Behavior Change: How do we change what we do?

The most important thing to know about habits is that they are permanent. Once the brain has been trained to crave something, that craving is maintained forever. As outlined in the previous post, habits are composed of three parts (cue, routine, and reward), you can change the routine while still maintaining the cue and reward. This allows habits to be changed as opposed to broken. The “golden rule” in regard to behavior change is that habits can not be extinguished, they can only be changed.

I’ll give an example. Jim is suffering from biting his nails. He has tried using nail polish that tastes horrible to prevent him from biting his nails but to no avail. That is because the nail polish is an attempt to extinguish a habit. If we take a look at the components of this undesirable habit, we might be able to redesign the routine while still maintaining the cue and reward.

Jim’s cue starts with him fidgeting with his hands. This is sparked by a craving for physical stimulation. This cue then drives Jim to his routine of biting his nails. When Jim bites his nails, his reward is a physical stimulation that satisfies his craving. In order for Jim to stop biting his nais we need to discover an new routine that will still satisfy Jim’s desire for physical stimulation. This substitue routine is called a competing response.

A competing response is a routine that is triggered by the same cue and maintains the same reward. If Jim’s cue is fidgety hands that are seeking a form of physical stimulation, then we can replace the nail-biting routine with him rubbing his arms. This is a way for Jim to satisfy his habit loop without sacrificing his fingernails.

There are many opportunities for design to aid this process. A designer’s ability to research and synthesis information can help aid in understanding cues and rewards. There are tools that a designer can use to help understand the complexity of a habit by shadowing or using contextual interviews. A designer can also help develop a competing response with prototyping and wire-framing. Part of my thesis focus is refining how designers can aid in behavior change regardless of if the behavior is giving up smoking or changing the way a corporate environment approaches problem solving.


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