Techniques for Learning New Behaviors

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Learned behavior is perpetually shaped by these forces; intrinsic approach and avoidance motivations, the presence or absence of rewarding or punishing stimuli, and the making of associations between unconditioned (instinctually meaningful) stimuli and other things. Any given animal's behavior represents that animals best effort at navigating through these forces so as to maximize its access to rewards and minimize the punishments it has to endure. The process of learning never stops, but rather is always ongoing. As stimulus conditions change, so too will behavior. Understanding this process is key to successfully managing behavior change.

Human behavior and most animal behavior is considerably more complex in nature than than simple associational learning (such as salivating at the sound of a bell) can account for. Complex behaviors are built up out of multiple simple behaviors that get strung together into chains of associated behaviors. It is not possible to learn a complex behavior all at once. Instead, they must be built up over time out of smaller parts. And so, a baby does not learn to walk in one day, but instead, spends time first learning to flex muscles, later to crawl, and then ultimately to walk (but at first, only with the aid of a wall). Examination of a baby's process of learning to walk reveals an ongoing process of successive approximation. As time and learning progress, the target behavior is more and more closely approximated, until it is achieved.


When learning is new, it is often effortful. A baby must think about the process of standing, for example. It takes concentration to achieve. There are mistakes and missteps. A lot of falling occurs. Repetition is key to the baby's ultimate success. The process of practicing over and over makes the new behavior more familiar and ultimately something that can be just performed without thought or effort. Repeated practice trains the child's brain to be able to perform the behavior unconsciously. Once the ability to stand has been mastered, the child is free to pursue the more challenging and complex task of walking, which requires a new level of effort and new challenges to practice and master until it too becomes just another unconscious, effortless behavior. 

  • Practice Makes Perfect / Overlearning. A technique can be pointed out at this point, which is that practice makes perfect. Any new behavior you try to learn (or unlearn) will initially be difficult to accomplish. Your body and mind are not used to doing things in the new way and will require repeated practice of these new ways of doing things before they become second nature. With practice, what is initially effortful becomes effortless.

    Sometimes people are worried about how they will perform in a new or feared situation. Speaking in public frightens many in this way. You can use the practice makes perfect principle (sometimes referred to as "Overlearning") to help insure that you will perform well when you speak. To do so, you need to write out your speech, and then practice it, over and over in as naturalistic a setting as you can find, until it comes out of your mouth effortlessly and stops feeling forced. The more you practice your speech, the more its points will stick in your mind and the less you'll have to look at your notes.

  • Shaping. Another principle can be broken out now as well. New behaviors you want to learn are likely complex in nature, requiring effort and practice to achieve. It is not possible to learn complex behaviors all at once. Instead, you must use the principles of successive approximation and overlearning in order to gradually master your goal.

    Let's say that you want to learn to golf. Successful golfing requires mastery of the golf swing, a complex and somewhat unnatural-feeling motion involving the entire body. Without mastery of the swing, it is difficult to even hit the ball accurately at first, much less gain the distance you need to play at or under par (at or under the allotted number of strokes per hole). In this scenario, practice, and feedback and advice from experienced golfers are the ingredients necessary to gain ability. Practicing your swing is necessary to make it become less of a consciously driven process, but practice alone will not insure that you learn proper technique. You need experienced people to watch you practice your swing, critique it, and then give you feedback on what you are doing wrong. With each bit of feedback, you have the opportunity to make a correction to your swing; a successive approximation or shaping of what your swing will ultimately become. You must be open to the feedback and do your best to benefit from it, or your swing will not benefit.

  • Chaining. Shaping is the technique of choice when you are attempting to learn a single isolated behavior. A complementary technique, chaining, is useful for situations when you are interested in learning a complex sequence of behaviors. Chaining and shaping approaches may be used concurrently when you are faced with learning a complex behavior that can be broken into a series of smaller sub-behaviors. Take the golf swing again. A golf swing can be seen as a single complex behavior, or, alternatively, as a series of smaller behaviors that are performed in sequence. Seen in this latter way, a golf swing starts out with a particular way of standing. This initial behavior gets followed by a particular way of holding the golf club, which is followed by a particular way of eyeing the ball, then raising the club in preparation for the swing, and so on. An experienced trainer might attempt to teach the golf swing by teaching each of its component parts in order. As each component part is mastered, the trainer builds out the chain of events that becomes the golf swing by having the student add new components to the end of known behaviors. When all the components are known and can be executed seamlessly, the trainer may switch to a shaping mode of training, where the student receives critical feedback concerning his raw swing which he can use to make further successive approximations of the perfect swing.

One tracking site that can be used to create new habits/behaviors is HabitForge. The free-to-use site allows people to set a goal for a behavior/habit and have assistance in tracking whether they are meeting that each day for 21 days (the time research has shown it takes to form a habit).  Users will receive a customized daily email asking how they did and can click "yes" or "no" daily. Succeed for 21 days, and the new action will be easier to make into a habit. Skip a day and the clock starts over at day one.

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