Changing Behaviour


We need to avoid pain and seek pleasure (Freud)

It’s not actual pain that drives us, but our fear that something will lead to pain.  And it’s not actual pleasure that drives us, but our belief that taking a certain action will lead to pleasure. (Anthony Robbins)

We are not driven by what we know intellectually, but by what we’ve linked to pain and pleasure in our nervous systems ( our neuro-associations).  Neuro-associations are a physical reality – a physical connection is set up in the brain when we link pain or pleasure to an action.  Each time we repeat the behaviour, the connection strengthens.

We often form a false associations and blame the wrong cause – just because it was there at the time we felt pain or pleasure.  Even worse, we frequently have mixed associations – where we link both pain and pleasure to the same thing.  This is frequently the case with youth at risk, who associate both pain (eg. “I will fail again”) and pleasure (eg. “I’d like to succeed”) to being at school.  When it comes to the crunch, their behaviour will be driven by the most intense association, particularly if it’s a painful one.

Human beings will do more out of their desire to avoid pain than their desire to gain pleasure.

To get someone to change their behaviour, we must get them to change what they link pain and pleasure to, i.e. Get them to focus on: (1) How not changing will be more painful than changing, and (2) How changing will bring them pleasure.  Unless they change what they link to pain and pleasure in their nervous system (not just in their head) the change will not last.


1.) Get them to decide what they really want, and what’s preventing them from having it now.  The first step to creating any change is deciding what they do want, so that they have something to move toward.

2.) Get Leverage: Get them to associate massive pain to not changing now and massive pleasure to the experience of changing now!         

Why don’t people change when they know they should?  Because they associate more pain to making the change than to not changing. They have mixed emotions, linking both pain and pleasure to changing.   

Virtually anyone will turn around if they get to a pain threshold, where they say, “I’ve had it!  I can’t stay like this another minute!”  When they get themselves to the point where they must change, because staying the same would be too painful. This is called leverage.

To help them to get leverage, ask pain-inducing questions: i.e. “what will it cost you if you don’t change?”  THe second step is to ask pleasure-associating questions to help them link positive sensations to the idea of changing, i.e. “If you do make this change, how will that make you feel about yourself?”

3.) Interrupt the limiting pattern.

The definition of insanity is “doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result.”  If we, or they, want to get different results, we must get ourselves to do something different.

Often people have secondary gain which serves to maintain their behaviour – their behaviour gives them something that’s positive.  They may say they want to change, but often they subconsciously believe that maintaining the old behaviour or emotional pattern gives them something they couldn’t get any other way.  In order to resolve this, we have to give them enough leverage that they must change, but also show them a new way to get their needs met.

If we allow them to keep running the same old pattern, they’re going to keep getting the same old results.  The big question is whether these patterns of behaviour are really helping them to get what they want, whether they are harmful for themselves and others, and whether or not they will be beneficial to them in the long term.  In short term there may be no real adverse consequences to many of their behaviours, at least, none with any leverage on them.

One of the best ways to interrupt someone’s pattern is to do something they don’t expect.  The more outrageous your approach, the more effective it will be.

One of the key distinctions to interrupting a pattern is that you must do it in the moment the pattern is recurring.  They pull their normal stunts and you react differently to how they expect.  It’s akin to scratching a record repeatedly with a needle – pretty soon it will never play the same way again.

4.) Create a new empowering alternative.

Nancy Mann’s studies into rehabilitation of drug abusers showed that only those who replaced their addiction with a new alternative made lasting changes in their drug use.

Unless we help them to find alternative ways of getting out of pain and into feelings of pleasure, their change will never last in the long term.  The benefits of the old feelings or behaviours must be preserved by the new behaviours or feelings while eliminating the negative side effects.

5.) Condition the new pattern until it is consistent.

Conditioning is the way to ensure that a change you create is consistent and last long term.

The Law of Reinforcement: 

“Any pattern of behaviour that is continually reinforced will become an automatic and conditioned response.  Anything we fail to reinforce will eventually dissipate”

Reinforcement is not the same as punishment and reward.  Reinforcement is responding to a behavior immediately after it occurs, while punishment and reward may occur long afterward.

Timing is absolutely crucial to effective conditioning so that the sensations of reinforcement are linked to the pattern of behaviour that is occuring.

 Reinforcement must be scheduled.  In the beginning, every time they perform the behaviour, it must be reinforced.  Once a behaviour is established, you should move to a variable schedule of reinforcement, so that the reinforcement is not taken for granted and they are still driven by the possibility of reward but uncertain as to which try will be rewarded. Reinforce on a random basis so that it doesn’t become predictable or boring.

To reinforce their behaviour long term, you may also want to use a fixed schedule of reinforcement, where you reward them at the end of a period or time or a series of behaviours.  This should not be the only reward, or they will only do the minimum expected.  You need to add in occasional surprises – like recognition, bonuses, etc. – so that they will put forth the extra effort in the hope of receiving acknowledgement.

A third conditioning tool is the jackpot, where, once in a rare while you give them a large reward for their behaviour, so that they begin to anticipate that if they put in an extra effort there might be a huge reward.  This principle can also be used to create a “jump-start” for those that are unmotivated.  The pleasure that it creates may be enough to break their old pattern and put them into a state of pleasure such that they are willing to get involved.

6.) Test it!

Put them, or get them to imagine themselves in, the old situation and notice whether they engage in the new or old pattern.  It is also important to get them to examine the consequences of the change and the impact that these will have on their life.

(Anthony Robbins, Awaken The Giant Within