Part 2 How to Change Behaviours & Bad Habits

Updated: May 12

Second Law: Make it attractive (craving)

This post continues from Part 1 How to Change Bad Habits & Behaviours. In addition to making cues for desired new habits obvious, we can strengthen the tendency to implant them by making the cues attractive, so that we desire them more.

Supernormal stimuli and temptation bundling: Work these to your advantage

I’ve been referring to the stimulus in psychology as the cue by which someone may start a habit loop that ends in a reward. Now we look at how to make a habit attractive so that it “sticks”, and in this context we discuss the notion of a supernormal stimulus, defined as an exaggerated, more intense version of a natural stimulus which elicits a stronger behavioural response than the natural stimulus would have (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2018). For examples, look to the beautiful, glistening bodies of models on the covers of fitness or beauty magazines, or the brightly coloured, beautiful packaging on children’s vitamins. The supernormal stimuli here make us want to buy the magazine in order to look like the model, or they elicit in children the desire to eat whatever is in such an attractive bottle. By way of contrast, note how the broccoli or onions in the fresh food part of the grocery store are always the same: no exaggerated versions here – and how much do you crave broccoli on a normal day? The food industry spends multiple millions every year trying to get just the right sensation in your mouth of that cookie you love, or the right sense of texture on the pizza you order, with attention to contrasts between creamy and crunchy, gooey and smooth, and so on (Clear, 2018; Duhigg, 2012).

Moreover, we experience a dopamine hit (mentioned above) just by seeing – such pleasurable stimuli. When we get a rewarding, habit-forming, sense of pleasure from thinking about eating those foods (say, pizza or cookies) as actually eating them, we actually crave them and are motivated to work towards acquiring them.

Making habits attractive through temptation bundling

So how can we make the new, desired habit attractive? Given that supernormal stimuli exist, and they elicit a strong, dopamine-permeated, habit-forming response, we are likely to have such a response as much in anticipation of a reward as when receiving the reward. We know, then, that we can motivate ourselves to earn the reward by figuring out how to get the dopamine spike in anticipation. We learned that when our brains repeatedly register behaviours together in a chain, the brain forms a habit for that chain of behaviours, viewing it as a single (chunked) event/behaviour, and we also found that, when a behaviour occurs repeatedly in conjunction with another behaviour, the other behaviour functions as a cue for the first one.

The fortunate conclusion is that, if we can create a new behaviour that we desire to make habitual) together with something that we are already doing (something that we like doing) the desired habit, now associated with something positive, will become more attractive (Clear, 2018). As an example, one man had a lot of continuing education material to read on the computer for his profession, but he felt bored by it. He habitually went out for a coffee and soon began insisting to himself that he would not allow himself to order the coffee until, computer at the cafe table, he was logged on and reading the procrastinated documents. He could absorb the coffee and the ambiance as he got through the less agreeable chore of professional reading. The continuing education was soon a reasonably pleasant habit- the coffee outing.

Here is the habit-stacking and temptation-bundling formula for your clients:

  1. After (current habit), I will (habit I need).

  2. After (habit I need), I will (habit I want).

Use social contagion and the herd instinct to make a habit more attractive

As human beings, we have an ingrained herd instinct. In fact, negotiating inclusion with the “herd” or “tribe” – in the first instance, our family – is a strong survival instinct (Myss, 1997). Positive psychology experts have developed this notion, completing studies showing the incredible power of social contagion to shape our behaviours even when we aren’t aware of the influence and don’t personally know the influencer (Langley, 2017).

Because the people and groups around us affect us so much – we may use notions of social contagion to strike up and maintain good habits. What is needed is to expose ourselves to the people who are habitually employing the actions we wish to make into a habit. We imitate the habits of three types of groups in particular:

  1. The close: meaning those proximate to us, such as partners, colleagues, and friends.

  2. The many: meaning, the general social milieu in which we find ourselves.

  3. The powerful, meaning those who have power, privilege, status, or are “influencers.”

And the inverse: make a bad habit unattractive

The way the Second Law works to get rid of a bad habit is to make it unattractive. Social marketing campaigns through the years have sometimes done this quite pointedly. We are reminded of the pictures that cigarette sellers were forced to put on their packages showing smokers the effects of smoking. Do you have a food intolerance and wish to give up eating a food that you crave (such as gluten or dairy)? Link aspects of ingesting the food and the stomach ache you will later feel?

In some cases, it may only be a matter of re-programming our brains to understand things in a new way by re-framing. Every craving has a deeper, underlying motive: probably related to survival if we go deep enough. Thus, most habits are a modern solution to an old problem. They are associations in which we receive a cue (let’s say, the aroma of freshly-baked bread) and determine, based on past experience (say, eating and enjoying hot bread) whether we predict that the habit is worth repeating or not. Once we realise the link we have made between the cue and the habit, we can make a different prediction (in the case of gluten intolerance: “You won’t be happy and full; you will be sick”) and re-program, finding a different solution/reward to the problem (i.e., a gluten-free bread or another type of food entirely).

Thus, satisfying a craving is an attempt to address a basic underlying motive. When the habit successfully addresses the motive, we develop the craving to do it again. To be successful in changing a habit, then, we must find a new solution for an existing (probably ancient) need. The new solution, to be effective in changing the habit, must make the old habit unattractive but still meet the need that the old habit was trying to meet (Clear, 2018).

For the Third Law click here

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