I recently got a call from a noted venture capitalist of healthcare apps.
DH: I heard you have a model that facilitates permanent behavior change. I wonder if it would work with any of the 15 healthcare apps I’ve invested in.
SD: I do have a model that does that. And it certainly could be used as a front end to conventional behavior change apps to enable users to develop permanent habits. What are you using now to help folks change behaviors permanently?
DH. Behavior Modification, but it doesn’t work. There’s no scientific evidence that it works and our analysis concurs. But there’s nothing else to use. Can you help?
It’s a known fact that Behavior Modification has a 3% success rate over time. Sure, people initially lose weight with a behavior-based plan to eat differently. Certainly people stop smoking or get to the gym for a few weeks. But because these new behaviors haven’t been accepted by, or made permanent in, the brain, they cannot succeed over time. And repeating the new in hopes that THIS time it will stick obviously doesn’t work.
Permanent change is a very achievable goal. But not the way we’re going about it; we’re approaching the problem from the wrong angle. In this essay I will explain what a behavior is, what change is, how our brains govern them both, and introduce the steps needed to form habits. Believe it or not, it’s mechanical.
THE PROBLEM WITH BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION
Lately I’ve heard several Behavioral Scientists on the radio, all offering Behavior Modification techniques to habituate new behaviors by, well, habituating new behaviors. They ‘remove barriers’, suggest ‘momentum’, offer ‘promoting forces/restraining forces’, and propose ‘behavioral interventions’ such as keeping weights at your desk so you can ‘lift’ during Zoom calls. All meant to motivate behavior change – through behavior change. I suspect Einstein might have something to say about that.
The problem is the premise. Behavior Mod’s core assumptions are actually contrary to brain science. It assumes that by merely repeating a behavior over and over (and over and over), permanent brain change will result that can be maintained over time. But it doesn’t. And it can’t.
Certainly we’ve all tried. Gone on a ‘different’ diet that we’d get ‘serious’ about this time. Or promised ourselves we’d always write up a schedule for the next day before ending work so we’d be up and running in the morning. But we’ve failed.
We’ve learned the hard way that we can’t lose weight permanently by trying to lose weight. Or stop smoking by trying to stop smoking. Somehow we forget that we have to remember to keep doing it, so we promise ourselves we’ll be disciplined ‘this time’. But we don’t. And we don’t know what else to do.
DIFFERENT THINKING REQUIRED
The reason it’s not possible is pretty simple once you understand what a behavior is and how our brains generate them. The problem isn’t our lack of discipline. We’re ignoring the brain chemistry and neural pathways that prompt behaviors to begin with.
I’ll start with an analogy. Let’s say you purchase a forward-moving robot, use it for a while, then decide you want it to move backward. You tell it why a ‘backwards’ functionality would enhance it, show it slides and presentations of other robots that move backwards, and attempt to push, cajole, and offer rewards for days on end. Nope. It won’t move backward. But if you program it differently, it will.
What about changing a chair into a table. You put red plastic into a machine that is programmed to spit out a red plastic chair. Once the chair is produced, you can’t make it a table. But you can create a table if you program the machine appropriately at the start.
Changing habits by trying to change habits is merely attempting to change the outcome, what’s already occurred – the output, the habit, the behavior – but failing to reprogram the brain with different instructions.
Sounds obvious. But that’s not what behaviorists are trying to do: Behavior Mod tries to get the robot to move backward by pushing it (and pushing it and pushing it) on a regular basis assuming the repetition will cause permanent change. It’s just not possible to maintain over time without changing the core input instructions to the brain.
WHAT IS A BEHAVIOR?
To understand the full scope of the problem it’s helpful to understand what, exactly, a behavior is. They don’t just arise haphazardly, like coincidences that seem to occur by chance, or stand-alone features.
Behaviors are merely the activity, the output – the forward-moving robot – of our brain’s signaling system, the response to input instructions that travel down a fixed neural pathway and hook up with a set of circuits that generate a behavior.
Where do behaviors originate? Behaviors are Beliefs in action, tangible representations of our core identity factors. Our politics represent our Beliefs. The way we dress, talk; the professions we choose; where we travel and who we marry. Everything we do represents who we are. As the foundational factor, Beliefs determine our actions and must be factored in when considering change or forming a new habit. Current Behavior Mod approaches try to circumvent Beliefs and therein lie the problem.
There is actual science on how behaviors get generated and why we automatically repeat behaviors even when we don’t want to. Here’s a quote from noted Harvard neuroscientist Richard Masland in We Know It When We See It to set the stage:
Our brain has trillions of cell assemblies that fire together automatically. When anything incoming bears even some of the characteristics [of operational circuits], the brain automatically fires the same set of synapses. (pg 143)
I’ll now offer a simplified version of the specifics of how to convince the brain to make the changes that lead to new habits: the science, the neurology, of how messages travel through the brain to become a behavior. It’s only slightly wonky, so hang with me. Once you ‘get it’ you’ll understand how behaviors occur and where change comes from.
