Changing Behaviour Cold Turkey

The Cold Turkey Myth About Behaviour

Podcast 2 - No Cold Turkeys

ABA technical concepts covered in this podcast: automaticity; behavioural momentum; alternate or replacement behaviours; motivating operations; establishing operations; evocative effect; deprivation and satiation; repertoire; response class; stimulus class; discriminative operant; functional equivalence; habilitation and social significance.

Presenters - Bobbi Hoadley, Cathy Knights.

Find out about why despite the best intentions, behaviour doesn’t change. Bobbi and Cathy explore the behavioural science of "going cold turkey"

One of the myths of behaviour is that a person can just stop. If someone is doing the wrong thing over and over again, we say "just stop".

But there is no such thing as cold turkey. Behaviour is a hardwired mechanism, e.g. 2 year olds don’t stop when you tell them to, unless they know what else to do.

For example, trying to quit smoking cold turkey- no such thing. A person may be getting to a point of preparation for being ready to change (possibly without knowing) that they are going through a process of behaviour change.

ABA technology of behaviour change includes using whatever tool has a good evidence basis. Behaviour analysts use whatever works; we are pragmatists.

You can't just stop a behaviour- it actually has to go somewhere. Needs an alternate, a replacement, to serve the function in a different way. A more reinforcing and new behaviour, is needed.

One way of changing behaviour is removing the reinforcing consequence for that change, e.g. smoking at a young age to look older. If this was a social function, society has now made it socially unacceptable, as people smoke alone. Or it could be a sensory motivated behaviour (addiction). It is automatically reinforcing and can be more challenging to change.

We’ll talk more another time about underlying motivations.

However, removing the reinforcing consequence is not always effective because it doesn’t always address the function. It may alienate the person, or move the behaviour to a more counterproductive behaviour, e.g. quitting a smoking addiction cold turkey could result in the use of another substance that is more detrimental. The underlying need must first be met.

A functional analysis of behaviour is required in order to understand and meet the needs of the behaviour.

Another way to change is to anticipate behaviour by understanding the motivating operations- what sets up the behaviour (e.g. I have a headache, I’m not hungry, etc.), what makes it easier for the behaviour to happen. So with someone who smokes in order to avoid social situations, they really need the walk to take a break. If there’s a sensory function, then they can look at a replacement behaviour for it like gum chewing.

Can’t just stop- there is no such thing as cold turkey.

Setting up a group of alternate or replacement behaviours is also a way to change behaviour. We do this with a 2 year old by redirecting, offering a choice in another direction, distracting, etc. Often direction or demands can end up in power struggles. We need to teach another group of behaviours that can be just as rewarding, e.g. chewing gum in order to meet the sensory need for the person who smokes. It is best to choose pro-social behaviours that recruit social reinforcement for you.

Lastly, interrupting the eliciting stimuli is another form of behaviour change. When teaching staff to manage a behaviour plan, we instruct them to look away and discontinue engagement. It’s important to collect yourself, e.g. take notes if you are easily triggered by a challenging behaviour in the moment. It’s better to de-stimulate or de-sensitize before interacting with the behaviour.

There are so many tools out there, but they all have a different purpose. Children often have a single set of triggers but adults often streamline them in a group of related behaviours. Behaviour responses grow, and so does the stimulus class or number of triggers. The triggers always have a common theme, e.g. person at the Christmas dinner and someone is talking to him meaninglessly; this could occur in a number of ways and at any point in time.

If a behaviour is not challenging in any way and it’s not disrupting your life but makes it better, go with it. We should just be who we are and do a good job at that.