Habits have a way of insinuating themselves into our lives by becoming an unconscious action. We pair them with other behaviors which they seem to “feed off” of, until they become ingrained into our systems.
For instance, if you’re a smoker, you might reach for a cigarette every time you have a coffee, or get into the car, or have a break at work. Similarly, if you habitually bite your nails, you likely do it unconsciously.
Many times, awareness is the first step towards breaking a habit. t’s rarely enough to help you quit and stay away from the behavior, but it’s a good starting point.
In this article, you’ll see how a very simple device helped a 36-year-old woman break free of her chronic hair-pulling behavior, and how you can apply this same principle to rid yourself of any habits that may be controlling your life.
In a clinical study undertaken at North Dakota University, a 36-year-old woman with moderate intellectual disability was treated for chronic hair pulling. Due to this habit, she had already lost approximately 50% of her hair.
The researchers had tried to treat this chronic behavior using an approach called SHR (Simplified Habit Reversal). This included awareness training by making the woman aware of her hair-pulling, as well as training her to cross her arms whenever she felt the urge to pull her hair.
However, this approach produced minimal results, which prompted the researchers to introduce an awareness enhancement device.
The device used in the experiment was a modified hearing aid with the earpiece worn on the woman’s wrist and the receiver attached to the collar of her shirt. The device would make a sound every time the woman raised her hand to her head to pull out her hair.
The researchers instructed the woman to cross her hands every time she heard the sound. During the first session, she tried to pull out her hair three times. However, every time she heard the sound from the device, she crossed her hands as instructed.
Following those three attempts, she simply stopped trying to pull out her hair, even when wearing the device while it was switched off!
The researchers believe this approach might have been effective because “the onset of the tone positively punished placing the left hand near the head, and the termination of the tone negatively reinforced moving the hand away from the head and using the competing response”.
Simply put, the sound was “punishing” the woman for reaching for her hair. When she moved her hand away and crossed her arms, she was being “rewarded” by the sound going away.
This punishment/reward method, coupled with awareness of the presence of the device, conditioned her to stop pulling her hair.
This is not the first time these observations have been made. Over the past century, multiple studies have researched a similar approach towards habit-breaking.
It’s called Electrical Aversion Conditioning and uses small electric jolts to the arm to condition participants to stop a specific undesired behavior. It is extremely effective in overcoming compulsive behavior, as well as persistent habits such as nail biting, smoking, alcoholism, overeating, and gambling.
In one clinical study (Lubetkin, Fishman, 1974) it was effectively used to help a chronic heroin user break free of his drug habit. In a follow-up assessment 8 months later, he was found to be still drug free.
So, if you have a habit you want to break, this method could help you do so.
Lubetkin, B. S., & Fishman, S. T. (1974, 12). Electrical aversion therapy with a chronic heroin user. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 5(2), 193-195. doi:10.1016/0005-7916(74)90113-X
Rapp, J. T., Miltenberger, R. G., & Long, E. S. (1998, 12). Augmenting simplified habit reversal with an awareness enhancement device: Preliminary findings. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31(4), 665-668. doi:10.1901/jaba.1998.31-665
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Habits, Technology & Behavioral Change