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Behaviorism 101: The Keys to the Kingdom of Change

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Auto-Pilot Behavior as Natural Instinct

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We all have a tendency to behave in ways that do not serve us. If the change I described in my last blog were easy, we would all exercise regularly, eat healthy foods, and take better self-care. The reason we do not is simple. Humans, like all animals, are built to move towards what feels good, and move away from what feels bad. The link we make between X behavior and Y immediate outcome becomes a blue print in our minds for decision-making and shapes the behaviors we will choose over time. This is called learning.

Behavior is learned, trained, conditioned, in four basic ways. As a behaviorist, I believe, once you become aware of how reinforcers shape our lives, you have the keys to the kingdom in attaining the success you want!

1. Reward the behavior to increase it (Positive Reinforcement)

Rewards are basically anything we perceive to be pleasurable. Primary reinforcers are those that are universal to everyone, like food, water, sex, and sleep. But even these can loose their ability to reinforce behavior if a belief (thought) gets in the way (e.g., sex is bad). Secondary reinforcers are those that have been paired in our minds as linked to more primary reinforcers (e.g., money). In the simplest of terms, if we want to increase a behavior, pairing it with a reward after the desired behavior change, is the most effective way to make a change.

2. Punish the behavior to decrease it (Punishment)

Punishment is another one that we are all familiar with. It is anything we perceive as unpleasant. When we are potty training a puppy, we put it's nose in the mistake and raise our voice sternly and say "bad doggie." But research shows that punishment, while mildly effective short term, is only effective if the source of the punishment is close by. Unfortunately, us humans make far too much use of this strategy and later internalize these "bad boy/bad girl" messages and continue to judge ourselves harshly when we make a mistake.

3. Reduce discomfort to increase behavior (Negative Reinforcement)

Relief is a powerful source of shaping behavior change, which is often outside awareness. The classic example of this type of reinforcement is the seat belt alarm in your car. What happens if we do not put on our seat belt right away? That annoying alarm rings until we put it on. This teaches us to do the behavior to end the unpleasant sound. This mechanism is particularly important to understand as it helps explain why we procrastinate or frankly avoid pursuing things we deeply desire in our lives.

4. Take away rewards to decrease behavior (Negative Punishment)

Loss of something we enjoy is another type of punishment. For example, taking away computer time from a teenager for not completing his homework. The idea here is that we want to un-pair an unwanted behavior (no homework) from a reinforcer (relief and fun), which might reinforce the behavior.

Getting the Change you want

These mechanisms are like the "keys to the Kingdom" of change because they can also help us to see how this influence occurs between people. The classic scenario is that of a child screaming for a candy bar at the grocery check out. Mommy says "no," and the child screams louder for the candy. If mom gives in to the child's demands, she is succumbing to "Negative Reinforcement," in herself (quieting the screaming alarm/child, to reduce discomfort (embarrassment, tension, etc.). She will simultaneously be Positively Reinforcing the child's demanding and screaming behavior. The child learns "if I scream this loud and long, I will get candy!" But if she waits it out, yes, the child will scream louder at first (we call this an "extinction burst"), before eventually learning that this behavior does not work as a strategy for getting the reward. Get it?

The critical thing to know here is that whenever we seek to change behavior and pursue something important to us, discomfort is going to show up! The negative fortune telling, memories of past failure, shakiness in the body, shortness of breadth all come rushing into awareness and serve to punish the very first movements towards our goals. So we stop the desired action. The relief mechanism then also acts as a subtle reinforcement, which compels us away from taking the needed actions. If the awareness of discomfort beats out awareness of the future rewarding properties (a great new relationship, a better paying/more rewarding job, etc) of the desired change, chances are you won't take the action.

Awareness and Commitments as Antidote to Auto-Pilot Behavior

3 Steps to tackling auto-pilot. The trick to over riding the auto-pilot is first to be aware how the laws of behaviorism come into play in your life, then plan to enact your own reinforcers for the behavior you want to change.

Step I: Set Commitments with 3 levels of performance: Set an Optimal, Acceptable, and Passable level of performance to avoid an all or none pass fail. This will give you a little wiggle room and prevent giving up at the first sign of less than optimal performance.

Step II: Devise reinforcers for success: Plan rewards you can give yourself for success and things you will not allow yourself if you don't meet specific goals. Shape the behavior change you want by rewarding small approximations to the goal.

Step III: Target barriers to success: Ask your self, "What might get in the way of me doing this thing?" It might be something inside you or outside you. There are of course infinite obstacles that get in the way of success. If the obstacles are in the environment (e.g. cookies in the cabinet), see if you can remove them, or assert your needs for support from others. It is important not to get into the blame game, but tackle each as it arises. If the obstacles are internal, see my other blogs on coping with thoughts and emotions.

Getting the change we want in ourselves and others is no easy feat! But knowing these simple principles and putting them into ACTION is a step in the right direction (pun intended). Good Luck
Please do post any questions in the comments section and I am more than happy to clarify!