Changing Habits

Nov 02 2012

In the last blog I discussed how the cognitive biases fall into five main themes or categories (read here). But how do these biases relate to habitual behaviours and more importantly to behavioural change? In fact the biases are mostly influenced by contextual factors and the emotional rewards that we all seek.

The cycle of behaviour starts with a trigger (or cue) which is why context is so important to behaviour.

Cultural context, social influence, the frame of reference, the structure of choices provided, the availability of information, and the familiarity of patterns in the environment. Thus, almost all elements of the SNAPP framework are at playing in cueing up our behaviour.

After behaviour there is always an emotional reward (which is the primary motivation, although learned and unconscious). The brain’s reward mechanisms are powerful, which is what helps us to learn about the world when we’re young, but also why it’s so difficult to change learned behaviours when we have become accustomed to a buzz from an expected reward. This is why addiction is so powerful.

So why is it so difficult to change behaviour? The first key is to change the contextual triggers of behaviour. For example, don’t put yourself in a situation which will trigger an undesired behaviour. If you don’t want to eat cream cakes, don’t go into the cake shop (or perhaps even avoid the street that the shop is on). If you want to change decisions, then change the frame of reference, or provide a different set of options, or reword the question.

The second key is to provide an equal (or better) emotional reward for a different behaviour. For example, provide an appropriate reward for going to the gym, when you would usually eat a cream cake. If the trigger is boredom, start to do an activity which will relieve the boredom in a better and more rewarding way than eating the cake (go for a walk to a friend’s house for a chat and coffee).

Just like the best stories (context, action, result), behaviour is all about the relationship between a context, a learned response and the emotional reward that the response inevitably leads to. To change the learned behaviour (to kick a habit), we need to change the context or provide alternatives which become equally desired.

And as with all behaviour, it will only become a new habit if we keep repeating it until we don’t have to think about it.


Habit by Charles Duhigg

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