Break Bad Habits with Positive Reinforcement

We’ve discussed so many aspects of applying positive reinforcement to develop healthy habits, but now I’m going to turn the tables. Operant conditioning is not only great for creating new behaviors, it works wonders for eliminating unhealthy habits, too.

If positive reinforcement teaches us what to do, and punishment teaches us what NOT to do, is this my exception to the positive reinforcement rule?

Oh, no, my friends. This is one of my favorite topics, because I’m about to show you how to apply animal training methods to eliminate any unwanted habit you may have. And still focus on positive reinforcement. AND have fun!

Let me begin by discussing a typical animal training scenario- stationing. Stationing is a brilliant strategy which regulates each animal to a specific spot or location to engage their trainer. When I worked with dolphins, the main exhibit had over twenty dolphins. It was essential that each dolphin had an exact spot to go during training sessions. Otherwise, mass chaos would ensue as the dominant animals ate the subordinate animals’ food.

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior

Stationing is a prime example of what behaviorists call a differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior, or DRI for short. This is the saving grace for trainers focusing on positive reinforcement instead of punishment. Rather than punishing dominant animals for stealing food, trainers teach them a behavior completely incompatible with stealing food from their pool mates. A dolphin physically cannot steal another’s fish if she is stationed at one end of the pool while the other is stationed at the other side. If she breaks away, she risks not getting any fish.

I’ve heard countless other stories about DRI in zoological settings. One facility trained their bobcat to climb a tree in order to prevent her from displacing and eating her mate’s food. It was physically impossible for the bobcat to climb a tree AND fight with her mate.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior

The other method animal professionals use is called a differential reinforcement of other behavior, or DRO. This one can be a little tricky in deterring bad behavior only because it may turn into another undesired behavior.

The idea of a DRO is to extinguish an undesired behavior by reinforcing ANYTHING except that activity. If you want your cat to stop scratching furniture, reward it for doing ANYTHING except scratching your couch. Scratching on a post? Here’s a reward. Sitting nicely on the couch? Reinforce it. Dancing on the ceiling? You got it, give the cat a treat.

I mean, he isn’t scratching up the couch…


You may see where this could potentially be a problem. If you are reinforcing ANYTHING except the behavior, then you might inadvertently reinforce another problem behavior.

Zoos have used DRO effectively for decades to cut down on stereotypic behavior. Polar bears and large cats have gone from tirelessly pacing to actively engaged in their environment due to reinforcing other behaviors. Elephants rocking and parrots self-mutilating benefit from this training. It takes consistency, patience, and an entire team on board, but this method can work. All you need is a little positive reinforcement.

Where Bad Habits Go to Die

Does this method work in eliminating unhealthy behavior in humans? You bet. In fact, I quit smoking after dozens of years of trying and failing. My success came from incorporating differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior.

DRI to Promote Healthier Habits

The actual quitting smoking was easy. I just stopped buying the cigarettes. Case closed, right? Not so much. Dealing with the cravings was problematic. To help me get over the cravings, I went through my cookbooks and made a new recipe every time I wanted a cigarette. Not only could I not smoke and cook at the same time, but I had trouble focusing on craving a cigarette while I chopped, blended, sautéed, or stirred ingredients.

In the beginning, I made a LOT of food. A LOT. But within a couple of weeks, the cravings lessened. In that short time, two things occurred. One, I got really good at cooking. And two, when I experienced instances where I normally would crave a cigarette, I found I had an inexplicable urge to cook.

DRO Replacing Undesired Behavior

My big new habit I’m trying to establish is curtailing the habit of mindlessly snacking after I finish dinner, before I go to bed. Currently, my cut-off time for snacking is 8 pm. I most often stay up until 10 or 11, so there is a 2-3 hour window where I find myself sometimes wanting something to eat.

So, I developed a plan of activities I can do without eating. Drink tea, brush my teeth (although that’s technically borderline incompatible), take a bath, meditate, do a mobility/yoga-type workout, go to bed early.

I presented this idea at a conference, specifically about implementing other behaviors to deter me from eating late at night. Afterwards, I was asked how I reinforce the activities besides eating after 8pm. I admit I was stumped, because many of those activities are reinforcement in and of themselves (I use bubble baths as reinforcement ALL THE TIME). But remember, you don’t have to reinforce yourself immediately. Use your event marker, or schedule of reinforcement to reward yourself a little later. Or use self-affirmations to reinforce your behavior immediately. It’s still an incredibly effective way to improve behavior.

How can you use DRI/DRO in your fitness program? Keep things positive and see what a difference it makes!


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