How do our worlds influence us?
- A simple way to think about our behaviour is stimulus – response.
- The outer world provides physical and social stimuli, but our outer worlds are not all the same.
- Our bodies—in particular our brains—translate these stimuli into internal experiences.
- Our inner worlds filter these experiences through a set of beliefs and values, and then turn them into feelings and behaviours.
- As we repeat this cycle, we develop new beliefs and values, and these patterns continue to affect the way we navigate the Field Model.
Stimulus and response: A simple way to look at behaviour
Human behaviour is hugely complicated, but we can start to understand it by talking about stimulus and response.
Stimulus: Alex kisses you.
Response: You feel good and kiss him back.
So far so good. But:
Stimulus: Alex kisses you.
Inner world: You’re already angry at Alex because he was trashing your friends earlier.
Response: You feel irritated by Alex kissing you and push him away.
Well, that complicates it: circumstances can make you change your response to the same stimulus.
Even more complicated: responses can be different for different people.
Stimulus: Veronica hands you two adorable puppies.
The inner world of you, animal lover: You are full of good feelings about the softness and adorableness of puppies.
Response: Your heart melts and you cuddle the puppies.
Stimulus: Veronica hands you two adorable puppies.
The inner world of you, a cartoon villain: You are full of rage and fear.
Response: You do not care for the puppies and threaten Veronica with curses.
So, it’s less stimulus-response and more stimulus-inner world-response, and there’s a lot that goes on in that inner world. We’ll come back to that.
Our outer world gives us stimuli
Our environment gives us all sorts of stimuli. Some of these stimuli are obviously physical:
- You see a burrito, you feel hungry. Maybe you eat it.
- Your school has no trees, the playground is hot, so you try to sit in the shade of a building.
Some are more social:
- A friend frowns at you, you wonder what you’ve done wrong. Maybe you ask them if everything is OK.
- You live in a social group where dancing is frowned upon, so on the weekend you stay home and watch documentaries on TV.
Different outer worlds provide very different stimuli
- Growing up in a close-knit, supportive family provides different stimuli to growing up in an abusive home.
- Living in a stable society with a thriving economy and effective public institutions provides different stimuli to living in a war zone.
- If you are part of a majority group you might not ever experience discrimination or harassment, whereas if you are Indigenous, or a member of the LGBTQI community, or part of any marginalised or minority group in the population, you might experience regular discrimination and harassment.
So the fact that our different outer worlds provide completely different stimuli is part of the reason why we grow up and behave differently to each other.
How does our body influence us?
Our bodies interact with and translate our experience of the world. Our senses take stimulus from our outer world, send it to our brains, and our brains then turn that into reactions and actions which in turn affect our body and inner world:
- Outer world (stimulus): You see somebody super attractive smiling and walking towards you.
- Body: Immediately, your pupils get bigger, you start paying more attention, your brain releases dopamine (making you feel good) and adrenaline (making you want to take action).
- Inner world: A split second later you become aware of what’s happening, and a moment after that you decide to walk towards them.
When your pupils get bigger, that’s your body responding physically. But what about feelings? Or thoughts?
Here the boundary between body and inner world gets blurry, and the main source of the blurriness is the brain.
We can think of the brain as having three layers, which sometimes work together but also sometimes compete with each other:
- There’s a core region of our brain called the brain stem and cerebral cortex that controls all the basic processes like breathing, heart rate and body temperature. This is called our “reptile brain”, and it is more or less out of our control.
- We have another layer in the brain called the limbic system which basically handles emotions, memories, motivations and more overt behaviours like eating, sleeping and wandering around.
- Finally we have the neo-cortex, the outer layer of our brain, which gives us our capacity for thinking, reflecting, managing our emotions, talking to other people, planning for the future and so on. It’s the part which seems to produce our sense of self: the “you” in you.
The way that these parts of your brain interact with each other will affect the way that you experience the world, the way your body reacts to it, and what you do in response to the people and events around you.
How does our inner world influence us?
Our inner world is where we experience desires and longings, and where we develop memories, beliefs, values, and habits—the impacts of the outer world.
