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Free will is mostly a myth! Get used to it if you want to "choose" to change your behavior

Often in everyday discussion many people talk as if we constantly “choose” our behaviors. This erroneous misconception leads many to think that to change our behavior is largely an issue of motivation; when we want to change, we simply need to choose to do so. While we can and do at times, “choose”--that is decide to engage in one behavior as opposed to another-- many times throughout each day we do not choose our behavior. Instead, previously learned sequences of behavior called routines occur with little awareness or conscious choice on our part. Therefore, knowing how learned behavior become a routine or habit is essential to understanding behavioral change.

Take a moment and think about your behavioral patterns over the past few days. Did you consistently engage in any behaviors each day and usually around the same time? For example, did you consistently awake each morning and follow a similar schedule and sequence of behaviors to get ready for your day? What did you do first? What usually occurred next? Do you recall this morning consciously deciding to engage in each behavior and how you were going to perform them? You probably don’t recall, but don’t worry you are not alone. Charles Duhigg in his enjoyable book, “The Power of Habit”, cites one study that reported 40% of the time we are not consciously aware of choosing our behavior.

How about driving your car? Did you stop and think of how to perform the dozens of discrete behaviors that make up the complex chain in the routine we call, “driving”? Consider all the component parts to driving: getting in the car, putting your seat belt on, turning the ignition on (or do you press on), engaging the transmission, determining the pace you need to back the car up, braking, adjusting the steering wheel to have the car correspond with where you want it to go, and so on. There’s a lot going on to comprise the routine of, "driving".


much of the…complex behavioral habit[s] occurred without you thinking about it.


When you drive you flex your arm muscles ever so slightly to translate into tiny steering adjustments needed to keep you and your car in the lane. More than likely when your muscles contracted and the steering wheel moved slightly left and right, you didn’t decide to do so, nor were you aware of it, you were likely thinking about other things. You could have given your attention to “steering”, but unless you have a reason to (e.g. perhaps the driver next to you begins to hug the center lane marker and you decide to move your car over), our brain allows us to allocate time and resources to other things. Much of the complex behavioral habit of “driving a car” occurred without you thinking about it. You may have chosen to get in the car, what way to get to work, when to change lanes, but the vast majority of behaviors that make up your driving routine are a behavioral chain that, once learned, you spend little time consciously choosing to do. Many of the daily repeating patterns of behavior that make up your day are like driving. Once initiated, your brain allows you to engage in such complex behavior patterns without having to consciously “choose” or micromanage each step.


...our brains ability to manage previously learned behavior without having to consciously choose to do so allows us to be present in the moment to new stimuli that do require us to respond to...


Indeed, just think what would happen if we did need to intensely think about everything we do, all the time. Complex behaviors like driving, riding a bike, cooking dinner, discussing with your partner how to manage your child’s online learning time, negotiating an agreement between two companies, managing yourself in a social situation… they all require you to engage in dozens of discrete behaviors and in a particular order to be successful. If we had to choose and decide each step we would be overwhelmed preventing us from engaging in the “situational awareness” required to be responsive to the often ever-changing environmental factors we must respond to. In fact, our brains ability to manage previously learned behavior allows us to be present in the moment to new stimuli that do require our attention. Not having to attend to how to steer allows us to be aware of the need to move the steering wheel to avoid the car that moves into your lane. The wonderful human brain allows us to take previously learned behaviors while attending to more immediate matters.


The process of change involves replacing the routine we currently engage in with one that is more in line with our goals.


Knowing that much of our behavior follows predictable routines, suggests any change effort start with documenting the routine as it predictably happens. To do so we pay particular attention to the environmental conditions that reliably occur prior to and just after. The process of change involves substituting the routine we currently engage in with one that is more in line with our goals. The replacement routine is more likely to compete with and replace the previous one when it is triggered by the same conditions and accesses the same reinforcer or outcome that maintains the previously learned routine.

