I love thinking about behavior change. Specifically, how people get themselves to adopt new attitudes, habits, ways of living. Hell I even taught a Skillshare course to 150 people on the science of willpower and behavior change.

One thing I’ve realized is that it’s actually a lot easier to be shaped by external forces than by your own hand. People can and do change themselves, but it takes patience, sustained effort, and creativity. Continue reading

Six Fundamentals of Effective Behavior Change

I’ve read a ton of material about creating positive behavior change — but the “curse of knowledge” means that sometimes it’s harder to impart that knowledge to others. I often get caught up in describing a specific paper or study, when you really need is just a tactic that really works.

Well I’ve boiled that down for you today – with this presentation based on my Skillshare class. These are the six fundamental elements of effective behavior change and if you follow them, I know you’ll see a lot more success in your efforts to work out more, eat healthier, be more mindful, wake up earlier or whatever it is you’re trying to do.

And if you’re interested in learning more, or you missed out on my Skillshare class, then check out this GiveGetWin partnership I’m doing with Sebastian Marshall. You get 60 minutes with me and help support a great cause.

The presentation and more info on GGW after the jump. Continue reading

Easily distracted by shiny objects
Sound familiar to anyone?

There’s something thrilling about newness and uncertainty. Whether it’s watching a gripping Christopher Nolan film, starting the next level in a game or going on a first date, we can be easily captivated by what we don’t know.

The human species possesses a disposition towards novelty – and tens of thousands of years ago, that drove us to explore new lands, try new foods and see what happened when we struck two rocks together.

But just as our craving for sweets, salts and fats were valuable in the Paleolithic era, when such foods were scarce, but are now warped in the age of carmel-drizzled kettle corn, our novelty-seeking tendencies can lead us astray.

Variable rewards are a particularly powerful “hook” for the brain. Casinos and many games use frequent but hard-to-predict rewards to keep their players coming back for more.

In this post, I want to talk about how variable rewards work and how we can use them to drive positive behavior change for ourselves.

The science behind variable rewards

Variable rewards are when you positively reinforce a behavior at an non-fixed (ie less predictable) schedule. By varying when you deliver the reward for a certain behavior and how big that reward is, you can quickly reinforce that behavior and make it very strong and resistant to extinction (aka it becomes a habit or routine).

This finding is born out of the research conducted on animals, for instance: teaching a rat to press a lever. Researchers found that when compared to a fixed schedule (eg: a piece of cheese every other lever presses), mixing up the schedule (eg: two rewards in a row after one press, then a single reward after three presses, etc) was more effective even when the overall reward ratio was 1 to 2.

How Variable Rewards Work - Jason Shen
Quick chart I whipped up to explain the difference between fixed ratio and variable ratio rewards.

Why does this work?

The answer has to do with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s tightly linked with desire and habit. Getting a reward increases dopamine levels in your brain, which motivates you to do the thing which got you the reward (rats with missing dopamine receptors struggle to build habits). Continue reading

Our ability to use self-control may be one of the most important things we can develop in ourselves. I’ve written before about how willpower is not enough and that developing habits is an important skill for sustaining the right behaviors.

But there’s more to the story.

In preparing to teach a course about willpower and behavior change, I uncovered new research revealing ways we can get an extra boost of self-control when we are running low. Here are some of the findings:

Choosing to exert self-control is less depleting than being forced to exert it

Mark Muraven, a Professor at the University at Albany, asked participants to resist eating a batch of cookies and tested them on an activity that required willpower both before and after resisting the cookies. Afterward, he asked participants their motivations for resisting the cookies and also examined their performance on the willpower test.

He bucketed the reasons into autonomous ones (e.g. “It was important to me not to eat them” or”It is fun to challenge myself not to eat them”) and external (e.g. “I wanted the experimenter to like me” or “I would feel guilty if I ate them”). In looking at the results (emphasis added)

“As compared to their baseline performance, participants who avoided eating the cookies for more autonomous performed better at the second measure relative to participants who did not eat for more extrinsic reasons. Mood, arousal, and demographic factors were not related to self-control performance and feelings of autonomy. Overall, it appears that feeling compelled to exert self-control may deplete more strength than having more freedom when exerting self-control.” [Muraven, Journal of Research in Personality, 2008]

So next time you’re faced with something that requires willpower, whether it’s staying late to finish a project or turning down that second slice of birthday cake, find a personally compelling reason to exert willpower, rather than placing the reason to something external. Continue reading