NEUROLOGICAL PATHWAY FROM INPUT TO OUTPUT
Generally, each behavior starts off as an input – an idea or command, thought or story – that enters our brains as a meaningless puff of air, an electrochemical vibration (a ‘message’). To keep us congruent, the input gets evaluated against our Mental Models and Beliefs before going further. Is this input a risk? Is it congruent with values?
If the idea goes against who we are, it gets rejected or resisted and does not end up becoming a permanent pathway. Did you ever try to convince someone of a different political persuasion, regardless of the strength of your argument? Nope. We’re not talking rational here, we’re talking electrochemical neurology.
If the vibration is accepted, it gets turned into signals that then seek out similar-enough circuits that translate them into action or output – a behavior. So:
- Receive input vibrations (from conversations, thoughts, reading, ideas) and
- Compare/test against foundational Beliefs, norms, and history
- Get turned into signals that get
- Matched with the closest, habituated brain circuits
- That translate them into output/action/behavior.
In more scientific language, it looks like this in our brains:
Data/Input -> Risk/Congruence check -> CUE creates signals -> CEN (Central Executive Network) generates/chooses circuits -> Output/behavior.
Or simply stated: Input -> Relevance check -> Programming -> Output
The time it takes a message to go from an input to an output takes 5 one-hundredths of a second. It’s pretty automatic.
THE NEED FOR VALUES-BASED CONGRUENCY
The next important piece is why repetition won’t cause new (permanent) habits. To understand this, it’s important to understand the strength and responsibility of the neural pathway between the input and the output.
All outputs, behaviors, are initiated by signals that trigger them in the first place. Since input messages become signals only AFTER a relevance check and found to be risk free, any potential new habits must go through the same safeguards. There’s a reason why.
One of our brain’s guiding principles is Systems Congruence, or the need to be stable. This need for stability creates our habits that enable us to brush our teeth when we get up in the morning, and take a left turn without major thought. For this reason, our brains seek well-traveled pathways – doing what we’ve always done – regardless of their current efficacy, because they matched our Beliefs at some point and are now habituated and unconscious.
If our Beliefs change and new outputs are required, our system just needs to go back to the drawing board with new inputs, new relevancy check, new signals and new circuits. Otherwise there is no reason for our brains to consider changing. Remember that we’re dealing with brain activity, vibrations, that offer no good/bad judgment on their own. If it was ‘good to go’ at one point, and the brain has no reason to reconsider this, it just keeps on keepin’ on.
Sadly – and the reason new activity fails when Behavior Mod is attempted – if anything tries to change the status quo without being checked for relevance, our brain discards the new input because it may carry risk! The new isn’t sustainable. Ultimately, trying to create new habits without sending wholly new belief-based input instructions – i.e. new programming – cannot cause permanent change because there are no new circuits to administer it!
The good news is that the brain is always willing to create new circuits for new behaviors. It’s called Neurogenesis.
CREATING NEW PROGRAMMING, NEW SIGNALS, NEW BEHAVIORS
To change behaviors permanently, start with new, Belief-based input messages that result in wholly new circuits and outputs:
- create a new belief-based input/message that
- generates new signals which
- create or discover a different arrangement of (existing) circuits
- leading to new/different behaviors.
Let me tell you a story. A friend said, “I’ve been telling myself I’m a Fat Cow recently. That means it’s time for me to go on another diet.” Obviously this input would lead her to the same circuits (and results) that it used for past diets that she failed at. But if she changed her input signal and told herself instead:
‘I am a healthy person who will research best nutrition choices for my body type and lifestyle and have the discipline to eat the best foods for the rest of my life.’
she would end up with a different set of circuits and different output/behaviors.
Our outputs, our behaviors, are merely responses to inputs that our brain has checked out as congruent with who we are. So change the incoming messaging to one that is Belief-based and takes into account all the elements (Mental Models, history, norms, experience) that might cause risk to the system. Once it’s approved, it will automatically generate new circuits and new, habituated, behaviors.
THE HOW OF CHANGE
I’ve been studying, unpacking, and writing about Choice and Change for over 50 years. It’s been exciting and frustrating: exciting because I continue to learn as new discoveries in brain science emerge, frustrating because science largely studies outputs without curiosity re where, how, or why a signal gets created or chosen to begin with. The concept of Beliefs, or Systems Congruence, is omitted. And yet science now says it understands change comes from Beliefs – but doesn’t know how to get there. I do. It just takes different thinking.
In 2019, I spent a full year unpacking the science of neural pathways and adding some of my understanding about change and congruence into the mix. From this, I developed a 5-hour program program to guide folks through the step-by-step activity of consciously designing permanent habit formation. I’ve trained it to a few hundred people who have had great results. Here you can watch me deliver the first, introductory, hour of the How of Change™ program.
I am passionately interested in enabling people to consciously design new signaling instructions for their brains to output any new habits they seek. My wish is to work with healthcare providers and apps for exercise, healthy eating, meditation and decision making to aid folks seeking to achieve greater health and success. It’s quite possible to add the How of Change capabilities to the front end of Behavior Mod apps so users first change their brains to be ready for permanent change.
If you want to collaborate, or have questions, contact me to discuss ways we can engage those seeking permanent change. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharondrewmorgen.com She can be reached at email@example.com.