We probably all have a bad habit — or perhaps know other people with bad habits. It’s all fun and games until it starts affecting your life and the people around you in a negative way. Why are bad habits so hard to get rid of? Habits are mindless acts and require essentially no effort from us to maintain. That’s why they’re so easy to do.
So, this week, let’s take a look at how you can train yourself (or someone else) out of these bad habits.
A fundamental law of behaviour is that if what you do (a response) is followed by a favourable consequence, then you’ll more likely do it again. For example: if you drink some coffee when you’re really tired, and that caffeine wakes you up, allowing you to do what you need to do, you’ll be more likely to drink coffee again when you’re tired to achieve the same favourable outcome. This favourable outcome is called a reinforcer. On the other hand, if a response is followed by an unfavourable consequence, then it will be less likely to happen again.
What this means is that responses that are followed by a reinforcer, like drinking coffee to wake up, will increase. Other responses will decrease because it has not given you the same favourable outcome!
Moreover, reinforcement is most effective when it immediately follows the response. If you’re training an animal to do something, you should reward it with something positive immediately after it successfully does the act. When you tell a dog to sit and it does, but you then tell it to come to you for a reward, you’re actually reinforcing the act of the dog coming to you and not the act of it sitting down.
So, what you should do instead is reward the dog immediately after it sits, so that it knows the positive reinforcement of the reward is for its act of sitting down and not anything else! Positive reinforcement, like the examples above, is one way of producing new or altering old behaviours. Some other ways are through negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.
Negative reinforcement is when something negative is withdrawn after an act occurs, which encourages that act to occur again. For example, if you’ve got a flatmate who’s really messy and you constantly nag them about cleaning up, that is an unpleasant event for them… and you. Once they do clean up, your Marge Simpson nagging will stop, which removes the unpleasant event. That would be a negative reinforcement, because now your flatmate knows that as long as they clean up, you won’t nag them about it, thus removing something negative from them.
Positive punishments are not what they sound like. This is when something aversive is added when you do something. If you were a smoker and you wanted to quit smoking, snapping a rubber band on your wrist every time you wanted to smoke would be something that might steer you away from thoughts of smoking because the feeling of the rubber band snapping on your wrist is unpleasant — unless you’re into that kinky shit! Naturally, the aversive event would have to outweigh your desire to continue with your bad habit. Conversely, negative punishment is when something positive is withdrawn to prevent an act from happening again. This is the classic method that your parents might’ve used on you, like grounding you after you’ve done something bad. Something like a swear-jar would have a similar effect, where putting your money in a jar acts as a deterrent from swearing because you don’t want to lose your money.
To change an old or produce a new behaviour would require some shaping, where you reinforce responses that build up and get closer to your end goal. You need to firstly become conscious of these mindless acts, and monitor when and where they tend to occur. Getting rid of bad habits and forming good habits is a slow process, but it will pay off in the end.
In order to successfully shape your behaviour to be the behaviour that you want, you should firstly find a reinforcer that is the most suitable to you (or whoever/whatever you’re trying to train). Once you’ve made that decision, be sure that you’re clear on what behaviour you will be reinforcing, and make sure to reinforce it as immediately as possible.
It’s important to note that too many reinforcers will lead to satiation, and you’ll lose interest in the reinforcer. On the other hand, not enough reinforcers will lead to a lack of response. So, a balance needs to be struck. Ideally, you’ll find something that will keep you going in the long-term. So you can be more than a dog.