There are many models that try to explain how all this works. One simple model is called the ABC model - Activating event – Beliefs – Consequences - and it’s basically equivalent to Stimulus – Inner world – Response:
- We experience an event (stimulus) in the world.
- That experience is filtered through a set of beliefs (inner world) we have about what is good or bad, how the world works, what will happen etc.
- These beliefs trigger consequences (response) including feelings and behaviours, which may be helpful or harmful.
- These consequences create new stimuli, and the cycle repeats.
- Over multiple cycles, we develop memories and beliefs, and learn habits and patterns of behaving.
- You’re at a house party with friends, including one you have a huge crush on. They all start to dance.
- In Field Model terms, the question is “Do you want to dance?”
Belief (Inner world)
- Everyone else can dance and you can’t, so you’re going to look awkward, and the person you have a crush on will be disappointed in you.
- This is all based on memories from other times you’ve gotten up to dance—flashing before your eyes right now.
- You feel kind of queasy and unhappy. You want to become invisible, so you pretend to have to get something from the kitchen.
- In Field Model terms, the decision is “No, I don’t want to dance” (even though in some ways you do).
Is it really that simple?
No, we don’t experience our lives in such a clear-cut step-by-step way.
Our experience is often faster, messier and more subtle, plus our bodies often seem to have a mind of their own—like when our instincts kick in. For instance:
- When you touch something hot, you don’t run the experience through a belief that “hot things burn, therefore this hurts”—you just pull your hand away automatically.
- Similarly, when you see someone you find attractive, you don’t first think, “I believe this person’s qualities A, B and C make them attractive”—you just feel attracted.
But you do have a conscious belief that hot things burn. How did you develop that belief? And there are particular qualities that attract you to some people and not others. How did you develop your beliefs around attractiveness?
Also, it’s the multi-layered complexity of our brains and bodies that creates this sense we have of wrestling with multiple versions of ourselves. For instance:
- You care about Gabe, but you really want to watch Crawlspace of the Rancid Babysitter.
- You want to make Renata happy, but you also resent her for pressuring you.
- You know Gabe gets queasy, but you wish he’d just get over it.
So yes, it’s complicated. But the Stimulus – Inner world – Response model gives us a way to think about the parts of our inner world that we can influence.
Want to learn more about the Activating event – Belief – Consequences (ABC) model?
This model is from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is widely used in managing mental health. There are other well-regarded models such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Emotionally Focused Therapy and others, but we decided to highlight the ABC model because it lines up neatly with the idea of stimulus – inner world – response. You can find plenty of information about any of these modalities by searching online.
Caution: Probabilities, not certainties
Whenever we talk about cause and effect in human behaviour, we’re talking about probabilities, not certainties.
- For instance, humans in general love sugar and fat. So, if you put a bowl of peanut M&Ms on the table at a party, there’s a good chance they will get eaten.
- But can you say who will eat how much of them? Some people will avoid the M&Ms altogether, some people will have a moderate amount, some will gorge themselves.
- What makes the difference? Body (genetics, current level of health, appetite), outer world (previous experiences, social norms), and inner world (specific beliefs, thoughts, feelings).
So, while we share a lot in common, we are also different enough that when we talk about human behaviour in general, we should talk in probabilities, not certainties.
Causation: What came first?
When we look closely at behaviour, we see a seemingly endless series of events and consequences going back in time.
- A stranger smiles at you, so you smile back.
- What made them smile at you? Maybe they thought you were attractive.
- But what made them think you were attractive? Maybe it was the way you were dressed.
- But what made you dress that way? Maybe that’s the way people in your friend group dress.
- But how did you come to be in that friend group?
- And so on.
Consider a different version:
- A stranger smiles at you and you don’t smile back. Why didn’t you smile?
In the first example, you’re a person who associates strangers smiling at you with pleasure, in the second example you associate it with fear or irritation.
Each version of you would have a different history leading up to that point.
We can keep going backwards in time—or drilling down to lower levels of detail—forever, which can be a confusing experience because we start to wonder how in control of anything we really are.
We want to be able to look at behaviour as a cause and effect chain, but not get lost in infinite regression.