Many people want to stop doing something — smoking, biting their finger nails, overeating, worrying nonstop. I often preach in my Behavior Modification class that it is very hard just to eliminate an habitual behavior because creating a void tends to lead to a return of the behavior, especially when something stressfult happens. One secret to making a permanent change is to replace the undesirable behavior with a more adaptive behavior that serves the same functions. I recently saw evidence of this view in the published results of a study done by a former student of mine, Sally Rooke. She studied individuals who had tried to quit using marijuana. Half succeeded and half failed. The ones who succeeded were significantly more likely to use strategies that involved alternative behaviors that served the same stress-reduction functions as marijuana, e.g., using “calming thoughts” and finding “other ways to relax.” Many maladaptive behaviors serve a calming function. Other common functions of maladaptive behavior are entertainment and controlling others. For each function, there are usually more adaptive ways to achieve the goal. For individuals to change and to maintain their progress, they usually need to identify the functions (rewarding effects) of the undesirable behavior, develop alternative behaviors to achieve those functions, and practice those until they become habitual. If the new behaviors adequately serve the functions, a person can make a permanent change.
I used this method to eliminate (mostly!) the use of curse words. I replaced them with similar-sounding other words. Now when I make a mistake, I say “shucks” or something similar.
Have you replaced one behavior with a more adaptive one? What?
John Malouff, PhD, JD
Assoc Prof of Psychology