My 3-year old son got in trouble yesterday. He has a bad habit that has developed recently--hitting his sister--that we have to nip in the bud. (We all have bad habits that we want to kick, no shame)
The interesting part of this story is not that he got in trouble, but what he said when we talked about the consequences of hitting his sister. He asked me why he had to go to timeout. I explained to him that what he did was wrong, that he hurt someone else, and that there was a consequence to hurting people.
His response-- "But I don’t want consequences.” He just wants to hit his sister.
From the mouth of babes.
This is the struggle that WE ALL HAVE. We have bad habits and we don't want the consequences We want to make choices, sometimes very poor choices, but we don’t want the poor consequences that follow. We only want good things to happen to us regardless of our own actions or inactions.
It does not work that way! And it never will.
Consequences are a universal truth. Cause and effect. Action and reaction. There is NO WAY to avoid them. They are like death and taxes.
The desire to avoid consequences, to not take responsibility for our own choices, is the number 1 thing holding us back from reaching our potential. We will never be who we are meant to be--who we must be--until we start embracing the responsibility for our choices, instead of avoiding them.
Now for the Science, Because Science Has A LOT To Say About Bad Habits and Consequences
Psychology does not have many scientific “laws”--humans are just so messy it is hard to find a pattern of behavior so strong that we can call it a “law.” So, when psychologists describe a pattern of behavior as a law, you know it is a big deal.
And the “law of effect” is a BIG deal.
The law of effect simply states that actions that produce good consequences, called reinforcers by psychologists, are more likely to be repeated. Actions that produce poor consequences, called punishments, are less likely to be repeated.
It’s okay if you were underwhelmed by that, I was too when I was first exposed to it. But here is where the law gets really cool. People’s habits, their good habits and their bad habits, are all rooted in the law of effect.
Our Bad Habits Exist Because We Were Rewarded For Them In The Past
I bite my nails. It's one of my many bad habits. I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man. I realize it’s gross, so why do I do it?
The law of effect. I do it because it is a soothing device. When I feel anxious or stressed, I bite my nails as a way of distracting myself. Whereas I was stressed and anxious before I bit my nails, now that I am biting them I feel less so. Law of effect. Biting my nails led to less stress, therefore I’m likely going to keep biting my nails. And as long as that pattern continues, that I feel reinforced for biting my nails, I’m going to continue to do it.
Why does your manager have a fiery temper? When they get upset, their employees seem to work harder. (Seem is an important word here. A lot of the “good” consequences for bad behavior just “seem” to be good and aren’t actually. In a moment, we will dive into this further.)
Why don't the people that you coach take action? Taking action requires effort, change, and probably pain. All of these are “punishments” to most people and make the behavior less likely.
Why can’t you wake up early to get your work done? It’s painful to wake up that early.
Why can’t we lose weight? Be more productive? Engage our employees? Lead effectively? Etc. etc. etc. Every single one can be predicted by the law of effect. We engage in these behaviors become on some level we are more reinforced than punished for them.
The law of effect applies to all bad habits. Our patterns of behavior exist because we received some kind of reinforcement for them. (In later posts, we will discuss the different types of reinforcements. Knowing these will lead to greater self-awareness, which can then lead to great self-management. This applies to ourselves and the people we serve.)
But Wait A Second...All Bad Habits?
I know what some of you are thinking right now. Your thinking...wait a second...back up...some of the things you listed aren’t really rewarding, at least not in the long run.
A fiery temper leads to poor relationships. No one really wants that.
Not taking action after a coaching session leads to no growth, and our clients surely want growth.
Not being productive, being overweight, having disengaged employees, leading poorly, none of those things are rewarding. So why do we keep doing them if the law of effect says we only repeat things that are rewarding?
The reason is simple. Short-term consequences affect behavior more than long-term.
Short-Term Consequences > Long-Term Consequences.
On a neurological level, your brain is great at recognizing the immediate consequences of your decisions. It is much worse at recognizing long-term consequences. The more time between the consequence and the decision, the less likely your brain is to actually connect those things together.
That is why it takes a really large long-term consequence to overcome even the smallest immediate consequence.
So while a fiery temper, not taking action, being unproductive, eating unhealthy, treating employees unfairly, leading poorly may all have terrible long-term consequences, on a neurological level, the brain is really only recognizing the immediate rewards of these behaviors. And then the law of effect takes hold and we start to do these things more often, then they become habitual and eventually just part of who we are (literally--our brains and body will take on these characteristics--and figuratively).
To break bad habits, there are 5 steps.
STEP 1: You need to discover if your client really wants to change their bad habits. If they do, really do, then you help them see change as a real possibility. Focus on increasing their hope and optimism that change is possible. This is what most coaches, speakers, and trainers do really well.
These next steps are going to take your impact to a whole new level.
STEP 2: You and your client need to really examine their bad habits--their repetitive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors--and the IMMEDIATE reinforcers for their habits. If they are engaging in a habit that is causing them pain or frustration, they are receiving or have received some kind of reinforcer for this behavior. (More on the types of reinforcement in next week’s blog, so please sign up to get updates. :)
Going back to the example of my son developing a bad habit of hitting his sister, we starting to watch really closely to figure out the situations that he hits her in. It looks like he does it when she takes something from him. What's the reinforcer for hitting her? When he hits her, she goes away to cry and he can immediately play with his toy. Immediate reinforcer--he gets his toy.
STEP 3: You need to, if possible, make a plan to remove the reinforcements. Remember, the law of effect says that bad habits that are not reinforced should be diminished over time. In order for this step to work, we really have to nail the first step though. Removing the wrong reinforcer and not the primary reinforcer will have little effect on bad habits
Back to the son--we have to make it so that he does NOT get to continue to play with the toy and do it as quickly as possible.
STEP 4: Create a plan to provide a healthy, productive IMMEDIATE reinforcer for a different, positive habit. We are going to replace the negative behaviors with a positive one. And we do that by reinforcing the behaviors we want. So, brainstorm with your clients' alternative behaviors that can help them.
For our son, this would look like asking her if he can play with the toy or, if that does not work, taking his case to a parent (ugh...that sounds awful. We might stick with the hitting. ;)
And remember to keep the reinforcer as close to the behavior as possible. And it needs to make them feel good. The closer the better, even if the reward is small. (With Architect, we use raffles, funny posts, and inspirational quotes to reinforce and we try to make the reinforcement as close to the behavior as possible.)
STEP 5: STICK TO THE PLAN!!!! I can't over-emphasize this point. You must keep encouraging them to stick with their plans to remove reinforcement for their bad habits and reinforcing their new positive habits.
It is important that they do not stop or quit. Habits take time to form and time to break. Your clients will want to stop. They will get bored. Sometimes they will claim that they have their bad habits beat. KEEP GOING! If it is taking effort, they haven’t formed a habit yet. If they are bored, they haven’t formed a habit yet. Habits are effortless, natural, and often mindless, not boring. So you are going to keep them going until it truly becomes part of who they are.
Okay, we have gone over a ton. Next week, we will discuss reinforcers. There is a ton there and it is really critical to understanding how to build and remove habits. So, sign up to receive updates and stay tuned.
Happy habit building,