Why it’s so hard to break habits, and what you can do about it.

If you read this blog, you know that one of the main topics we cover is understanding why it’s so hard for people to make the changes they want, and what we can do about it. Before we get into all that, we should understand the basics of Relational Frame Theory. In the simplest terms, Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is the study of the minds ability to relate two ideas to one another.

For example, when I say the word mootlery.. what comes mind? What image? What emotion? Probably nothing comes to mind, because I just made that word up. But all language is just a somewhat arbitrary mix of different letters that have no meaning on their own. In terms of letters the word ‘mootlery’ is no more organized than ‘potato’. But this made up word triggers no images or emotions. But what emotion comes up when I say “terrorist”? Probably a bad one. That’s because, through your experiences, that word has been associated with different stimuli.

So we have a child that’s two years old. We show them a picture of a dog, and sound out the letters “D-aww-G.” Now that word is linked to the picture. Almost in a pavlovian way. When he meets a dog, and plays with it, he has warm positive emotions for that dog. Now there’s another link. It’s a link on an emotional level.

I call these attributes. You can have emotional attributes, auditory attributes, olfactory attributes, gustatory (taste related) attributes [for example, have you ever had someone talk about a food and you could remember what it tastes like? Same concept.]

But the most important ones are picture = word = emotion. Words are essentially representations for real life objects.

Now here’s the really important part for personal development. What if that child, 15 years later get bitten by a dog. Now dogs will be a source of fear because they harmed him in the past. The visual representation and even the word will invoke fear.

Now this sounds simple, but it’s enormously important for hacking human motivation. Because when you procrastinate or if you’re not doing something you need to it’s because you associate more pain to it than pleasure. These links form together in a neural network. For example, I have a hard time cleaning the house. My brain has a link “ugh, hard work.”

But other people have to have their homes spotless. Maybe when they were children their parents were happy and showed them great respect whenever she cleaned the house, so they link pleasure to a clean home. I spoke another friend about it and she’s messy as well. When I told her about it she said “yea, it’s hard.” The word “hard” is linked to a negative emotion, which causes her (and I) to avoid it. People who are links it to respect, so there’s a reward there.

In B.F Skinner’s experiments his rat’s pushed a lever and got a treat. So in their rural network they build a connection “push lever = get treat.” My friend who loves to clean has a connection “clean house = get respect.” Me and my therapist friend? Our neural network says “Clean house = hard work.” There’s no reward. So we don’t care.

But now that we know that words are just representations for objects in real life, we can look at why language likely evolved in the first place. Other mammals generally have to have an experience to learn from it. The mouse in the cage needs to push the correct lever in order to receive the treat and learn. But what if mice could talk to each other? Then while performing the experiments, at lunch break, the mice could talk amongst themselves and say “Aye, listen buddy.. if you push that yellow lever, some yummy goodness is gonna come out.” Then all of a sudden, mice could transmit experiences and exponentially increase their rate of learning. They wouldn’t have to spend hours of train and error.

This is why language likely evolved in the first place. Homo rhodesiensis probably would say things like “Lion over there!”, “Berries behind cave!”, which allowed each person to know where rewards and punishments that were crucial to their survival were located. Or what actions needed to be performed to receive what action. Or how to build certain tools.

This behavior still exists. We look up “How to sew a button on a shirt” on Youtube. The reward is a fixed shirt, and the language is a way of transmitting the actions needed to receive that reward. If you had to figure out everything you learned by trial and error, you wouldn’t know 90% of the things you know now.

But back to the main point. How can we use this knowledge to alter human behavior? People take action where they expect to receive a reward. And people avoid action where they expect to receive pain. So if you’ve been avoiding going to the gym, it’s because you associate more pain than pleasure to that action. The answer is to associate more pleasure to mentally tip the scales.

Once you associate more pleasure/positives than pain/negatives, the scales start to tip in your favor, and you’ll be able to perform that action without any willpower at all. You’ll probably have to use willpower in order to not perform that action. One way of tipping the scales is to look up benefits. You can Google “Benefits of eating healthy,” or “scientific benefits of exercise.” You can also link pain to the unwanted behavior. For example, fast food makes me feel horrible 10 minutes later. All the grease and fat bothers my stomach. While eating healthy not only tastes good, but will make you feel amazing too. Think about all the downsides of your unwanted behavior.

Also, figure out an enjoyable way to perform your healthy behavior. If you try to eat food that tastes like cardboard, your brain is going to link more displeasure to what you’re trying to do than pleasure and you’re going to fail.

This concept applies to almost all human behavior. If you’re not making the money you want it’s not luck, somewhere deep down it’s likely you link more pain in your neural network to being wealthy (or the actions necessary [i.e. school, starting a business, saving money] to attain that,) than the pleasure of being wealthy. If a girl avoids relationships it’s because she associates more pain to them than benefits, usually because of bad past experiences.

So, you should be able to make some changes to unwanted behavior with your newfound knowledge of human nature! Enjoy!



Evidence-based insights.

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