Applying Behavioral Psychology on Myself

In which I at­tempt to ap­ply find­ings from be­hav­ioral psy­chol­ogy to my own life.

Be­hav­ioral Psy­chol­ogy Find­ing #1: Habituation

The psy­cholog­i­cal pro­cess of “ex­tinc­tion” or “ha­bit­u­a­tion” oc­curs when a stim­u­lus is ad­ministered re­peat­edly to an an­i­mal, caus­ing the an­i­mal’s re­sponse to grad­u­ally diminish. You can imag­ine that if you were to eat your fa­vorite food for break­fast ev­ery morn­ing, it wouldn’t be your fa­vorite food af­ter a while. Ha­bit­u­a­tion tends to hap­pen the fastest when the fol­low­ing three con­di­tions are met:

  • The stim­u­lus is de­liv­ered frequently

  • The stim­u­lus is de­liv­ered in small doses

  • The stim­u­lus is de­liv­ered at reg­u­lar intervals

Source is here.

Ap­plied Habituation

I had a pro­ject I was work­ing on that was re­ally im­por­tant to me, but when­ever I started work­ing on it I would get de­mor­al­ized. So I ha­bit­u­ated my­self to the pro­ject: I al­ter­nated 2 min­utes of work with 2 min­utes of sit­ting in the yard for about 20 min­utes. This worked.


In­ter­est­ingly enough, about halfway through this ex­er­cise I re­al­ized that what was re­ally mak­ing it difficult for me to work on my pro­ject was the fact that it in­volved so many choices. So as my 20 min­utes pro­gressed, I started spend­ing my 2 min­utes try­ing to make as difficult de­ci­sions as pos­si­ble. This ha­bit­u­a­tion to de­ci­sion de­mor­al­iza­tion seems to have had an im­me­di­ate, fairly last­ing im­pact on a wide va­ri­ety of ac­tivi­ties.

I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to hear­ing from some­one who at­tempts to ap­ply ha­bit­u­a­tion to an ugh field.

Ap­plied Ha­bit­u­a­tion in Reverse

If you want to en­joy your fa­vorite song un­til the day you die, dance to it in­fre­quently at ir­reg­u­lar in­ter­vals while it plays full blast. (Re­v­ersed con­di­tions for ha­bit­u­a­tion.)

Be­hav­ioral Psy­chol­ogy Find­ing #2: In­ter­mit­tent Reinforcement

The rea­son why slot ma­chines are so en­gag­ing is be­cause they de­liver re­wards at ran­dom. If slot ma­chines payed small re­wards out on ev­ery round, play­ing them would be like work.

Ap­plied In­ter­mit­tent Reinforcement

For a while, there was a time-con­sum­ing chore that I was re­quired to do ev­ery evening. I would of­ten put it off un­til 2-3 AM and work while sleepy as a re­sult.

To solve this prob­lem, I started eat­ing a gummy worm with 50% prob­a­bil­ity each time I did the chore at a pre-de­ter­mined time early in the evening. (I gave my­self the first two gummy worms with 100% prob­a­bil­ity to start things off.) My suc­cess rate with this method was very high.

Fur­ther Research

Another self-help tech­nique I’ve had tremen­dous suc­cess with is us­ing Linux’s cron util­ity to cause Fire­fox tabs to open pe­ri­od­i­cally and tell me to switch ac­tivi­ties if I’m wast­ing time. How­ever, I’ve found that forc­ing my­self to switch ac­tivi­ties is highly stress­ful.

Per­haps it’s pos­si­ble to ha­bit­u­ate the nega­tive re­sponse to ac­tivity switch­ing by hav­ing prac­tice ses­sions where you pe­ri­od­i­cally switch be­tween dis­trac­tion and work? Or maybe you could use in­ter­mit­tent re­in­force­ment and ran­domly de­cide to give your­self some­thing nice if you’re suc­cess­ful in an up­grade to a higher-qual­ity ac­tivity.

(I’m not ex­per­i­ment­ing with these at the mo­ment be­cause I’m cur­rently fairly happy with my work/​re­lax­ation bal­ance.)

Thanks to Psy­chohis­to­rian for re­mind­ing me I wanted to write about this. I’m hop­ing he won’t get mad at me for writ­ing on the same topic he did so soon af­ter his post.