What Is “Behavior Change” Really?

Author: Dr. Jae Osenbach is a research psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

In the realm of celebrity (or at least in the tabloids that have become my guilty reading pleasures), there are always classic cases of the poor celebrity who has difficulty with newfound fame and spirals down into drug and alcohol use. You hear about multiple stints in rehab, multiple relapses, and sometimes even a tragic early death. When I read these stories, my heart aches for the difficulties that these celebrities face and how hard it must be living under the spotlight during their battles with substance abuse. I also think about the potential reader of these stories who may be thinking, if someone with that much money, fame and influence can’t get over their addiction issues, how can I? The reality is that no amount of status or cash can influence behavior change if people don’t want to change their behaviors. We’ve all heard the saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. That’s what trying to change behavior is like.

So, what is behavior change, and why is it so hard to do? Behavior change (or behavior modification, depending on who you’re talking to) is the process where a person tries to change their current or habitual behaviors (actions and reactions) using methods of reinforcement or punishment. There are additional theories about methods of behavior change, but I’m going to stick with the classic “operant conditioning” ones. In operant conditioning, you have a stimulus (something that makes you react) and a reaction (go figure). If you want to change your reaction to a stimulus, you can either increase a behavior (reinforcement) – for example, every time I eat carrots instead of chocolate, I lose weight, so eating carrots reinforces my change to good eating habits; or decrease a behavior (punishment) – for example, every time I eat chocolate instead of carrots, I gain weight, so I’m “punished” for making a bad choice in relation to my desire to change my eating habits. It gets a little more complicated than this, so if you’re really interested in the psychology of it, Google is a good friend.

Now that you know what behavior change is, it’s time to tackle the difficult question: Why is it so hard to do? There really is no simple solution for making behavior change easy. If there were, we’d all look like a bunch of models, right? I believe that the biggest difficulty with behavior change is that it takes such a looooooooong time. Leading researchers on behavior change believe that the minimum timeframe is approximately three years, and up to seven for very difficult modifications (yes, that’s a minimum). Think about what you were doing three years ago (that was 2010…the year that Operation Iraqi Freedom ended). Now think about all the behavior changes you’ve tried to do since then (I know I’ve tried a few crazy diets in that timeframe). The message I hope you get isn’t “Well, if it takes that long, I’m going to give up,” but instead more “Wow, I’ve really got to keep at this for awhile.”

Now that you’ve got a tiny bit of insight into what behavior change is and one of the reasons why it can be so difficult, I hope you see why even celebrity money, fame and influence may not be enough. It’s not only about the ability to change (accepting that you need to make the change and then starting the process), it’s also about sticking to it. It’s about waking up every day for the next 36 months (minimum) and saying, “I’m going to do this.” I think you can.