A client we worked with wanted to quit smoking. While his change plan had many parts, we were able to determine, in part, his smoking while at work, was being maintained by peer interaction and attention. Essentially Tyler and several others would go behind the warehouse and take several 10-minute cigarette breaks throughout the day. Let’s use the 3-term contingency (the A, B, C’s of behavioral science) to document Tyler’s behavior and the environmental conditions or context in which it occurs:

Antecedent: During Breaks out in back parking lot of warehouse

Behavior/Routine: Tyler smokes

(Maintaining) Consequence: His friends talk to him

Based on this reality we began to program for change by defining a replacement routine for Tyler to use instead. As mentioned, prior behavioral research supports selecting a new replacement routine that is triggered by the same conditions and accesses the same reinforcer or outcome that maintains the previously learned routine. So we had Tyler pair up with a coworker/ friend who also wanted to quit, and taught both during their break time to go to another part of the back parking lot of the warehouse and shoot baskets rather than smoke. This afforded both of them the same amount of peer interaction during break times (and also engage in an activity that is somewhat physically incompatible with cigarette smoking).

Antecedent: During Breaks

New Replacement Behavior/Routine: Tyler shoots baskets

(Maintaining) Consequence: His friend talks to him

By incorporating this new routine to replace the old one Tyler’s smoking cessation program was calibrated for success. Notice how he also had something to do—rather than simply not smoke. He had a new behavior routine that "fit" in the same context (same antecedent and consequence) as his old routine of smoking. Since it led to the same reinforcer, in this case peer attention, it was more likely to be successful.

Let’s go through an illustrative example of how someone else used a replacement routine to improve her success rate of instituting change in her life.

Molly is a 38-year old mother of two. One April, after looking at several fashion magazines that made her feel like she was overweight, she turned on the TV and noticed every character on her favorite reality show looked, according to her, “pretty good in their bathing suits, like I once did”. She began to feel regret at eating that extra cupcake at dessert and began feeling bad about herself. She decided she needed to lose weight. At a doctor’s appointment she voiced her concern about her weight and the doctor calculated her BMI and ran a metabolic blood panel and determined Molly was pre-Diabetic. The doctor made several recommendations including she should indeed lose some weight. Molly committed to “get back in shape” and lose 30 pounds.

She decided she would run 3-miles each day starting the next day. “No more cupcakes until I lose the weight!”, she told herself. She decided to weigh herself each day, and asked her husband if he and the kids could cheer for her when she was successful at a 3-mile run and make her dinner (as opposed to the usual routine of her making them dinner).

She started out day one and within 5 minutes she felt pain in her leg muscles, and in her lungs. Unaccustomed to the effort required of her body, her brain received signals—STOP! Her brain told her she was hurting, and that running is unpleasant. She kept hearing, “This is TOO hard” over and over in her head. As she was initially motivated to start this new behavior of running, she told herself to simply, “Suck it up” and continue her run. She was able to, “gut it out” for 5 more minutes when the overwhelming presence of her brain screaming at her to stop became too much, she stopped. She walked home mad at herself for being so weak. Her family was surprised to see her so quickly and supported her by telling her, “You can do it tomorrow! We believe in you!”.

The next day she awoke sore but got herself out the door and started to run. Similarly, she ran for 5 minutes, the pain arrived, and she stopped. She felt it was just too hard and walked home unsure what to do. Her husband was not sure how to respond when she got home, but made her dinner anyways as she looked exhausted. Molly skipped a couple days to rest, then tried one more day. Similar to the first two days she could only run for 10 minutes. As she walked home, she resigned herself that she was, “just not a runner”. On her return home no one in the family was sure what to say, so they said nothing. Within a week Molly stopped trying to run entirely, and began telling herself just to love herself the way she is. While that helped a little, she knew her health was suffering. She began to wonder if there was a pill that helps people become more motivated, or perhaps a hypnotist might help her become more motivated. Molly, and her reliance on "motivation" to change her behavior set herself up to not be successful.

