How to Identify Our Triggers

Feedback is our first step in becoming smarter about the connection between our environment and our behavior. Feedback teaches us to see our environment as a triggering mechanism. Sometimes, the feedback is the trigger.

Consider all the feedback we get when driving — how we ignore some of it and why only some of it actually triggers desirable behavior.

Say you’re driving down a road at 55 mph, approaching a village. You know this because a half-mile outside the village, a sign says, “Speed zone ahead, 30 mph.” The sign is just a warning, not a command, so you maintain your speed.

Thirty seconds later, you reach the village, where the sign says, “Speed limit 30 mph.” If you’re like most drivers, you’ll maintain your speed because you’ve been driving on autopilot in a 55-mph environment, and it’s easier to continue doing what you’re doing.

Radar speed displays work because they harness a well-established concept in behavior theory called a feedback loop. The displays measure a driver’s action and relay the information to the driver in real time, inducing the driver to react.

A feedback loop has four stages: evidence, relevance, consequence and action. Once you recognize this, it’s easy to see why the radar speed displays’ exploitation of the loop works. Drivers get data about their speed in real time. The information gets their attention. Aware that they’re speeding, drivers fear getting a ticket or hurting someone, so they slow down.

This is how feedback ultimately triggers desirable behavior. Once we deconstruct feedback into its four stages, the world never looks the same. Suddenly, we understand that our good behavior is not random.

Our environment has the potential to resemble a feedback loop. It is constantly providing new information that has meaning and consequence and changes our behavior, but the resemblance ends there.

Where a feedback loop triggers desirable behavior, our environment often triggers bad behavior, and it does so against our will and without our awareness. We don’t know we’ve changed.

What if we could control our environment so it triggered our most desired behavior? Instead of blocking us from our goals, this environment propels us. To achieve that, we have to clarify the term trigger. Within that broad definition there are distinctions that improve how triggers influence our behavior.

1. A behavioral trigger can be direct or indirect. Direct triggers are stimuli that immediately impact behavior, with no intermediate steps between the triggering event and your response. You see a family photo that initiates a series of thoughts, compelling you to pick up the phone and call your sister.

2. A trigger can be internal or external. External triggers come from the environment, bombarding our senses and minds. Internal triggers come from thoughts or feelings that are not connected with any outside stimulus. Many people meditate to dampen the internal trigger they refer to as an “inner voice.”

3. A trigger can be conscious or unconscious. Conscious triggers require awareness. Unconscious triggers shape your behavior beyond your awareness. Respondents to the question, “How happy are you?” claimed to be happier on a perfect weather day than respondents to the question on a nasty day. Yet when asked, most respondents denied the weather had any impact on their scores. The weather was an unconscious trigger.

4. A trigger can be anticipated or unexpected. We see anticipated triggers coming a mile away. For example, at the beginning of the Super Bowl, we hear the national anthem and expect raucous cheering as it ends. Unanticipated triggers take us by surprise, and as a result stimulate unfamiliar behavior.

5. A trigger can be encouraging or discouraging. Encouraging triggers push us to maintain or expand what we are doing. They’re reinforcing. The sight of a finish line for exhausted marathon runners encourage them to keep running.

6. A trigger can be productive or counterproductive. This is the most important distinction. Productive triggers push us toward becoming the person we want to be. Counterproductive triggers pull us away. Triggers are not inherently “good” or “bad.” What matters is our response to them.