Human Behaviour

Human behaviour. Isn’t it fascinating? We all study it, whether  watching or communicating with others or simply sitting alone contemplating life. Human’s aren’t truly independent beings. They’re influenced by environment and others people they are in the company of.

I think I’m a particularly curious human being. I want to get under the skin and inside the head of others. What motivates them? What makes them happy or sad? What can I do to help them be happier or perform their perfect race?

In this Blog, I’ll take you a personal journey on how I think about behaviour and how I try to use my understanding of it in a sporting context. As ever, if you want to provide me with guidance, disagree or ask me a question, please feel free to comment or email me directly.


Prior to starting university, I always thought that sports psychology would be my favourite subject. I am fascinated by people and how they behave. It didn’t work out that way. I didn’t like the psychology subject leader. The areas taught jumped straight into application of psychology to sport and I couldn’t contextualize it with what I’d experienced in my own life. Ironically, I attribute my progression into the study of physiology to this psychologist. This one person had a major influence on my life, I won’t say a negative one, because goodness knows what I might be doing if I had followed a different path.

As a coach, reflecting on such experiences like this is important to me. One of my favourite sayings comes from the Dalai Lama: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, trying sleeping in a room with a mosquito”. That is, every decision we take, how we interact with others, our own biases and behaviours have the capacity to change the lives of others considerably.

Since moving from applied sports physiology into coaching, I’ve ‘rediscovered’ the importance of the psychology in developing sporting performance. I laugh at myself and my old physiological perspectives on how to optimise performance. I was blinkered and wrong. Rather, there’s no doubt in my mind that the  psychology of an athlete is more important to performance than genetics or physiological adaptations.  For instance, an athlete who maintains mental focus, who has the confidence to win and remains motivated to train even when things aren’t going so well is most likely to succeed. That is even when their physical training could be considered to be sub-optimal.

The main aim of this Blog is to get you thinking, even for me to influence your behaviour and mind-set, by offering my own perspective on psychology. It may not be one that you have considered before. It’s not the type of thing you’ll find in a book, magazine or peer reviewed journal. After all, I’m not a professionally trained or accredited psychologist. Some of what I say is based on sound scientific theory; however, other bits are simply subjective pseudo-intellectual musings.

Track focus
Focus is Everything on the Track

What is Psychology?

In a sporting context, psychology can help with:

  1. Influencing behaviour to improve performance
  2. Influencing behaviour to help an athlete deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life and to train more effectively.

A very common human behaviour, which is evolutionary based, is to seek the path of least resistance, or to put it another way to take the easy option. Many athletes, coaches and indeed psychologists take this approach too, looking for quick answers.  One such approach is to view an athlete’s behaviour in the context of sport. However, such an approach is wholly misguided. That is because as humans, our experiences from around the age 6 months old have the capacity and do affect the way we behave for the rest of our lives.

There are occasions for a psychologist or coach to ask a few questions, do a few tests, administer a questionnaire and then offer a bit of advice. However, it can take days, months or years to understand, let alone change some deeply ingrained behaviours. Having a ‘snap-shot’ of someone’s life is rarely enough to facilitate change in the long-term.  Of course there are some individuals who get under the skin of others quickly and intuitively understand them.  But for most of us, it’s harder than that and we need to take time to try to understand the behaviour of others.

The mechanisms and mediating factors of behaviour are very complex and even in time immemorial science has only scratched the surface of doing so. In fact, the original theories of human behaviour were probably contained within Hippocratic Corpus (circa 5th century BC):

The body of man has in itself blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile; these make up the nature of his body, and through these he feels pain or enjoys health. Now he enjoys the most perfect health when these elements are duly proportioned to one another in respect of compounding, power and bulk, and when they are perfectly mingled.

Added to these theories of Hippocrates were the effects of “avoidant attachment mothers, evil ghosts and goolies, gods and goddesses” and more abstract superstitions.  To be fair to Hippocrates, he probably took a more holistic perspective than many scientists today, albeit with some rather major flaws in his theories. Yet, despite advances in science many of us still believe in ridiculous things and let them affect how we behave on a daily basis.

Of course understanding of humanity and human behaviour has moved on somewhat in the last few thousand years. Golden moments in this development include during the renaissance, the enlightenment and, especially now with major advances in neuroscience.

Part of that understanding comes from psychology “the scientific study of people, the mind and behaviour” as defined by the British Psychological Society. What could be more complex subject? Before you read on, get a bit of paper and write down as many sub-disciplines of psychology that you can think of.

How many did you manage? I’ve asked this question to quite a few sports psychology students and I am usually faced with a blank look. In fact there are numerous sub-disciplines of psychology including biological, behavioural, clinical, cognitive, developmental and social.

