurs, you're gonna take a certain action. So the next time I'm being hard on myself, I'm going to then think the following thought, "You are a worthwhile person," or whatever. And there have been a lot of studies on them that found them helpful. But as you point out, they can be quite difficult to create. So we ran a study where we had people pick an object in their home environment, like a mirror or something like that. And then whenever they pass that thing, they would have to take a certain action — be mindful or have gratitude — and we studied them for three days. We found that people actually were happier after three days of doing this relative to a control group that was just asked to count how many times they saw that object. And so yeah, I think this really can work as a basic starter plan. And then, as you say, you can do more advanced ones that are more situational.
ERIC: Because I think ultimately, what we want is (I'll call it) an emotional base trigger; you might have a more precise word for it than that. And we almost always have them. They just tend to be for the negative, and they tend to be unconscious. When I get bored, I grab my phone. There's an unspoken implementation intention in there that generally leads us in a direction we don't want to go. And so I think it's learning to catch that moment — bored — and then how do I actually want to respond when I feel that?
SPENCER: Yeah, I think this actually speaks to another important point we haven't touched on, which is that it's often easier to replace a habit than to just erase something. If you find that you're engaging in an unhealthy habit, like constantly checking social media even though it's not bringing you joy, maybe you can't get yourself to stop but can you replace that with something like, "Oh, next time you have a really strong temptation to do it, go pet your dog or go take a walk outside." And that's often actually a more effective strategy.
ERIC: Certainly with addiction, that is a big piece of what we have to learn to do because the trigger isn't going to go away, at least not for a while. The trigger of 'I want a drink' is just going to continue to return for a while. So what do I do then? What action do I take that's not a drink? And having thought those out in advance is a really good strategy because oftentimes what I find — and I'd be curious, your thought on this — is that when those things arrive, our emotional activation levels tend to be fairly high and our ability to cognitively think, "Well, what should I do now? Oh, I'm going to do this and I thought I was going to do that," like we almost just need that implementation instruction, a very simple 'when this, then that.'
SPENCER: Absolutely. And it's also ideal if that new behavior satisfies the same goals as the original behavior. So if you're trying to avoid boredom, then whatever you're replacing that with should avoid boredom. Otherwise, you're just forcing something but it's not actually hitting the underlying need.
ERIC: We're getting near the end of time. I'd like to maybe move to the end of your framework, which is maintain. This is a phase I'm really interested in because, for some people, getting started is really hard and there are lots of ways to do that. I actually find that an easier problem to solve. With clients that I've worked with getting started, long-term maintenance seems to often be the challenge. What have you found and codified into your framework that helps us do that?
SPENCER: The way that we think about this is that each of those ten conditions — and we've gone through a few of them, but there's ten in total — they can disappear. They can be met, and then stop being met. So the analysis I do is, I think about which of these is most likely to stop being met. Is it that you were remembering to go to the gym, but then you're gonna start forgetting because you moved somewhere else and now your schedule is all different? Or is it that you used to desire the thing but you actually lost the desire, and you need to reconnect with the reason that you care about it. That's the lens through which I do the analysis of which condition is going to fall away. And then how do we boost that back up to make sure that it doesn't disappear?
ERIC: That's interesting because, as I recall from the transtheoretical model of behavior change, there was an idea that you do the actions that are right for the category, the stage that you're in. And I felt like at least what I took from it — you've probably read it much more closely than I have, given your nature — was that, at a certain point, you aren't stoking motivation, but it sounds like you're saying all of these ten things need to be up-to-date.
SPENCER: It's a really good point. What can happen over time is, certain of them can become unnecessary, because of (for example) habit. Let's say, brushing your teeth; maybe when you're a child, your mother needs to remind you, your father needs to remind you to brush your teeth. But then once you've done it 100 times, now you're just doing it without thinking about it. So the memory thing is no longer a problem because it just gets locked in place. Some of them will get locked in place, but other things could then disrupt that. Maybe with tooth brushing, that's not gonna be a problem. But suppose you had oral surgery, and you weren't able to brush your teeth for three weeks. And then it's like, "Well, I haven't brushed my teeth in three weeks." Maybe now, you actually will need to remember again, which you haven't done since childhood.
ERIC: Where I find so many people (and myself, too) get off-track is when something significant changes. We're going along great with my daily exercise habit, or my daily meditation habit, or whatever it is. And then I go on vacation. And when I come back, it seems to have just faded away. Or the school year starts, or any number of different things. And there's certain ideas around behavior change that I think get over-simplified into: pick the thing you're going to do, get specific about when you're going to do it, and then just stay with it. But I think that ignores the complexity of most people's lives.
SPENCER: And the reality is that forming habits is a never ending thing we have to do, because our habits always will get eventually disrupted, whether you have kids or you move or your schedule changes. So the skill of recreating the habit is actually incredibly important. You're never going to just get it once and be done for life.
ERIC: Yeah, I think part of the reason that habits are such an alluring thing to people is, they feel like they could just make this thing automatic and never have to think about it again. And I found that, for most complex behaviors, things that take a significant amount of time or energy (like going to the gym), that, like you said, it's more a matter of constant recreation than it is like you just get this thing locked in and it's not a problem. Now, there does seem to be something of momentum. There does seem to be something like, when I've been going to the gym pretty much every day, it's much easier to go than it is if I haven't been going at all, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it's exactly a habit, particularly if it has to be very varied. I travel enough with different things that nothing ever gets baked into stone enough, besides brushing my teeth, maybe as an example. All the rest of it, I have to keep figuring out.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's such a good point. I totally agree.
ERIC: Is there anything else from your ten conditions for change that you feel like we might want to hit with our last couple minutes here?
SPENCER: Yeah. Just to give an overview of the way I think about it, basically, you've got this decision phase, action phase, and maintenance phase. And then in any given behavior change situation for any given person, which conditions are going to be the key ones are going to differ. The thing that I would ask people to reflect on is, "For you, what's most likely to get you to not engage in behaviors or to stop. And I think that a thing that can often happen is people try to take a one-size-fits-all approach, but the reality is, one person may have no trouble remembering to do the thing but they find that they lose motivation. And another person may be really motivated, but they literally are just forgetful, and they just keep forgetting. The strategy is gonna be really different. So I would just ask, for your own behavior change, what do you find most difficult? And then that's the stuff you need to build a strategy around.
ERIC: Yeah, I think that's a big part of, when I've done coaching with people, is we get through this very great plan, what we're going to do, and then it's like, "Alright, well, what's gonna go wrong here?" Let's think about, historically, what's gone wrong. But I've also heard you say, you can also reflect on what's gone right. 'What has worked for you before' is also a very useful reflection when we talk about behavior change.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's funny you mention that because we ran a study on habit formation, where we randomize some people in the control group and some people to get habit interventions. And one of the interventions we found particularly good and very simple is, you think about a habit you've done in the past. You think about what you did that helped you succeed at that habit. And then you write down how to apply that to the current habit. We call it habit reflection, and it's essentially saying, "Well, what worked for me, and how do I adapt it to this situation?" I think that's an especially good strategy. That's very simple. It takes two minutes, but it can help you.
ERIC: Excellent. Well, I think that's a good place to wrap up. I feel like we could do this another couple hours, but we are at the end of our time. It's been really fun to talk with you and get to know you. And so thank you.
SPENCER: This has been really great. Thanks so much, Eric.
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