Sunday, 11 June 2017

Force of habit

Bribery’s a little more expensive than blackmail, but a great deal more pleasant to apply, without being necessarily less effective.

In fact, combined with the power of habit, it can be immensely powerful.

I noticed this with our dogs. Many dogs resist having their lead put back on at the end of a walk off the lead. But I made a point of always giving them a treat each when it came to the moment to have the lead clipped back on their collars. Now as we approach the gate to the park, they don’t even wait to be called, but come trotting over expectantly, straining their necks for the lead and their treat.

Toffee (left) and Luci (right)
Open to bribery as a reinforcement of habit
See? The effect of habit taught through bribery. A powerful force.

It doesn’t affect dogs only. I speak authoritatively only for myself, naturally, but if I am at all representative of humanity, then I it feels as though mankind too is very much a creature of habit.

Now, two apparently unrelated but in fact closely linked changes have considerably improved my life over the last six months or so.

The first was getting a new job, in a company with a product I believe in, and colleagues for whom I feel, almost without exception, not just great affection but also considerable admiration.

The second was buying a new car. The link with the previous change was that the company, in return for paying me a car allowance, required me to have a car significantly less old than the one I was still driving. It was a Toyota Avensis and it had served me well for eight years, though recently it had begun to develop little minor problems which quickly piled up costs to repair.

Besides, the Avensis was a diesel. I don’t like diesel for ecological reasons. And, in addition, it left what was a relatively large car, with all the comfort that implies, underpowered for its size. It just didn’t have that little bit of punch which it’s pleasant to be able to call on when you want to get past a lorry or out of a side turning onto a busy road.

So I’m delighted with the car I replaced it with. Another Toyota (I’ve become a fan), it’s an Auris, the next model down, and a hybrid – ecologically much more dependable – and fuelled not with diesel but petrol (OK, OK, transatlantic cousins: gasoline). Being smaller, it has just that little extra poke which makes it much more pleasurable to drive.

The highly satisfying new job has me doing a lot of travelling. That means that the satisfaction comes with a certain degree of tiredness. On Friday, I was returning from a client visit in the Auris – so both sources of pleasure were combined – and feeling pretty worn out – so I was paying the price.

A couple of miles from home I decided I would do my final duty of the week and fill up with fuel. And that’s where the force of habit kicked in. A habit built up over eight years and a cause for what might have turned into a minor disaster.

I carefully filled the car’s tank. With diesel.

It wasn’t till I was nearly home that I realised what I’d done, when the car juddered and lost power.

Fortunately, my breakdown recovery service was able to send someone around to drain the tank. The job wasn’t done until 11:00 at night, but at least it was done, though at more than a little cost to myself: the breakdown service covered the cost of the callout but not of the work – they said that it was down to “pilot error”, and I didn’t have the heart to point out I hadn’t been trying to fly the damned car.

That, however, wasn’t the end of my woes. At the end of the process, the car refused to start, instead displaying a message “check hybrid system”. The fuel drainage man suggested I leave it till the morning when “things will have settled down” and the engine might work again.

I regarded this as a ridiculously unlikely proposition, but it was 11:00 and I was by now exceedingly weary. I also didn’t think he could fix the car anyway.

In the morning, the same message was displayed on the dashboard and the motor still wouldn’t start. Fortunately, the breakdown service was prepared to get the car towed into the Toyota garage as part of the same incident, and at no charge.

So in it went.

By this time I was beginning to feel the car was sending me a message. “You did this to me? You were that stupid? Thoughtless and inattentive?”

I was trying to beam it reassuring messages. “Don’t get me wrong. I really like you. I really like driving in you. Please don’t hold a moment’s inattention against me.”

Fortunately, once in the Toyota garage the car was among friends. I was warned that “check hybrid system” could mean having to buy a new battery at colossal cost – like a fifth of what I paid for the whole car – but a highly friendly and immensely competent mechanic (from the Baltic states: why do Brits want to keep these great people out?) cooed over the controls, spoke soothingly to the car, and worked some sort of magic, so that within minutes the engine started up again and began running smoothly once more.

It was like being forgiven and given a second chance which, believe me, is just as gratifying from an inanimate object as from a human being.

That left me feeling well-disposed to cars of a tolerant nature. But, above all, conscious of how damaging force of habit can be. Something I really need to resist in the future.

However much I reinforce it with treats it in the dogs.


Becky Campbell said...

One good thing that happens in the USA...diesel pump nozzles cannot fit into cars that run on petrol. No need for habit :)

David Beeson said...

Sadly enough they don't really fit in the UK either. But I just thought, "this nozzle's a bit big, isn't it?" and went right on pumping...