These sub-disciplines only scratch the surface of behaviour. Other related disciplines include cognitive neuroscience, psychiatry, physiology, endocrinology and so on. But then that’s just the stuff that relates to Newtonian principles. Quantum theory needs to be considered too. But wait! What about the humanities? They include philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology which all studying behaviour from different perspectives. That’s only accounting for Western ologies that I’m aware of……

There is certainly a bias in Western society to discount or dismiss knowledge and philosophy from the east or from more distant history. In fact, it may even be a colonial perspective in which knowledge from cultures that are different to our own are never considered equal.  However, I’ve come to understand that much of current thinking in psychology is closely related to what Buddha taught 2500 years ago. Then there is Plato who wrote his texts around the same time. More recently there was Hume and Descartes. Although these learned individuals took a spiritual/philosophical approach, their depth of understanding of human behaviour was way beyond that of many contemporary psychologists. I’ve got a theory as to why that is!

In the Italian enlightenment, one of my greatest heroes was born, Leonardo Di Vinci! He’s the source of much inspiration for my own mindset. What’s this got to do with psychology though? Well, Di Vinci was undoubtedly one of the greatest genius’s to ever live. He was driven to understand human behaviour by an unquenchable curiosity, a creative mind and the use of logical and empirical thought processes.

Vitruvian Man: Leonardo da Vinci
Vitruvian Man: Leonardo da Vinci

Di Vinci had an advantage back in the 14th and 15th century though. He was not limited by scientific convention or a particular scientific mindset. Rather, he observed, recorded and innovated in the arts, music and science. Of course conventions and rules offer an essential framework to systematically acquire knowledge within such a complex universe. To progress knowledge, specialization in specific disciplines and sub-disciplines is essential. However, if scientists and practitioners are blinkered by their own area of expertise, then their influence on behaviour is likely to be less effective than it could be and will only have short-term impact.

And Then There Was Art

I was recently asked whether I believed coaching was art or a science. Well, “coaching is all about helping and developing others to achieve their goals and potential”, I said. To be able to do so requires a reasonable understanding of behaviour and how to influence it. Some exceptional coaches develop such an understanding intuitively. But most of us need to work on our ability to positively influence others. I believe that many lessons in doing so could be to take a similar approach to Di Vinci, using constraints rather than being limited by them. I’ve used the example of My Favorite Photographer to illustrate the point.

My Favourite PhotographerRoger Ballen is my favourite photographer. I was profoundly moved on seeing his retrospective at Manchester Art Gallery. OK so I loved black and white photography especially using the gelatin-silver printing method. But his work goes beyond the visual experience for me. Ballen confronts parts of the human psyche that most of us prefer to ignore; the darker sides of our minds and our thoughts that we never share with others. Like Winston Smith in 1984, we are all prisoners of words unsaid. To attain freedom, one must attempt to acknowledge our own thoughts, desires and behaviours. Ballen certainly helps me do so. His photos are “psychological statements… help others find out who they are; to find the side of themselves they keep in the shadows”.Roger Ballen: Squack

Many of his images are semi-documentary, in which he examines the ‘white trash’ of South Africa. They can be very disturbing because his subjects force us to confront parts of society that most of us choose to ignore; those who are driven by inherently human behaviours including fear and unhelpful emotions which often result in crime and violence. However, these people can also display love, compassion and unconditional loyalty beyond most of our own comprehensions.

Steve Peters, the British Cycling psychologist would probably say that these people are pathologically driven by their inner ‘chimp’. By confronting such extremes in human behaviour, it is likely that we will be more able to understand our inner-self and the behaviour of others.Would the discovery of the ‘inner-self and that of others be possible through science alone? I’ll let you make up your own mind.

Evolution and Adaptation!

Life is all about change and that’s why I love it. There are more aches and pains with getting older but I love how my perspective to life has changed for the better over the years. Self-discovery and how I developed my own mind-set is important to me and understanding a wee bit about evolution has helped me better understand human behaviour.

One of the most influential texts ever in the West was The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. In 14 short chapters he brought into question the Creationist views of the monotheistic faiths of Abrahamic religion. Rather, he demonstrated, the phylogeny of organisms resulted in the millions of species we see today, a process of natural selection; a description of mechanism explaining how a species slowly transforms into another. In fact, from birth-to-death, we are a microcosm of the whole evolutionary process.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
Alfred Russel WallaceAlfred Russel Wallace deserves recognition here…he also proposed the theory of natural selection at the around the same time as Darwin. As a man with a good academic mind, he shared his theories with Darwin, only to be gazumped by his peer who took most of the credit.

