We all have behaviors that could use some improvement. Maybe we eat poorly, drink too much, smoke, or lash out angrily at others. An understanding of the processes of learning provides us with powerful tools for changing behavior. Let’s assume that your eating habits, like those of many students, do not meet the “My mom would approve” standard. Yet you are learning in your psychology course that good health habits are essential tools for managing stress (see Chapter 16). How do you bring about the necessary changes?
Before doing anything to produce change, you need to understand your current behavior. Many people have a poor understanding of what they actually eat during a day, so you could start by keeping a diary. What foods, and how much of them, do you eat? What else is going on when you eat well or poorly? What possible reinforcers or punishers are influencing your eating patterns? For example, let’s say that you observe a tendency to eat high-calorie snacks late at night while studying, even when you are not hungry. Your goal, then, is to eliminate these late-night snacks. Your baseline shows that your snacking is a social behavior. You consume these extra foods only when studying with a group. The social camaraderie and good taste of the food serve as powerful reinforcers for the behavior.
Now that you have a better understanding of your problem behavior, you are in a good position to construct a plan. An important part of your plan is to choose appropriate consequences for your behavior. Again, it is essential that we design consequences that are meaningful to individuals. As we have argued in this chapter, positive reinforcement has many advantages over punishment. You might try placing the money you’re saving on junk food in a designated jar to buy a special (nonfood) treat at the end of a successful week, or allow yourself an extra study break each night that you meet your goals. If you are convinced that the only way that you will change is through punishment, you could take an alternative approach. Although some people have successfully stopped smoking through the use of positive punishment, including electric shock (Law & Tang, 1995), this sounds quite unpleasant. Instead, a negative punishment, such as losing texting privileges for the day following a failure to meet one’s goals, might work.
As you implement your program, track your progress and make any modifications that seem necessary. In addition to the improvement of your target behavior, a beneficial side effect of applying learning methods to your behavior is the knowledge that given the right tools, you can control your behavior.