Jul 20

“The Power of Habit”: How to Make Effective Changes

Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Charles Duhigg, New York Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, points out that any “habit loop” consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. Taking alcoholism as an example of a habit/addiction, he states that groups like AA (or NA or GA, and so on) often provide a way to form new but similar habit loops.

Many alcoholics, say studies, essentially suffer from habit dysfunctions. They have learned to react to a cue (‘I’m stressed. I need to relax at a bar.’) with a routine (‘Bud Light, please.’) to receive a reward (‘I always feel better after unloading to my friends over a beer.’)

A.A. just tweaks that formula slightly. There is a still the same basic cue (‘I’m stressed. I need to relax at a meeting.’), a slightly different routine (‘My name is Jim, and I’m an alcoholic.’) and, essentially, the same reward (‘I always feel better after unloading to my friends over coffee.’)

As Kirkus Reviews points out, Duhigg’s all about the brain science:

…Duhigg demonstrates how automatic behavior, good or bad, can grow from a repeated decision that gets lodged in the basal ganglia…Animal trainers are already familiar with this information. For improvement, the trick is to keep the cue and reward, but change the routine. The belief that acquiring a new ‘keystone habit’ can really be achieved is necessary…

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, on reviewing Duhigg: “His chapter on ‘keystone habits’ alone would justify the book.”

Selected Quotes from The Power of Habit:

The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.

This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.

As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.

It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other ingrained patters can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviours.

Aug 14

Public Shaming: How NOT to Get Others to Change

At the same time that the serious and thoughtful work of such researchers as Brené Brown has helped us understand the harmful effects of shame, debate continues over whether the purposeful use of public shaming can motivate people to make healthy changes, e.g., to lose weight or recover from an addiction or be a better-behaved child.

Mirroring this issue has been a burgeoning public shaming humor culture in which photos of non-humans committing bad behaviors are posted online. These dogs, cats, bunnies, and even robots often wear signs expressing their various confessions of wrongdoing. Some examples can be found at the following sites:

Turning back to people, the following quote from Brené Brown, in an interview with Mothers Movement, is pertinent to the argument against the shaming method: “Meaningful, healthy change requires us to assess both our strengths and limitations. We change from a place of self-worth, not a place of shame, powerlessness and isolation. Real change requires awareness, insight and thoughtful decision-making – these are rarely present when we are experiencing shame.”

Unfortunately, our culture has long been into shaming, Brown points out. Children especially are often targeted, as for parents and other caretakers “(i)t is both effective and efficient in the short-term.”

She elaborates on how this tendency is then recycled throughout our culture:

…(S)hame is used as a change agent all the time. It’s used in our ‘here and now’ society because you can actually see a swift behavior change when you use shame. The consequences, however, are very serious. Shame promotes change by using fear of rejection, fear of not being accepted and fear of disconnection. Ultimately, shame is very destructive to both the person doing the shaming and the person being shamed. When you talk to 200 women about shame (and now some men as well), you quickly learn how many of our deepest scars are from being shamed and many of our most profound regrets can be traced back to experiences when we shamed others.

An example of shaming gone wrong, as reported in The Huffington Post, is seen in the recent research of psychologist Angelina Sutin et al. showing that it actually hinders weight loss—in fact, victims of weight discrimination were significantly more likely to become obese.

In a Psychology Today blog post, noted addictions expert Dr. Stanton Peele also warns against public shaming. He states that the too common practice of rehab shaming, or “hectoring addicts and alcoholics for their bad behavior,” also fails.

Peele refers to neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitzwhose article in Time, “Being Ashamed of Drinking Prompts Relapse, Not Recovery,” cites new research results that “add to a body of literature suggesting that widely used shaming and humiliating methods of treating alcohol and other drug problems — such as those seen on shows like Celebrity Rehab — are not only ineffective but also may be counterproductive.”

In fact, we just wind up back where we started:

Why doesn’t shame change or deter addictive behavior? Shame is not only an effect of addiction but also can be a key reason why some people turn to drink or other drugs in the first place. Research suggests that people who feel particularly high levels of shame are at increased risk not just for addictions but also for other conditions that can worsen addictions, like depression…

That can set up a vicious cycle: if you drink to escape shame and then embarrass yourself while drinking, you wind up with even more reasons to drink — and to be ashamed of yourself.

Have you ever been shamed into changing your bad habits or behavior? How’d it work out?

Sep 26

President In Therapy: Fictional “West Wing” One, That Is

I’m feeling bad for President Obama these days. So much stress—and possibly no therapy. How does someone in his position manage it all? Has there ever been a president in therapy?

At a professional forum in 1999, Kitty Dukakis, social worker and wife of former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, reportedly stated, “If you’re running for public office and expect to be elected, forget about letting it be known that you’ve been in therapy. It’s a tragedy that it’s come to this.” Moreover, she was grateful her husband didn’t get to become the president, as it enabled her—as the wife of a politician—to seek treatment for her addictions.

Has much changed since then? Has anything? Has any politician at a higher level ever admitted to being in therapy while in office?

My own internet research came up almost empty. The exception? It turns out there was a U.S. president who consulted a psychiatrist during office—he was fictional, however.

On the TV series The West Wing that aired from 1999-2006, Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet saw Dr. Stanley Keyworth, played by Adam Arkin. At least once, possibly more.

In the story represented in the clip below, Bartlet has experienced a serious bout of insomnia following a conversation he’d had with staffer Toby about his abusive father, who’s deceased. Toby had suggested that Bartlet had never felt his father’s approval and thus still might be seeking it via winning votes.

I think it’s an interesting take on what it could be like to be a U.S. president in therapy: