Behavioral science is full of ideas that seem really useful but are actually quite useless.
A great example of this is the “operant conditioning loop”. This is one of the first things that undergraduates are taught in psych 101. It’s also the centerpiece of the blockbuster best-seller, “The Power of Habit”.
The loop consists of three different stages:
The basic idea is that all behaviors are prompted (cued) by different elements in the environment, and then are either strengthened if they are rewarded or weakened if they result in nothing (or a punishment).
Another way of saying this is: If you want someone to do something again, you should reward them. If you don’t want someone to something again, you should ignore or punish them. Oh, and behaviors don’t occur unless they’re prompted.
Can you say “duh” and “duh” and “duh”?
It’s amazing how well behavioral scientists can sex up common sense, isn’t it?
The above loop has been promoted by a number of different people in the behavioral science world as the secret to habit formation. But it doesn’t give people useful guidance. In fact, the advice from an operant conditioning loop fanatic would be as follows:
Make sure you reward yourself for doing the behavior you want!
Make sure you remind yourself to do what you want!
While step #1 is sometimes necessary, a much better approach is choosing a behavior that is *inherently* rewarding, so that you don’t need to layer an additional reward of some sort on top of whatever behavior you’re trying to do.
But you won’t hear that type of advice from the sea of pop behavioral scientists out there.
If you’re interested in learning the truth about habit formation, check out the following articles: