How to eliminate a maladaptive behavior of your own — A secret method!

Posted by | June 19, 2012 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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


  • michael says:

    I have enjoyed reading this blog again and this time came with a specific purpose. My 18-year-old disabled foster-child has just started uni. It has been a real big journey with his. Suffice to say that the brittle bone disorder (osteogenesis imperfeta III) has provided my wife and I with some failry huge life issues, not to mention of course the amzing hardship and challenge that everyday life has provided for K.

    K attended a comprehensive government school that has become noteworthy for its poor academic results. Suffice to say that although his school results were the best of his collegial group we were still very relieved when he got into uni. So was he and although I might sound like an over-manager he did drive his own achievement.

    After a relatively smooth transition into student accommodation we seemed to be rocking along. The biggest concern area for me has always been his social stuff as he can be isolated by his disability. He has some good skills though and through music and swimming and theatre he has been able to gain some friends and some good social skills. I was really relieved when he announced that he wanted to go to a student function in O-week. Trouble is …he broke his pelvis and has been struggling since. He is back at lectures in his electric wheelchair and has good care on the campus.

    This week his care team contacted me to say there are concerns. He has developed a serious addiction to computer games. This has always been on the cards because, due to his hundreds of broken bones, he has suffered some extended periods of pain and hospitalisation. In short as he has come off heavy duty pain control he has used screen times as a distraction…a way of coping with background pain. While he was living at home we were able to help mitigate this by providing alternatives, by bringing his screen time to conscious awareness and at times by negotiating limits. In consultation with his anaesthetist over the years we came to the conclusion that screen time would be a good alternative to amorphiates and heavy analgesia over extended periods. Thing is now that the stress reduction he gains from screen has become a compulsion. He can play up to 12 hours a day at uni. There is impairement as he is failing uni and his social goals are not being met. Like addicts I have had a bit to do with in the past he has developed skills in telling me, his mother and his care workers what we want to hear, but he has lost control. I am at a loss to think of rewarding tasks or experiences which can help as the screen games themselves are intensely rewarding and functional for his pain issues.

    K acknowledges that this is a wild-fire but is having trouble with his regulatory behaviours. What’s a guy to do?

  • jmalouff says:

    Hi Michael. Playing video games by itself is not a problem, unless as a result the person fails to engage in other more adaptive activities such as studying and socializing. So I would be inclined to help the person move toward other activities rather than just decrease the game playing. His goals and fears may play a big role in whether he wants to make that kind of change. He may benefit from prompts, opportunities, and reinforcing results for engaging in these other activities. I teach behaviour modification, and one idea I preach again and again is to help individuals find activities that serve the same functions as an undesirable behaviour. So you would want to determine what makes game playing so reinforcing and try to help him find more adaptive behaviours that serve those same functions. That may be a tall order for you; he might benefit from seeing a university counsellor.

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