The world of psychology has developed its own language for shedding light on how the world can influence our thoughts and behavior. One of the main concepts to understand is that of “reinforcement” because it is intimately involved in determining why we choose one behavior over another. For example, have you ever wondered why you seem to choose something like having a cocktail after work instead of going to the gym? Even though you are worried about your drinking and would like to lose a few pounds? Or why you find yourself drawn to that extra cookie instead of pulling out the hummus and carrots for a midday snack?
We are prone to choose behaviors that have the most reinforcement…the ones that “work.” It may be that the drink feels like it works more quickly to reduce your stress and unwind and it’s much easier than sorting out your gym clothes and finding the energy to work out. Same with the cookie…quick and easy, providing what seems like a big energy boost (with that sugar spike). Who has time to sort out a container of hummus?
It is important to identify about your “reinforcers” when you are thinking about changing a behavioral routine or habit. When you try to step away from something you find rewarding on some level, you will likely find that not engaging in it leaves a gap in your life…a sense of space you might not have noticed before. Why? Take an egg out of its cartoon, notice there is room for something else. Removing clothes from your dresser drawer or delete the files from your computer – more space exists, perhaps for other things to fill it. While stepping back from the behavior you want to avoid (like having a drink or eating a cookie) is one aspect of making a change…it requires that you consider the space that is left. Do I need to fill that space? If so, what should I fill that space with?
If change was like removing eggs or, better yet, deleting the behaviors you didn’t want any more from your “hard drive,” perhaps filling the space would not be as important – you would have just removed the unwanted behavior and now have room for other things that come down the road. Unfortunately, with behavior, once you have engaged in it for a long time, it becomes part of you. You can’t “unlearn” it. This means we carry around a lot of behavior with us! For example, smoking that morning cigarette with coffee is stimulating (i.e., reinforcing), thus even if you are trying not to smoke, when you see coffee in the morning your brain will think it’s a great idea to have a cigarette. And you will notice the discomfort of not smoking in that “space.” Luckily, we are capable of responding to lots of different reinforcers and if you take the time to develop some Competing Reinforcements you will be more successful at filling in that space with healthier alternatives.
Does your world offer competing reinforcement? Here are some things to think about if you are considering giving up a behavior that “works” for you (like having a drink when you are anxious, etc.).
Increasing Your Competing Reinforcers: Interesting alternatives (competing reinforcers) won’t be part of your life without inviting them in. Developing activities and relationships in your life that are not contingent on drug or alcohol use can take work (not to mention may feel uncomfortable or scary in the beginning). Studies however, indicate that the size and depth of our social networks are related to changes in substance use and can be vital for inviting in and strengthening alternative behaviors. Surrounding yourself with competing reinforcement can help prevent unwanted behaviors from showing-up again.
To achieve and maintain the changes you are striving to make, initiating specific behaviors can be critical. Finding meaningful and stronger competing reinforcers is crucial to making significant life changes.
- Identify 4 or 5 specific behaviors that help you achieve or support your goals (competing reinforcement) (e.g., working out for 20 min., 3 times per week).
- Note the specific people, places, circumstances, or times that are invitations to the meaningful behaviors you want and help avoid the invitations for the behavior you are reducing.
- Identify short-term and long-term constructive “space fillers” that will help you tolerate the moments where you are missing/craving the behavior you are hoping to change
Remember, if you identify enough “competing reinforcers” and engage with them frequently enough (never discount the power of repetition!), they will start to comfortably fill the “space” left from the old behavior you are wanting to give up.