Frail Free Will — PAL

Why people fall into poor habits and how can we change human behavior

Human decision-making lies at the heart of individual and societal prosperity, and PAL aims to empower individuals to make better decisions to maximize their emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being — in other words, behavior change. In this article, I will discuss different prominent theories of human decision-making and behavior change, and briefly outline how PAL aims to apply and extend those theories to empower non-judgemental self-improvement and behavior change.

I. How do humans make decisions?

Decision-making theories

Until recently, economists and social scientists widely assumed that humans were rational decision-makers, i.e. rational choice theory. People made their decisions to maximize their personal utility or reward, i.e. utility theory. However, the work of economists like Dan Ariely shows that people are predictably irrational and human decisions are skewed by emotions, expectations and cognitive biases — e.g. negativity bias, attentional bias, etc.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that people have two decision-making systems — System I & II. System I is fast, automatic, and low-cost, and is often a result of gut feelings and intuitions, whereas System II is slow, logical and effortful. Since System II is more effortful than System I, most of our daily decisions are a result of System I, i.e. we live our life on auto-pilot.

On auto-pilot, however, people often fall into unhealthy cyclic patterns, e.g. unhealthy diets, sedentary lifestyles, etc. Unhealthy actions can be explained by Kahneman’s prospect theory, which states that people make their decisions based on expected rather than actual costs and benefits, and people often misestimated future costs/benefits, e.g. the cost of an unhealthy diet, etc.

II. What can we do to alter humans behavior?

Behavior Change Techniques

There are two main areas of behavior-change/behavior modification:
i. curb unhealthy behavior (via punishments, which reduce the future occurrences of a behavior);
ii. promote healthy actions (via reinforcements, which promote the likelihood of a behavior).
Both punishments and reinforcements can be positive or negative.

Unhealthy behaviors are often a result of System I thinking, i.e. they are performed under auto-pilot by people. I use the term IMPULSE CONTROL to refer to short-term in-the-moment avoidance of negative behaviors/impulses.

While impulse control may help people avoid negative behavioral behaviors, impulse control is short-term and uses up an individual’s limited willpower. Therefore, it is important to supplement impulse control with healthy behavior change through HABIT-FORMATION so that healthy behaviors become the new default for people. Using habit-formation techniques, healthy behaviors are initially adopted using the effortful System II thinking but are slowly transferred to System I via habituation.

Psychology has mostly focused on curbing unhealthy behaviors, i.e. impulse control, whereas behavioral economists have mostly come up with strategies for habit-formation. We will discuss both of those here.

A. Short-term Impulse Control

The psychologists’ way of altering human behavior

Psychologists have widely relied on psychotherapy as a means of improving people’s mental and emotional states. There are different types of psychotherapy — psychodynamic therapy, which focuses on finding the root causes of dysfunctional behavior; behavior therapy, which focuses on changing behavior; cognitive therapy, which focuses on changing people’s thinking; humanistic therapy, which focuses on maximizing human potential.

Psychologists also use motivational interviewing (MI) to help people resolve ambivalent feelings and find the internal motivation needed to change behavior. MI has been used in several behavioral domains.

Recently, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) has emerged as an Empirically Supported Therapy (EST) that combines traditional cognitive and behavior therapies to change people’s behavior by changing the way people think. Unlike traditional Freudian psychoanalysis/psychodynamic therapy, CBT focuses on solutions rather than the root causes of people’s problems. CBT has been effective for anxiety disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, depression, eating disorders, chronic low back pain, personality disorders, psychosis, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, OCD, PTSD, tic disorders, etc.

The third wave of CBT is particularly important as it focuses on not just reducing the symptoms of clients, but also helping clients develop an arsenal of cognitive and behavioral skills to avoid unwanted behavior. The most prominent therapies of the third wave are dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

ACT promotes psychological flexibility, which is defined as the ability to contact the present moment more fully with acceptance and mindfulness. ACT employs six core principles — Cognitive defusion; Acceptance; Contact with the present moment; The observing self; Values; Committed action.

DBT therapy encourages the balance between acceptance and change strategies, hence ‘dialectic’, which mean synthesis or integration of opposites. Mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotion regulation are key components of DBT.

Both ACT and DBT involve non-judgemental awareness and mindfulness on part of the user. Mindfulness has been popularized by Judson Brewer in his book, The Craving Mind, and has been known to help with stress reduction, binge eating, mindful eating, gambling addiction, aggressive behavior, suicidal behavior, generalized anxiety disorder, emotion regulation, etc.

Another CBT technique, called Habit Reversal Technique (HRT), goes beyond mindfulness training and adds competing response training, contingency management, relaxation training, and generalization training.

B. Long-term Habit Formation

The economists’ way of altering human behavior

In his book, Nudge, Richard Thaler talks about Automatic and Reflective thinking, similar to Kahneman’s System I and II thinking. Since most decisions are automatic, Richard Thaler recommends that default/automatic options should be the good ones, e.g. choose pensions savings by default so that people have to opt out of instead of opting into saving schemes. are key to behavior change and we will use them in our design for behavior change.

Nir Ayer further builds on top of System I (Automatic) and System II (Reflective) thinking and his Hooked model for habit-formation aims to start off good habits as System II thinking, but slowly convert them to System II via habituation. The model involves triggers, actions, rewards, and investments.

B.J.Fogg further builds on top of the habit formation model in his Fogg Behavioral Model (FBM), which states that a person needs Motivation, Ability, and Triggers for behavior change. B.J.Fogg emphasizes tiny habits, which have “Six Elements of Simplicity” (Ability) — Time, Money, Physical Effort, Brain Cycles (Mental Effort), Social Deviance, and Non-Routine. — to simplify the adoption of new behaviors for users.

III. How do I approach behavior change?

My approach towards behavior change is to design for the hardest possible habits to change, and then the other habits would follow. In my opinion, addiction is a particularly hard problem to get rid off and according to Marc Lewis, addiction is a “deep habit” (The Biology of Desire). I believe that if we can help free people from unhealthy addictive habits, we can successfully break other less addictive unhealthy habits. We talk about not just substance abuse addiction, but also behavioral addictions (e.g. eating, gaming, sex, and shopping addictions), which are similar to substance addiction.

Moreover, addiction is similar to disorders like mood, anxiety, eating, and obsessive-compulsive disorders because addiction is a cue-driven attentional bias, i.e. the user’s attention is narrowed to the thing they are craving for. Several eating, mood, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders are also the results of negative attention capture, i.e. attentional bias (Capture, David Kessler). Thus, strategies for avoiding negative attentional bias in addiction can also be applied to other unwanted states, e.g. depression, anxiety, etc.

Therefore, I aim to help people overcome addiction like cycles caused attentional biases. Addiction is less of a goal and more of a model for understanding deep unhealthy habits so that I can apply the aforementioned behavior change approaches to help substitute their unhealthy habits with healthy ones.

a grounded and grateful girl looking to make a meaningful contribution to humanity and sharing my humble thoughts here