Have you ever looked at someone’s behavior and wondered why they act the way they do?

The question is especially poignant when you’re looking in the mirror.

Human behavior is fascinating. We have the same basic human needs but we each have our own notions of how to best meet those needs. Sometimes it works. We can really go off the rails when it doesn’t.

The Reality Model by Hyrum W. Smith is a powerful tool for understanding behavior, whether it’s individual, a team, or a nation. In six steps, it shows how our needs turn into actions that evolve over time.

The Reality Model by Hyrum W. Smith
The Reality Model (Hyrum W. Smith)

Here are the steps of the Reality Model:

  1. Needs. Abraham Maslow famously expressed our basic human needs as a hierarchy: Survival, Safety, Society, Swagger, and Self-Actualization. Everything we do is an attempt to satisfy one or more of these needs. (It’s sometimes easier to think in terms of a specific, short-term need like “I need to be in Denver, CO, on February 22” instead of figuring out how to fit that trip into the five standard needs.)
  2. Belief Window. Our belief window is everything that we believe to be true about the world. It’s our understanding of how reality works. That understanding—correct or incorrect—will determine how we will set out to meet our needs.
  3. Rules. Based off of our understanding of how the world works, we establish a system of if-then rules that govern how we act. Each one is basically a habit trigger: If this condition is true (habit cue) then I will do X (habit response).
  4. Behavior Patterns. Over times, these rules establish behavior patterns. It’s important to look at patterns over time, not isolated instances. On any given Tuesday, our prefrontal cortex can override our standard behavior and choose to do something different.
  5. Results. Sometimes, the results are easy to measure. (Did you reach your target weight? Are you having a good time?) Frequently, it can be fuzzy or come with trade-offs, meeting one need at the cost of another. (I’m having a good time now, but I’ve still got that report to work on…)
  6. Feedback. If a result meets your needs over time, you have a correct belief on your belief window. If a result doesn’t meet your needs, the belief is incorrect and needs to change.

Let’s run a couple of examples through the Reality Model and see what happens.

  1. Need: “I need to be across town at 2:00.”
  2. Belief Window: “Yellow lights mean go faster.”
  3. Rules: “If the light turns yellow, I’m going to floor it. If I have to wait at a stop light, I’m going to be late.”
  4. Behavior Patterns: You usually make it through the intersection before the light’s all the way red.
  5. Results: You probably arrive on-time. You might have higher blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol levels. You increase your chances of getting a traffic ticket or being in an accident.
  6. Feedback: If you get stopped by a cop, you’re going to be late. Will that meet your need to arrive by 2:00? If you get into an accident, you just violated your need for Safety (hopefully not Survival). Even if you get there safely, you’re increasing the adrenaline and cortisol in your system. What impact do you think that will have over time?

In a pinch, that might meet your short-term needs, but I wouldn’t recommend making a habit of it.

When a behavior doesn’t meet your needs, examine what’s on your belief window. That’s usually where the problem is, and it’s the easiest to change. When you change what’s in your belief window, your behavior will automatically and immediately change.

So let’s make a change there.

  1. Need: “I need to be across town at 2:00.”
  2. Belief Window: “Yellow lights mean stay out.”
  3. Rules: “If the light turns yellow, I’m going to stop if it’s safe to do so. If I have to wait at a stop light, that gives me more time to prepare myself.”
  4. Behavior Patterns: You stop at the light, as long as you don’t have to slam on the brakes. You use the time at the red light for breathing exercises.
  5. Results: You arrive relaxed and not more than two or three minutes late.
  6. Feedback: Your need to arrive at 2:00 is more or less met. Your general needs for Safety, Security, and Survival aren’t compromised.

Most of the time, arriving at 2:02 vs. 2:00 isn’t a problem. If it is, then it’s time to look at some more of the beliefs on your belief window that may be at play. Maybe you have beliefs like “It takes me 15 minutes to get across town” or “I can be ready to leave in two minutes” that need to be revised.

What if you have “my job determines my self-worth” in your belief window? Or “I’m no good at learning new things”? What sort of rules do you think those beliefs might create? What behavior patterns are you going to see from someone with those beliefs?

What about “failure is a chance to try again, smarter”? How do you think that might affect someone’s willingness to stretch themselves?

Changing the beliefs in our belief window is the easiest way to change our behavior, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Some of them may have been there for a long time, and they’re etched deeply. They may have met our needs previously, but that’s changed over time. It can take a lot of courage and humility to take an honest look at the beliefs in your belief window and change the incorrect beliefs that are there.

If you want to change behavior, take a look at your beliefs. The Reality Model gives you a visual picture of how your beliefs are causing your behaviors.

For more information on the Reality Model, check out The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management by Hyrum W. Smith.

Question: What belief on your belief window are you most proud of? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.