A behaviourist's guide to New Year's resolutions
Every year you set out determined to stick to your New Year's resolutions. But year after year you fall off track and quickly abandon them. So why are resolutions so hard to keep?
New Year's resolutions are about trying to break habits, which is hard, but not impossible to do.
That's because habitual behaviour is automatic, easy and rewarding. To change a habit, you need to disrupt your behaviour to make way for a new, more desirable one. But as the number of broken New Year's resolutions indicates, disrupting old habits and forming new healthy ones can be difficult.
But what if you're motivated to change old habits? Unfortunately, it isn't that simple.
Behaviourism is a theoretical perspective in psychology that tries to understand human and animal behaviour by studying observable behaviour and events. According to behaviourism, habits are initially motivated by the outcomes or consequences of behaviour, like eating food or earning money. Habits are triggered by contextual cues, like the time of day, your location, or objects around you.
This contrasts with other ways of looking at how we form habits that focus on internal and subjective experiences, like moods, thoughts and feelings. Behaviourism is more concerned with what we can objectively observe.
Behaviourists disrupt habitual behaviour patterns and develop plans to form new habits by what's known as the ABCs of behaviour change:
understanding the antecedents or triggers that precede behaviour
clearly defining the behaviour you want to change
manipulating the consequences or outcomes that follow behaviour
Define what you want to change
First, it's important to clearly define the behaviour you want to change. If you don't, what constitutes the "behaviour" becomes open to interpretation and creates loop holes you'll try to wriggle through when there are more attractive options on offer.
State the behaviour and quantify your goal. For instance, "I would like to walk five kilometres three times a week" is clearly defined but "I would like to exercise more" is not.
Understand the triggers
When are you more likely to crave an ice-cold beer? Is it Friday afternoon at the pub? Or Sunday morning on the way to church?
Because we have previously enjoyed drinking at the pub at the end of the working week, when we visit again, we are more likely to have a beer or two. This rarely happens in a church where, while there may be some wine, you're not going to get a lot of it. The pub environment sets the scene for drinking behaviour. The church does not.
To form a new habit, you need to maximise the triggers and cues that lead to the desired behaviour and avoid triggers to the less desirable behaviour.
For instance, if you want to drink more water and notice you drink more water when you have a bottle handy, you can take a full water bottle to work each day. Use the bottle as a visual trigger.
Alter the consequences
The consequences of a behaviour to a large extent determine whether or not you are likely to repeat the behaviour. Quite simply, if a pleasant outcome follows a new behaviour, you're more likely to repeat it.
This leads us to reinforcement, an important concept in behaviourism that refers to the process of encouraging the performance of a behaviour. Reinforcement can be used to help you establish a new habit.
Positive reinforcement is most likely a term many are familiar with and probably already use. Simply, positive reinforcement involves behaviour being followed by a reward. Food and money are obvious reinforcers but not really appropriate if your resolution is to maintain a diet or save money. What sort of things do you desire but rarely obtain? That is a reward.
Contrary to popular belief, negative reinforcement doesn't mean behaviour is followed by a negative event. Negative reinforcement refers to the behaviour being followed by the removal of an unpleasant state of affairs, which results in an individual feeling better.
Think about what happens when you are bored or stressed. One way to get rid of the emotional state might be to eat chocolate. Removing the feeling of boredom or stress makes you feel better and chocolate consumption is negatively reinforced. So pay attention to how you feel just before you slip into an old habit. Is the behaviour triggered by the presence and then removal of a negative mood?
There is of course another sort of consequence, punishment. Forget it. Punishment is tricky to do well and no one consistently punishes themselves for doing something they like.
Who is behaviourism good for?
The ABCs of behaviour change (antecedents, behaviour, consequences) are useful for people who procrastinate, people who over-think their behaviour and particularly for people who are good at talking themselves out of doing things.
By removing the cognitive component and structuring antecedents and consequences of behaviour you can basically take your self-sabotaging brain out of the equation.
Identifying and manipulating the antecedents and consequences of behaviour can be useful at any time there is a tipping point in behaviour, not just in planning New Year's resolutions.
So if it's your own behaviour you want to change, or perhaps your loved one's, your not so loved one's or even your pet's behaviour, knowing your ABCs is important. Surely if students could teach rats to play basketball using positive reinforcement, as US psychology students have done, you can train yourself to go for a walk.