It is far more likely than not, based on gene sequence, morphological and biochemical data that all organisms on the planet are genetically related. Some consider humans to be the top of that evolutionary tree, evolving from the hominid primates to the homo-sapiens of today.

An inflection in human evolution is marked by the Paleolithic period. Humankind became recognizable as modern (wo)man, behaving and looking much like we do today. Tools were developed, languages formed and art used as a form of expression. Humans were very slowly becoming differentiated from the rest of the animal kingdom through the illusory and complex concept of self.

I don’t know if and how we are genetically different from our cousins in the Paleolithic period. I’ve not studied the area. What I’d guess is that we are genetically very similar. What has changed is our environment. The study of how environment influences gene expression is called epigenetics. As a sports physiologist and coach interested in talent and helping others fulfill their athletic potential, epigenics is important in attempting to understand the physiological limits of adaption in humans. To what extent can I influence the environment of another human being so that their genes are expressed in ‘the most effective way?’ How far and how fast can they go?  What are the limits of human adaptation?

Adaptation occurs when the equilibrium of a cell is or group of cells cannot be fully maintained because of challenging environmental factors or stressors. Thus, the cells become better adapted to the new environment. If the challenge is too great, maladaptation occurs and death of the cell may result. It’s no different for a full system like a human being.

The limits of human performance are only reached when no further adaptations can occur. We may never determine these limits simply because the explanation would have to come from a total understanding of the complex relationship between genetic factors, physiological traits and environmental factors from the birth of the athlete (including training history).

Stuff on Evolution that Influences my Beliefs

Back during my undergraduate days, I completed almost 2 full dissertations. The first one went awry because it was too complex and I couldn’t recruit enough participants to make it viable. It was on running gait and footwear. My review of the literature demonstrated that the relative incidence of injury had not been reduced by modern running footwear. Furthermore, the ‘most respected’ and published authors in the area of running footwear had been either funded or went on to work for a major shoe training shoe manufacturer (in which order, I am unsure). Moreover, I was almost convinced by the work of Dr Romanov and his Pose running method, involving shorter stride lengths and smaller vertical oscillations and mid-fore foot strike. Racing flats were best when running with this method as they did not unduly limit the body’s sensory capacity which has been ‘designed’ to minimize ground reaction forces. Because of a more ‘natural’ running style, probability of injuries was claimed to be reduced.

Barefoot Running
Barefoot Running

Also, as I’m a bit of a hippy Buddhist at heart, my gut feeling, supported by some biomechanical principles, is that as evolution had originally intended the foot to work without being constrained by a technical running shoe. Then why in the name of the wee man would we choose to wear them?

Well before Christopher MacDougall had written his semi-non-fictional book “Born to Run” I believed in going bare foot as much as possible….this lasted for most of the duration of my trip on the Sunshine Coast, Byron Bay, Bangkok and the Thai Islands. Unfortunately, although I’m not one to be constrained by social convention, I was back to wearing shoes full time……in hindsight, I had missed a commercial trick! I stopped allowing the intrinsic foot musculature to adapt in the way it was designed by evolution; that is to use the muscles, tissue and bone for stability, whilst minimizing the risk of injury.

I love the world and nature. I believe that nature is good and that everything being as natural as possible is a good thing. Some may argue that I’m bias and guilty of naturalistic fallacy. That is I like to believe that humans should live as ‘nature intended us to’.  How would that be? Well quite simply it is to survive, to procreate and I would go as far as to say to be happy i.e. to eat, sleep, get jiggy wit it and hang with the homies to avoid being eaten by other predators. These things dictate our behaviours, hormonal responses and so on.

Related, in the early human evolutionary period, our genetic pre-disposition was to minimise energy output by chilling in our caves whilst maximizing energy intake by eating what we could. Life was precarious as achieving a balance or an excess was incredibly difficult to do.

Now in most of the western world food is readily available. Technology has helped us mimimise energy output. However, our genetic pre-dispositions which influence the way we behave seem not to have changed much. Is scoring such an evolutionary goal positive? The obesity epidemic and over consumption in an over-populated, under-resourced planet would suggest not. The paradox is that through learning to harness our environment, humans seem to be destroying it. Most of us are unable to control our behaviour sufficiently to avoid over-consumption in some shape or form. Understanding how we behave, in the context of evolution, is therefore fundamental to understanding human behaviour.

I think if more of us understood the naturalistic fallacy, the world would be a better place. But back to the questions in hand, how genetically different are we from our ancestral hunter-gatherer cousins?


