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  • Writer's pictureDr. Scott Dueker

New Year's Resolutions: Through the Behavioral Lens

It’s that time of year when everyone makes resolutions to be better people or to change some aspect of themselves. And we all know how that typically goes. Great for a couple of weeks and then all is forgotten. But let’s think about why that is in behavioral terms.

People pick some aspect of their life or behavior that they think needs changing. Eat better. Get more exercise. Procrastinate less. And then they put together some plan to change that. They give themselves some sort of incentive plan. Money to spend at the end of the week. A cheat day for food. But that power soon wanes. Why? Because there was no evaluation of the function of that behavior. Why were you engaging in that behavior in the first place? As a behavior analyst, you should always be asking about the function of the behavior. Without knowing that, you can’t create an effective behavior change program. You are just throwing darts at the wall and hoping something works.

You see this a lot in schools when a kid gets repeatedly sent to the principal's office for disrupting the class. When the function is escape, the behavior does not change because he is getting exactly what he wanted. Dart misses the board. It is the same for our resolutions. We engage in or avoid behaviors for a reason. The contingencies around us shape our behavior and make some less likely to occur.

Let’s take exercising more. I know that’s something I need to work on personally. In my own case, it is complicated. I mean, I love riding my bike. Completely love it. But it is a process. And time consuming. And engaging in the behaviors needed to get ready to ride and then riding take what I consider valuable time away from things I feel I should be doing. A one-hour bike ride is really nearly two hours with prep and cool down. Even more if I drive somewhere to catch a trail. And in my world of constant productivity, that is aversive. The value of riding isn’t as strong as the value of avoiding the negative consequences of not being productive. So, the function could be hypothesized as escape.

So, it now becomes a value question. What kind of pairing is needed to increase the value of riding as a preferred activity? That is an individual question. My answer will be different than yours. For me, I think I have to schedule it into my day. Like writing. For some reason, I am beholden to my calendar. I block out specific times for activities that I feel I need to do, writing being the most important. There is something about seeing in on the calendar that makes it seem more important to me. And once I have built up some time with the activity, it becomes more reinforcing for me. The good feelings I get from the ride build up and make the activity more important to me. The win-win.

I admit that I struggle with work/life balance. I work pretty much every day, at least a little bit. But I know I need to step away sometimes. I think by analyzing the function of why I don’t ride my bike, I can put something together to change my own behavior. Now to design a really cool Excel spreadsheet or Standard Celeration Chart to keep track of my time and mileage.

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