it’s hard to change a decision habit

in 2004, tilmann betsch, a german psychologist, and his colleagues assessed how intentions to deviate from habitual decisions were influenced by time pressure. it turned out that the more severe the time pressure, the more the research participants tended to maintain a routine when they re-encountered the same problem, even when they had earlier intended to choose an alternative behaviour.

under severe time pressure, participants chose the old behaviour 70% of the time. under mild time pressure, the “relapse errors” occurred in less than 30% of the choices. relapse errors happened even though participants had intended to behave otherwise and had been offered payment if they were to behave according to their new, non-routine intentions.

while this finding is not overly surprising, it’s interesting to spin this further, particularly into the field of addictions. in 12-step programs, there is often talk of how H-A-L-T (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) can trigger relapse.

these are psychological pressures that can easily overwhelm any good intentions. as soon as an opportunity presents itself (and often this opportunity is simply easy accessibility of the desired substance), the person under pressure will revert to the routine behaviour of choosing the substance, rather than a different behaviour that is known to have much better long (or even medium) term outcomes.

this is why intentions themselves are often not enough. the behaviours that we ideally want to display as a result of these intentions actually need to be practiced, under low pressure situations. which, come to think of it, is exactly what happens when systematic desensitization and graded exposure are used to help people with anxiety, phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders. (that shows once again, doesn’t it, how closely related all our emotional maladies are).

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

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