Evolution of the Mind

I hadn’t really thought about how the mind evolves until recently….but it’s fundamental to understanding behaviour.  Evolutionary psychology is important in understanding behaviour in the context of our ancestral cousins. I would argue that it should be the starting point for students of psychology and related disciplines, including coaching. Most of evolutionary theory is biology related. That is,  organisms adapt and develop through a process of natural selection, with much of that adaptation related to the environment the organism is in.

A Human Brain
A Human Brain

If it is accepted that the mind is made up of its own biological systems that interact dynamically with all other systems of the body, then it is wholly rational to conclude that the mind is subject to evolutionary processes too. Again, like other systems, if the mind is not in a state of equilibrium, it will either adapt (helpful) or maladapt (unhelpful) depending on what type and amount of stress is ‘placed’ upon it. These stressors are partially dependent on environment.

So, like most other animals, simplistically speaking, human behaviour is pre-programmed for self-preservation and being able to procreate. Thus we pass on our DNA and the process of natural selection continues. It’s amazing how little of our own behaviours are the result of conscious thought. What differentiates us humans from most from other sentient beings though? I think Heyes (2012) sums it up well when she says:

“We are animals that specialize in thinking and knowing—in cognition—and our extraordinary cognitive powers have enabled us to do remarkable things”.

We have a profound capacity to experience positive and negative sensations which seem to have evolved more than most creatures. Firstly, we have developed complex psychophysiological processes which either ‘reward’ or ‘punish’ our brains (Blaukopt and DiGirolamo, 2007) which either keeps us from harm or does us good. Secondly, we seek happiness and contentment. This is probably because it is easier to form and maintain positive individual or group relationships, to procreate and to find food if you’re not a miserable git! Also, humans are more likely to follow ‘stronger’ individuals who will protect them or strengthen their genetic pool, regardless of the moral fortitude of the ‘silver-back’.

Ah……but why are there so many miserable gits in the world, I hear you cry! Baumeister 2007 is very interesting in this regard in which they state:

“If the total net effect of emotion were to cause behaviours that were maladaptive, such as by reducing survival and reproduction, then natural selection would likely have phased emotion out of the human psyche.”

Rather, a theory highlighted to me by Prof. Andy Lane is, if my memory serves me correctly, that under periods of prolonged stress, we may require time to think and evaluate how to deal with particular stressors and/or to plan our attack strategy and ‘withdraw’ to do so. More immediate reactionary emotions such as anger help us ‘deal with’ moments of immediate threat.

I study Buddhism a bit and an important teaching comes from the Three Wisdom’s, the first being śruta cintā bhāvanā the wisdom of listening and hearing. This teaching is important in evolutionary terms because it allows us to share knowledge between and across generations….the fact that I recognise Buddha’s teachings is evidence enough of this process. One teacher of great wisdom is a lovely chap that I hold in very high esteem called Ratnaguna.


In a short teaching on happiness, he summarised human behaviours using a very basic schematic which I’ve provided below. I’m not sure if it adequately reflects Ratnaguna’s schema but it certainly reflects my understanding of the teaching.


Basically, Samsara, the endless circle of life, is associated with psychophysiological responses which drive our behaviour. A primary aim of Buddhism is to break free of the wheel of Samsara, and to reach Nirvana, not a place full of smack-head grungers, but a state of bliss partially attained by following the Noble Eightfold Path. I like to think of it as reaching a permanent state of cognitive balance. I certainly like the principle, but believe that pleasant and unpleasant emotions give humanity much of its richness. Life would probably be less rich if everyone was blissed out. Still, it’s a useful concept to aspire to.

Dealing with Wrong Perceptions

I’ve already mentioned that I love my photography. Look at the portrait below. What is it saying to you? What do you think this guy’s life has been about? Where does he come from? What’s in his head?  How does he behave?


I bumped into this guy in the street. “Have ya a spare pound me friend?” he said in a thick accent. More County Wicklow than Kingston Town. The guy had a friendly smile. I don’t normally give money to people that ask as I’m a frugal Scot. However, there was warmth in him. He had a deep sadness in his eyes, but no bitterness.

I’m guessing you may have thought other things about him. I don’t know what they were. I made judgments about him too. Two seconds of evaluating him and I engaged automatically, without any conscious though. The image only show’s 1/250th of a second of this guys life. I spoke to him for all of two minutes but he affected me. However, if I wanted to properly understand him, a snapshot is not enough

“To understand the human mind, you have to go back to its roots and follow its developmental trajectory”

Prof. Annette Karmiloff-Smith

Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith Credit: M. Huizinga, Amsterdam
Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith
Credit: M. Huizinga, Amsterdam

Going back to human roots, we’re programmed to some extent to take the path of least resistance. Instant gratification provides our brain with pleasant rewards. However, this path is rarely the most satisfactory one in the long term. Therefore, to get a good understanding of how an individual has turned out, we need to go back, way back and investigate their developmental trajectory. What has changed over time?

