Lisa Earle McLeod : Propinquity: Is your flatware making you fat?

Published 10:16 am Friday, August 21, 2009

McleodstarDoes the size of your spoon affect your waistline?

Will the location of a scientist’s cubicle impact his productivity?

Can the width of an aisle determine the future of a nation?

If you want the answer, ask Joseph Grenny.

He’s an expert in propinquity.

It’s a word I probably missed on the SAT (and can still barely pronounce), but apparently it’s been affecting me every single day of my life.

Propinquity, from Latin propinquitas (nearness), means physical proximity, a kinship between people, or a similarity in nature between things.

Grenny and his partners at VitalSmarts (, an international consulting firm, have spent years studying how to influence and change human behavior, and they’ve discovered propinquity plays a major role.

Our physical surroundings – the objects and the spaces themselves – affect our daily decisions more than we ever dreamed.

For example, if you take a tub of Ben and Jerry’s out of the fridge, grab a giant serving spoon and hit the couch, you are making a propinquity decision.

By choosing the container instead of a bowl, a ladle instead of a spoon and the couch instead of a chair, your unconscious decisions have a dramatic impact on how much you eat.

The problem is, we’re often completely unaware of just how much these seemingly mundane choices determine our behavior, and we rarely pause to consider the role that physical environments play in the behavior of others.

Grenny says, “When I try to explain someone’s behaviors, I attribute most of what you do to your attitudes or your values. We overemphasize internal components and don’t look at the environment.”

I knew it. It’s not my fault I’m addicted to chunky monkey ice cream. It’s those big spoons my husband forced me to buy.

If we had chosen the dainty set I wanted to register for when we got married 20 years ago, I would probably look like Cindy Crawford. But no, Mr. “I want something hefty in my hands” had to go for the jumbo size.

Combine his Jolly Green Giant flatware with the big, fat, comfy couch he insisted we buy, and it’s no wonder my waistband is tight.

But it’s not just our personal habits; physical surroundings have a huge impact on our workplace as well.

In their new book “Influencer: The Power To Change Anything,” Grenny and partners describe a Bell Labs study in which researchers tested for factors that determine whether two scientists might collaborate. The best predictor? The distance between their offices.
As Grenny says, “First we shape our buildings, then they shape us.”

Which kind of makes you wonder about Congress, where the two political parties literally sit on opposite sides of a big wide aisle. Is it any wonder that they don’t get along? They work in a space that’s specifically designed to separate them.

Rumor has it that the work of Grenny’s team has found an audience in Washington.
I don’t know if that means we’ll soon see the House Floor redesigned into a web of interconnected red and blue work tables, or perhaps the White House is going to insist that the conservative and liberal journalists go away for a weekend together.

But I do know that I’ve made a propinquity decision myself.

Tomorrow, I’m buying smaller spoons, and if my husband still insists on using the jumbo size, it’s his own propinquity fault if he stays fat.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, syndicated columnist and inspirational thought-leader. A popular keynote speaker, Lisa is principal of McLeod & More Inc., a training and consulting firm specializing in sales, leadership and conflict management. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small, is due in January 2010 from Penguin Putnam.