If you’ve been struggling in your efforts to stop doing unwanted behaviours, it may because of the balance between the costs and benefits which affect your decisions to engage in the behaviours. In this article, I will show you how to use these costs and benefits to help you make progress in addressing these behaviours.
In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, some of my clients have as their counselling goal the desire to stop doing unwanted behaviours. Using substances such as drugs and alcohol, having affairs, using pornography and eating disorders are a few examples of such behaviours. Such clients often tell me when they come to counselling that they’ve tried to stop doing the behaviors but can’t seem to get the job done.
My go-to strategy to help them make progress in stopping these unwanted behaviors is cost-benefit analysis. That is, I help my clients become aware of the negative consequences of their behaviours as well as the rewards which engaging in those behaviours provide them. Addressing each of these two aspects of cost-benefit analysis can make a significant difference in helping you stop engaging in unwanted behaviours. I have found this to be the case in working with clients in eating disorders counselling, addiction counselling and counselling for many other issues.
Why cost-benefit analysis is important in behavior change
The reason it is often critical to examine the costs and benefits of a behavior you want to change is that the cost-benefit balance often determines whether you choose to engage in the behavior or refrain from engaging in it. In the language of the psychological theory of operant conditioning, people are more likely to repeat behaviours for which they are rewarded and are less likely to repeat behaviours for which they are either not rewarded or are punished.
In other words, you are more likely to keep doing behaviours for which there are many benefits and few costs. On the other hand, you are less likely to keep doing a behavior for which there are few benefits but many costs. Many times I discover that the reason my clients have struggled to stop doing unwanted behaviours is that the benefits of the behaviours outweigh the costs. If that is the case, it is not a surprise that the person is more likely to choose to engage in the behavior.
For the person to discontinue the behaviour, they need to alter the cost-benefit balance so that the benefits of the behaviour decrease and the costs of the behavior increase. If the person does this, they will find it much easier to refrain from engaging in the behaviour because they will not find it as rewarding to do so.
The first step in behavior change: Identify the benefits of the behaviour and find other ways to obtain them
If you’re continuing to engage in a behavior which you’re trying to change, this may be because you are obtaining certain benefits, rewards or payoffs for engaging in the behavior. As long as these benefits for your behavior exist, you will want to continue engaging in the behavior to obtain these benefits.
So the first step in changing the behavior is to list the benefits the behavior is bringing to you. For example, drinking might bring you the benefit of managing stress. Smoking may provide you the benefit of being an activity you can do when you are bored. Once you’ve listed the benefits, it should become clear why you’ve been continuing the behavior. At that point, it should also be clear that in order to discontinue the behavior you will need to identify ways to obtain these benefits other than by engaging in the behavior. Doing so would make it less likely you would feel the need to engage in the behavior to obtain those benefits. For example, if you learned stress management techniques such as relaxation exercises and thought records, this would make it less likely you would need to drink to manage stress.
Go through your list of benefits. Take each one and identify ways of obtaining the benefit other than by engaging in the behavior. If you’ve reduced the number of benefits of the behavior to a minimum, you’ve made it less likely you will want to continue engaging in the behavior.To make it even less likely you will want to choose to engage in the behavior, you should also identify costs or negative consequences of the behavior. I will discuss these in the next section.
The second step in behavior change: Identify the costs of the behaviour and make yourself aware of these costs
The more costs or negative consequences you identify for the unwanted behaviour, the more likely it is that you will choose to refrain from engaging in the behavior. So begin listing all the negative consequences of the behaviour. For example, if the unwanted behaviour is cheating on your partner, negative consequences may include problems in your relationship with your partner, possibly losing that relationship, and feelings of guilt.
As important as listing the costs of the behaviour is, it’s equally important that you find ways to make yourself aware of these costs on an ongoing basis. In particular, you need to be aware of these costs at times when you are tempted to engage in the behaviour because of the lure of the benefits. If not, you will be more likely to choose to engage in the behaviour despite the costs because you will only be thinking of the benefits of the behaviour at the time you choose whether to engage in it.
For example, if you are trying to refrain from using internet pornography because of the damage its use is doing to your relationship, sitting in front of your computer is more likely to result in your clicking into a pornographic website if you don’t have a way of reminding yourself of the costs of this behaviour in the moment. In such a situation, having a picture of your relationship partner taped to the computer would be one way you could remind yourself of the costs of the behaviour. This would make it less likely you would choose to engage in the behaviour because your decision would be influenced by both the benefits and the costs of the behaviour.
The biggest benefit of doing cost-benefit analysis—a feeling of control and empowerment
The biggest benefit you will likely derive from doing cost-benefit analysis is a feeling of control and empowerment over your unwanted behaviours. Prior to doing this analysis, many people report feeling helpless to change these behaviours. Many of these same people go on a futile pursuit of skills and techniques that will help them finally stop the behaviour. They erroneously believe that if they could only find the right skill or technique, they could finally stop doing the unwanted behaviour. These efforts to find the ‘magic answer’ in a particular skill or technique will usually lead to failure if there are benefits to the behaviour which they have not addressed.
When my clients become aware of how these benefits play a critical role in their continuing the unwanted behaviour, they become empowered. They realize that the reason they’ve been unable to stop doing the behaviour despite using every skill and technique under the sun is that they have, at some level, been choosing to continue the behaviour because of the benefits they derive from it. Once we discuss how they can alter the cost-benefit balance to help them want to choose to stop doing the behaviour, they gain a sense of hopefulness in finally being able to address the unwanted behaviour. By applying cost-benefit analysis in the manner I described, you too can make progress in your goal of eliminating unwanted behaviours.
May you be successful in addressing your unwanted behaviours,