By Amy Alkon
Q: My otherwise wonderful husband always leaves his wet towel on the bed (on my side!). I’ve asked him to stop doing this countless times, but I don’t think he’s being passive-aggressive or anything. I think he just spaces out after showering. How can I get him to remember?—Soggy
A: It’s good for a man to have goals, though ideally not one that involves growing a fern out of your comforter.
As you appear to understand, the problem isn’t ill will; it’s “I, Robot.” The first time your husband wondered, “Where do I put this wet towel?”—perhaps at age 10—his brain said, “Easy peasy … just drop it right there on the bed.” Sadly, it seems that his superhero bedspread didn’t pipe up: “Superman’s got a ton to do today, and flying your wet towel over to the hamper is not on his agenda.”
Our brain is an efficiency expert. Figuring things out the first time around takes a bunch of energy. But, as neuroscientist Donald Hebb pointed out, as you do an action over and over, your brain goes, “Oh, that again.” The trigger for the action—in this case, approaching the bed—becomes automatic. Automatic means that there’s no stopping to muse, “Wait! I have a wife now, and she’s threatening to Saran Wrap the bed.”
This automation thing—with thinking removed from the equation—is the reason that nagging or even asking nicely before or after the fact is so often useless in changing behavior. You need to break into the automatic sequence as it’s in progress.
Interrupting the trigger sequence allows you to send a yoo-hoo to areas of his prefrontal cortex, the brain’s department of rational thought—asking them to kindly wake the hell up and take over from the basal ganglia and other parts of the brain’s department of automation.
No, I’m not suggesting that you stand guard by the bed like one of those decorative architectural lions, waiting for wet towel time. And hiring one of those street-corner sign spinners would probably be both impractical and a little creepy.
To grab your husband’s attention in a positive way, I suggest collecting cartoons and leaving one marked “Towel alert! xo” on the area of the bed that he turns into terrycloth swampland. The cartoon should break him out of his auto-daze, reminding him to return the wet towel to its ancestral home, Ye Olde Towel Rack.
Q: I’m a novelist who’s suddenly getting successful (after 20 years of crappy jobs and rejected manuscripts). Every day, several people make this annoying and rather insulting comment to me: “Don’t forget about me when you’re famous!” This got me wondering: What keeps some people grounded while others let success go to their head?—Published
A: Of course you’ll stay in touch with your old friends. You’ll have your assistant call them to see whether they’d like to come over and clean out your rain gutters.
The quality that keeps success from turning you into, well, Kanye East is humility. People confuse humility—being humble—with being humiliated. However, humility is basically a healthy awareness of your limitations—what social psychologist and humility researcher Pelin Kesebir describes as “a down-to-earth perspective of yourself in relation to all other beings.”
That’s something you’re more likely to have when you make it at 40—after 20 years of working crappy jobs, driving a car held together with duct tape and hope, and selling your blood to buy a tuna melt. Contrast that with hitting it big at 17: “Bro, I was just on my hoverboard at the mall, and some dude handed me a recording contract!”
The cool thing is, social psychologist Elliott Kruse and his colleagues find that you can bolster humility by expressing gratitude—appreciation for how another person has helped you. Expressing gratitude both “inhibits internal focus” and “promotes external focus”—focus on others. This sort of wider view may help you keep any fame you get in perspective. After all, there’s a way to live on in the hearts and minds of many, even after you die, and it’s by creating brilliant, spirit-moving art—or by being a chinchilla videotaped while eating a Dorito.