We can summarize Molly’s early attempt at change as follows:

Antecedent: feel pain and negative self-talk

Behavior: stop exerting physical effort

(Maintaining) Consequence: Pain is removed/avoided (we call this negative reinforcement)

Molly gave up after 3 days of trying. Molly did exert free will and got herself out the door. She did “choose” to go run, but her notions of free will and motivation gave her little understanding of what to do when confronted with the pain of running. It did not give her a lens to understand how to create a new sustainable routine of running. There were also several other unintended outcomes: Molly felt bad about herself, more than she did before. She created one more learning experience that taught her she can’t do something. Her family experienced a lack of success at achieving a goal. And Molly decreased her sense of ability to control her own life.

To support Molly we used the science of behavior including our understanding of routines to increase the likelihood Molly achieved her goal. We first helped her redefine her goal to, “maintaining a healthy lifestyle”, not “run 3-miles”. The goal became defined as engaging in a daily exercise routine, and since she had not been active in years this was first defined as walking. Molly started with modest walking goals, then introduced running once she was able to walk for 30-minutes without stopping.

When Molly started running is where we added our understanding of routines. When she experienced a sensation of discomfort that made her want to stop (Antecedent) we “replaced” that routine with, “distract yourself by counting to 100 by 2s, and then once at 100 back down to 0” (new replacement routine). When she counted she was able to avoid (or lessen her experience of) the overwhelming feeling of discomfort (Maintaining Consequence). We chose this strategy as we know we can lessen the intensity and awareness of minor pain/discomfort by adding a “distracting” alternative stimulation.

Antecedent: feel pain and negative self-talk

Replacement Behavior/Routine: count to 100 by 2's then back down to 0

(Maintaining) Consequence: Avoid sensation of pain and negative self-talk

As Molly was prepared for the inevitable discomfort in running, she was able to better achieve her daily goals. Over time with increasing success she set the occasion for her to access the other reinforcers available when she ran. She felt a sense of accomplishment when she returned home, was more relaxed, and reported being more motivated to do other things as her overall fitness level increased.


This new routine gave her a means to respond differently to what prevented her from achieving her daily goal, and allowed her to sustain progress for her ultimate goal.


Before we met Molly her approach was based on too much reliance on motivation. Molly simply had tried to, “suck it up” and this notion of behavior change provided her few, if any options, and only a small chance of success. We combined a more realistic approach to goal setting with teaching Molly a replacement behavior to use. This new routine gave her a means to respond differently to what prevented her from achieving her daily goal, and allowed her to sustain progress for her ultimate goal of changing her overall health. We took her wonderful ideas of having her family support her but made these a reinforcer for her daily effort for change. We also had her children remind her as she left for her walks to, “Remember to count Mommy.” The family celebrated obtaining weekly goals with dinners prepared by her husband and special cupcakes for dessert (they were half the size).


Change is about careful goal setting and setting the occasion for success through understanding how routines and our habits are established, and how to replace problematic ones with better ones.


Molly is an example of the need to understand what routines are, and the importance of replacing the routines we do not like with behaviors that "fit" the conditions of our lives. Change is not about simply being motivated, rather change is about careful goal setting and setting the occasion for success through understanding how routines and our habits are established, and how to replace problematic ones with better ones.


Living a life with intention is important, but that does not suggest to change behavior one simply chooses to do so.


To finish where we started: Often when people speak of, “choosing” behavior they are not actually talking about the science of behavioral learning and change, they are discussing their notions of “free will”, independent thinking, personal responsibility and whether someone can choose to live their life in a certain manner. We can and should choose behaviors to engage in. Living a life with intention is important, but that does not suggest to change behavior one simply chooses to do so. There is much more than motivation to consider. The science of behavior tells us to be more planful. Effective change start with understanding our established behavioral routines, and then developing a plan for promoting a new replacement routine that aligns with the conditions present in our life and tailored incrementally to our goals.


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