The master key to changing habits and behavior for good.

Chris Vaccaro
Oct 19, 2017 · 10 min read

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The science of human motivation is actually pretty simple.

In the 1930’s Harvard Psychologist B. F. Skinner, now known to be the father of modern behaviorism created a device now colloquiallly called the Skinner Box.

The box consisted of a space for an animal (typically a pidgeon or rat,) a single lever, a mechanism that delivered a treat, and an electrified grid on the floor. If the lever were pressed when the light was green, a treat was dispensed. If the lever were pressed when the light was red, a shock was delivered. The results of these experiments were very simple: the animals learned to only press the lever while the light was green, and to refrain from pressing it while it was red.

What we learned from these experiments was also very simple. Organisms take action based on the expected reward of that action.

Later experiments showed the same thing over and over. A rat will push a lever if it knows a treat will come out. A rat will avoid another lever if it knows a shock will come. And later experiments showed that these same findings applied to humans as well. A human will perform a behavior if he/she believes there’s a possibility of pleasure, and he/she will avoid a behavior if he/she believes there’s a possibility of pain. This feedback mechanism was very beneficial to us throughout our evolutionary history. Anything that could harm us (fire, a bear attack, hunger) became unpleasant, while anything that would benefit us or our genes (food, safety, sex) resulted in a pleasant feeling. This feedback mechanism has become a little screwy in our complex modern times, but throughout almost all of history, it was extremely beneficial to us.

To put it simply: humans are wired to move toward pleasure and run from pain.

This isn’t a novel concept and all of us know this intuitively. But understanding this gives us enormous leverage over our own behavior. All our behaviors are basically complex string of ways to gain rewards or avoid punishments. “If I go to work, I will get money, which I can trade for food (treats)” or “I need to go to work, to get money to avoid poverty (pain)” On a cognitive level, while it may be true, that person believes that if they go to work they will get money, if they have money, they can buy food or other treats.

Skinner was able to get animals to perform all kinds of complex behaviors by stringing together rewards. He was able to get pigs to put money in a piggy bank. He was able to teach Pigeons to play ping pong.

While behaviorists like Skinner preferred to look at behavior rather than thoughts, real changes occur in the organisms brain. We call this ‘learning.’ ‘Learning’ is the development of beliefs. A belief that states “If I push this, I will get a treat,” will lead to that orginism performing more of that action. A belief that states “If I push this, I will get a shock,” will lead to less of that behavior. On a physical level, It created a complex neural network that let that rat know that pushing that lever would be beneficial to it. Pushing the lever that delivers the shock would not be beneficial. In humans, if a child runs and skins his knee, he might develop the idea “running too fast can cause me to get hurt.” He develops a belief. “[Action] leads to [Pain]”

My name for these are “Operantial Beliefs.” It’s the belief (accurate or not) that a certain action will lead to a certain outcome. Animals other than humans generally have to have an experience in order to learn. They have to “learn the hard way.” But humans have the unique ability to learn and develop beliefs via verbal communication. While the child can learn from skinning his knee, he can also learn when his parents tell him something like “Don’t run out in the street or you’ll be hit by a car!” which leads to an operantial belief “[Action:Running in the street)] leads to [Pain:Being hit by a car(or in this case, possible death)]

There are three very simple types of operantial beliefs:
A) [Action] leads to [Pleasure/Reward]

B) [Action] leads to [Pain/Punishment]

C) [Action] leads to [No response/No consequence]

Everything humans do is because we perceive that action will help us gain pleasure/reward or avoid punishment/pain.

Read that again. Notice it says “we perceive that action will help us gain pleasure.” We do not react to the event or stimulus itself, but of our perception of it. It is our thoughts about a event that creates the response, not the event itself.

“Too many people are unaware that it is not outer events or circumstances that will create happiness; rather, it is our perception of events and of ourselves that will create, or uncreate, positive emotions.” ― Albert Ellis, founder Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Men are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them. ― Epictetus, Stoic Philosopher

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Stoic Philosopher

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ― Hamlet, (William Shakespeare, Playwrite)

Pleasure and pain is not a result of the stimuli itself, but a result of our thoughts about the stimuli. What is seen as pleasurable by one, may be seen as painful by another. While one person may see a cigarette as disgusting, another sees it as a necessity. One person may see a calorie rich meal and think “that’s the most tempting and delicious thing I’ve seen all week” while another will think “If I eat that I’m going to look terrible.” And given those two perceptions we can generally guess which one is more likely to endulge in the calorie rich meal, and which will avoid it.

The lesson here is: If we can change our perceptions of what’s pleasurable and painful, we can change our actions.

When the pain of staying the same becomes more than the pain of changing, you’ll change. — Tony Robbins, Personal Development Coach

And I would add that when the excitement of changing outweighs the comfort of staying the same, we also change.

When we use that leverage to our advantage we can change our behavior very easily, and very quickly. And without the feeling of giving anything up.

Our behavior change technique revolves around changing our perceptions regarding a certain action. The action may be eating healthy, quitting a harmful substance, doing something good for our career/business, starting a healthy behavior like exercise, or getting over a fear.

If we can change the things we link ideas to, we can change the behavior easily and painlessly. But we need to understand that a certain behavior isn’t generally linked to only one set of pleasure or pain. It’s usually linked to multiple, often conflicting ideas, some rewarding, some punishing. For example people may want a reward, but also feel fear in pursuing that reward. One illustration would be a gentleman may want the reward of meeting woman he finds attractive, but also want to avoid the pain of possible rejection. Those competing ideas will be conflict. In that case the two ideas would be weighed and whichever feeling were more powerful would be the action he takes.

