Behavior Therapy: Why Resolutions Fail
A basic understanding of the theory and practice of behavior modification will greatly increase your chances of success with resolutions made on New Year’s Eve or attempts to change habits at any time of the year. Many of the principles of behavior therapy are based on learning theory. Habits, good or bad, can be learned or un-learned.
There are two main types of conditioning that form the basis of all learned behavior. When any behavior is modified as a result of the consequences, positive or negative, this is the result of operant conditioning. The basic theory of this type of conditioning is logical and simple: rewards will increase the desired behavior, absence of reinforcement will slowly extinguish the behavior, and any punishment will decrease the behavior.
This formula makes operant conditioning an ideal way to modify any behavior and have more success with New Year’s resolutions. In order to modify a behavior using operant conditioning, it is important to first identify precisely not only the target behavior, but also the reward & punishment. It is crucial that rewards & punishments be implemented consistently, and they should ideally be related to the goal behavior.
Both accountability and support can be subtle types of reinforcement and verbal or written commitments can also provide some help with motivation. Rewards need not be monetary and may be even occur naturally—sometimes a sense of pride and praise from others is enough reinforcement. And, disappointment & shame are two natural consequences that can be punishing.
All rewards should be frequent in order to learn the behavior and then can be less frequent in order to maintain the behavior. One’s ability to delay gratification must be considered when you are first establishing rewards. Also, the magnitude of the reward should closely correspond with the degree of behavior change.
Rewards always work better than any punishments. A negative consequence should only be used when there is also the possibility of an equally significant positive consequence. The reward & punishment need not be of the same currency, just of the same magnitude.
It’s always easier to add a behavior than it is to stop a behavior. Try to set a goal that involves doing something differently, rather than not doing something that has become a habit. You will have a greater chance of success.
Changing habits and other behaviors can be hard but behavior change can be gradual. Though a long range goal may be difficult, each short term goal should be a little challenging but achievable.
In a process known as shaping, small changes are reinforced and expectations are gradually increased: then behavior is only reinforced if it is a closer approximation of the ideal behavior.
Failure at New Year’s resolutions is most often the result of poorly planned & poorly implemented behavior modification. Other factors which can impact success or failure with implementing a behavior change may include untreated psychological or medical conditions, addictions and strong familial or cultural expectations. Sometimes unconscious psychological conflicts can interfere with our thoughts and actions, and hence they become obstacles to success. A well formulated behavioral plan must address these issues as well in order to produce lasting changes.