This development is partially dependent on genes and other intrinsic biological factors. However, environmental, social, and cultural factors are equally important. As coaches or scientists, it is essential to

  1. Develop a basic understanding of how the human mind and body develops
  2. Explore and attempt to understand our own behaviour and mindset as well as that of others.
  3. Consider the barriers that prevent us from taking a holistic approach to practice.

Doing so will help us get under the skin and into the mind of others.

Understanding Self

I recently read an excellent book by Bruce Hood: The Self-Illusion. Hood argues that we have an internal commentary which emerges from those around us that helps us make sense of the world, but fundamentally this commentary is an illusion.

It makes sense. Think about it…. You bash your head, you forget much of the past and your behaviour changes. Are you the same person? Or, maybe easier to conceptualize, you go out on the lash, have one sherbet too many and wake up next to someone you’d strangely found attractive several hours earlier.  Hmmm, “I wasn’t being myself!!” you tell your friends. Really? Are you the same person at work as you are at home? What is different are your perceptions and behaviours.


Every experience we have, who brought us up, how we were loved or not loved, what we eat and what god we believe in or not is not wholly in our control. Our character changes second-by-second, usually subtlety, but we also experience ‘life-changing’ moments, affected by people we interact with. Nothing is permanent. Our perception of self or of others is like ‘Chinese-whispers’. We remember things the way we want to, forget others we don’t want to. Our internal commentary attempts to make sense of experiences, but this commentary will affect how and what we remember. We are our own spin doctor, reliant on cognitive dissonance to justify things that are clearly irrational. We are not wholly rational beings. Sometimes extremely traumatic experiences are forgotten or they remain at the forefront of the mind. Our behaviour is affected by our experiences and environmental factors but we will not wholly understand how or why.

Cognitive Dissonance

Even in a state of conflicting beliefs or emotional reactions, the mind will still attempt to equilibrate though cognitive dissonance….i.e. a Tory believing in a free market economy but not allowing the market to decide when voting himself a salary increase….because ‘he’s worth it’.

How do you define yourself?  Me? I am a coach. I am a sports physiologist. I am a photographer. I am a wannabe barista. In fact, these are just words. The concept of self is illusory. Rather, I am defined by my actions. Of course, these actions are influenced by the perception of I. But perceptions are just that. Therefore, behaviour is easier to change if one understands that the concept of self is an illusion. One limitation of this understanding I recognise in myself is that I tend to get angry with dogmatic people, jobs-worth’s and those who are resistant to change. Of course there are things that are buried deep in the brain which influence behaviour subconsciously too. If that is pathological or unhelpful behaviour then a skilled practitioner may be required to help change it.

Dr Steve Peters: A Genius Head Doctor
Dr Steve Peters: A Genius Head Doctor


At birth, the human mind isn’t exactly a blank slate. It grows, develops and becomes capable of hugely creative, wonderful but also very destructive things. It is always in a state of flux so considering behaviour at one moment in time is like making your mind up about a movie when you’ve only seen the billboard poster.

Sport satisfies many human needs and desires, whether that is to be perceived as strong, to achieve or simply because the biochemical response to exercise is usually pleasing. Achieving sporting nirvana means ensuring these needs and desires are balanced, with emotion not outweighing reason. For any athlete to consistently perform to their potential means that they must also circumnavigate day-to-day life too. The implication of this for a coach or psychologist is that they must focus on the whole person rather than just them as an athlete.

I’m privileged to work for British Cycling, an organisation that consistently supports athletes in achieving to their potential. Everyone wants to know the secrets of success. In my view, it’s not down to magic wheels, innovative training methods or exceptionally talented athletes, although they do play a role. It’s down to a bunch of people who understand human beings what type of environment they prosper within.

Asking one of our Olympic Talent coaches how he would like to see us develop coaches, two things he said were so bloody obvious but enlightening at the same time. He said:

  1. Train coaches to say ‘the athlete that I coach’ rather than ‘my athlete’ and
  2. When speaking with athletes always ask ‘how are you?’ rather than ‘how did you do?’

Understanding and influencing the behaviour of others takes time and there are no short cuts.  It’s also important to reflect on our behaviour, but to also consider that others may not necessarily think the way we do.  While humans are incredible creatures, we’ll never fully understand the mind and the likelihood is that we’ll continue to be driven by sub-concious ‘things’ that we shared with our evolutionary cousins.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s