Our brains weigh the pros and cons of any given action, and whichever side has more weight on it will be the side that wins, and in a case like this gentleman we would want to weaken, unlink and minimize the fear of rejection while strengthening the perception of reward in meeting nice women with whom he may be compatable. This gentleman can be taught to easily speak with women by decreasing the perception of pain [fear] and increasing perception of pleasure [meeting a nice woman,] and can actually be taught to enjoy it.

It’s essentially like Autopilot. When there’s more reward/pleasure than punishment/pain linked to an action, the action becomes automatic. When there’s more pain than pleasure linked to opposing behaviors, avoiding them will be automatic. There’s no longer any work or willpower involved in attaining said goal.

Cool story bro!…. enough theory, we want to know how to actually do this!

Alright alright alright

The process is as follows

First you decide what you want or what unwanted behaviors you want to stop. Second you fill out a Cost-benefit analysis / Decisional Balance sheet.

Lets say someone is having a hard time finding the motivation to start exercising.

Write down the pros and cons of changing, staying the same as well as pros and cons of the things you would have to do to get there. For example someone may want more money but they may feel like they would have to give up a lot of free time in order to do that, which may or may not be true. This would go in the “cons of changing” column.

It’s very very very important that you be honest about what you benefit from your unwanted behavior. Where you are right now is a sum of all your desires. You may want something new, but at the same time you may also want the comfort of what’s familiar. The comfort of what’s familiar is a desire too, which pulls you in an opposite direction. If you didnt benefit from it in some way, you wouldn’t do it. Figuring out how you benefit from your unwanted behavior is perhaps the most important part of this model.

It’s important to dig deep and be very honest. Here’s an excerpt on the topic from “Stop Smoking with CBT” by Dr. Max Pemberton:

“For many, many smokers, they think smoking is part of who they are. I know I did and you probably do too. I allowed it to define me: I was the naughty doctor who smoked, the maverick. I liked the idea I did something unexpected like smoking when I was supposed to know better; I was being contrary. Smoking for me was two fingers up to the establishment that I found myself entering, and yet didn’t really feel I related to when I began medical school.”

He explains how the main thing keeping him smoking was the idea that it was rebellious for a doctor to smoke and make him feel unique. That was the benefit. Once he changed this thought, the smoking behavior disappeared instantly, with no desire to start again. Desires and cravings only happen when you believe you’re giving something up.

Now after the inventory is complete we want to tip the scales in our favor.

We’re going to make pleasure of not taking action and pain of action so minuscule and the pleasure of taking action and pain of inaction so great that we’re literally propelled into doing what we set out to do.

Think of it like a tug of war. On one side you have the Angel of Change. On the other side you have the Demon of Familiarity. There’s two ways to make the Angel win. You can make her so strong that she just literally overpowers the demon. Or you can just walk over and bonk the Demon on the head, knocking him out. We’re going to do both… strengthening the Angel and bonking the Demon, leaving no chance for the demon to win.

To do this, go to the first chart “By NOT TAKING ACTION to _________” and minimizing each idea on the list. Pretend you’re the world greatest trial lawyer and your job is to to convince a judge and jury that the arguments listed in those columns are total and complete nonsense. For every idea listed, ask if you have hard evidence for those claim. Claim: “I will be embarrassed at the gym” Rebuttle: Do you have positive evidence of that? Many people just mind their own business at the gym. Even if so, is it really that important? Isn’t it much more embarrassing to remain overweight? If people can’t understand that you want to better yourself, then their opinions aren’t worth caring about. Tell yourself each won’t be that big of a deal. Claim: “Tiredness and pain from working out” reframe this as ‘not a big deal.’ Rebuttle: Remind yourself how most people like the feeling of a good workout. A rebuttal to “Getting to relax and watch movies”… would be “I have plenty of time to relax. And when I do, I’ll feel a ton better if my health is good.” or “that pleasure is only temporary, while feeling great will last all day.”

A few ways of changing those beliefs:

A) Asking for evidence for the correctness of this belief (you’ll often find there is none.)

B) Finding Evidence against this belief (examples to the contrary, statistics, logical inconsistencies)

C) Metaphors: “If Babe Ruth were embarrassed the first time he went to bat, how far would he gotten in life?”

D) Use humor: “Oh yes i would much rather the embarrassment of being overweight my whole life than to be o a treadmill! it’s clearly a fate worse than death!”

E) Create an argument in support of that idea, just significantly more extreme. Doing this will often point out the absurdity of an argument. (ie. “it’s actually great to be overweight. Healthy people don’t know what they’re missing. I’m clearly more happy than they are.”)

For more info on this search “Disputing irrational beliefs in REBT”

The next thing you want to do is to make the rewards to this more salient. Make them so good you can taste them. How will this really affect your life. Instead of “More time with Family” Actually think of what you and your family will do. Have you been dying to take your kids to that new waterpark? The brain likes concrete ideas. It doesn’t do well with abstractions. “I want to be in good shape” isn’t as nearly as motivating as imagining how proud you’ll feel every time you look in the mirror.

What are the specific rewards. Make them salient.

If you do this for every behavior you want to change, you’ll have your life where you want it to be in no time. If you need more motivation ever, just go back and review your sheet. You may have to go back every so often if there are hidden pros of not changing/cons of changing that you never thought of.

Resource: Decisional Balance Sheet

Good luck! And don’t forget to subscribe and follow Informed Living on Twitter!

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