A Behaviorist’s Guide to New Year’s Resolutions

January 1, 2017 Updated: January 13, 2017

Every year, you set out determined to stick to your New Year’s resolutions. But it’s likely that year after year, you fall off track and quickly abandon them. So why are resolutions so hard to keep?

New Year’s resolutions are about trying to break habits, which is hard but not impossible to do.

That’s because habitual behavior is automatic, easy, and rewarding. To change a habit, you need to disrupt your behavior to make way for a new, more desirable one. But as the number of broken New Year’s resolutions indicates, disrupting old habits and forming new, healthy ones can be difficult.

But what if you’re motivated to change old habits? Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

Behaviorism is a theoretical perspective in psychology that tries to understand human and animal behavior by studying observable behaviors and events. According to behaviorism, habits are initially motivated by the outcomes or consequences of behavior, like earning praise or eating food.

This contrasts with other ways of looking at how we form habits that focus on internal and subjective experiences, like thoughts and feelings. Behaviorism is more concerned with what others can objectively observe.

Behaviorists disrupt habitual behavior patterns and develop plans to form new habits by what’s known as the ABCs of behavior change:

  • understanding the antecedents, or triggers, that precede the behavior
  • clearly defining the behavior you want to change
  • manipulating the consequences or outcomes that follow the behavior

Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” explains how he used the theories of behaviorism to stop snacking.

Define What You Want to Change

First, it’s important to clearly define the behavior you want to change. If you don’t, what constitutes the “behavior” becomes open to interpretation and creates loop holes you’ll try to wriggle through when there are more attractive options on offer.

State the behavior and quantify your goal. For instance, “I would like to walk three miles, three times a week” is clearly defined, but “I would like to exercise more” is not.

Understand the Triggers

Certain contexts or environmental cues often trigger a habitual behavior. These are what behaviorists refer to as antecedents and are a large part of why we perform habitual behaviors.

When are you more likely to crave an ice-cold beer? Is it Friday afternoon at the end of a long week? Or Sunday morning on the way to church?

Because we have previously enjoyed drinking at a bar at the end of the work week, when we visit again, we are more likely to have a beer or two. This rarely happens in a church where, while there may be some wine, you’re not going to get a lot of it. The bar environment sets the scene for drinking behavior. The church does not.

To form a new habit, you need to maximize the triggers and cues that lead to the desired behavior and avoid triggers to the less desirable behavior.

For instance, if you want to drink more water and notice you drink more water when you have a bottle handy, you can take a full water bottle to work each day. Use the bottle as a visual trigger.

Alter the Consequences

The consequences of a behavior to a large extent determine whether or not you are likely to repeat the behavior. Quite simply, if a pleasant outcome follows a new behavior, you’re more likely to repeat it.

This leads us to reinforcement, an important concept in behaviorism that refers to the process of encouraging the performance of a behavior. Reinforcement can be used to help you establish a new habit.

Positive reinforcement is most likely a term many are familiar with and probably already use. Simply, positive reinforcement involves certain behaviors being followed by a reward. Food and money are obvious reinforcers but not really appropriate if your resolution is to maintain a diet or save money. What kinds of things do you desire but rarely obtain? That is a reward.

If positive reinforcement can teach rats to play basketball, think what it could do for you.

Contrary to popular belief, negative reinforcement doesn’t mean a behavior is followed by a negative event. Negative reinforcement refers to the behavior being followed by the removal of an unpleasant state of affairs, which results in an individual feeling better.

Think about what happens when you are bored or stressed. One way to get rid of the emotional state might be to eat chocolate. Removing the feeling of boredom or stress makes you feel better and chocolate consumption is negatively reinforced. So pay attention to how you feel just before you slip into an old habit. Is the behavior triggered by the presence and then removal of a negative mood?

There is, of course, another sort of consequence: punishment. Forget it. Punishment is tricky to do well and no one consistently punishes themselves for doing something they like.

Who Is Behaviorism Good For?

The ABCs of behavior change (antecedents, behavior, consequences) are useful for people who procrastinate, people who over think their behavior, and particularly people who are good at talking themselves out of doing things.

By removing the cognitive component and the structuring antecedents and consequences of a behavior, you can basically take your self-sabotaging brain out of the equation.

Identifying and manipulating the antecedents and consequences of behaviors can be useful at any time there is a tipping point in behavior, not just in making New Year’s resolutions.

So if it’s your own behavior you want to change, your loved one’s, or perhaps your not-so-loved one’s, knowing your ABCs is important. Surely if students could teach rats to play basketball using positive reinforcement, as U.S. psychology students have done, you can train yourself to go for a walk.

The ConversationRebekah Boynton is a doctoral candidate at James Cook University and Anne Swinbourne is a senior lecturer in psychology at James Cook University. This article was originally published on The Conversation