Changing your behaviours Part I: How to reduce unwanted behaviours

Changing your behaviours Part I: How to reduce unwanted behaviours

As humans we are constantly striving towards improving ourselves, and those around us. Improvement inevitably requires a change in behaviour. Whether it is improving your diet by eating less junk food, increasing exercise, communicating better, studying harder, or sleeping earlier, all of these goals require the implementation of different behavioural strategies.

People will often display genuine motivation to change their behaviours and the behaviours of those around them (e.g. children, friends, partners, family members, etc.), yet no matter how hard they try, they continuously fail to achieve the changes they seek. Why? It is because intentions do not necessarily translate into actions. The most well-intentioned individual will not achieve anything if they do not create the contingencies to succeed. As such, the first thing we need to do when we are trying to change behaviours is define our target behaviour. What are target behaviours? Target behaviours are specific, focused behaviours that can be defined clearly and measured easily.

Therefore, setting ambiguous and overly simplistic goals such as, “I want to be skinny” or “I want to improve my exercise regiment” will probably not work unless we specify target behaviours. For example, how do you quantify being skinny? What is your timeline to achieve this goal? Is it realistic? Do you have the necessary steps in place to achieve your goals? What do you mean by ‘improve’? These are just a few specific questions that need to be thought out and answered if we want to have a chance to succeed in our goal. The more work we put into establishing good target behaviours the better chance we have to succeed in attaining the changes we want. The key here is the behaviour must be narrow in focus, it must be measurable, appropriate and adaptive, and well-defined.

Types of target behaviours

Acceleration target behaviours are those behaviours that we want to increase because we are not performing them often enough, long enough or strongly enough. For example, you may want to exercise more, eat healthier, or pay attention in class.

Deceleration target behaviours, you guessed it, are those behaviours that we are trying to decrease. These are established when we are using maladaptive behaviours too often, for too long a time, or too strongly. For example, you may want to decrease the number of cigarettes you smoke per day.

Strategies on changing deceleration target behaviours

If we look at parents and how they interact with their children, we see that the way they typically decrease deceleration target behaviours is by punishing their child’s misbehaviour. “Johnny, don’t yell at your brother!” This strategy seems straightforward but usually provides only a partial resolution to the problem.

To start, no matter how much we consider a particular behaviour to be problematic, destructive, and disruptive it is important to remember that the behaviour serves a function and occupies time in a person’s life. Therefore, when we severely limit or totally eliminate that behaviour it creates a void in the person’s life.

As such, the best way to reduce deceleration target behaviours is by replacing them with acceleration target behaviours. This way we are able to fill the void left in our life and provide ourselves with an adaptive alternative. For example, if the deceleration target behaviour is studying in front of the television, an acceleration target behaviour can be studying in the library.

As Spiegler & Guevremont (2003) explain, in order to be effective substitutes, the acceleration target behaviours must meet three criteria: 1) they must serve the same common role (studying in front of the television and studying in the library, for example, are both ways of studying); 2) the behaviour should be adaptive or productive; and 3) the acceleration and deceleration target behaviours must be competing responses, that is, it is difficult to perform both at the same time.

Avoid using the “dead person” rule

By definition, deceleration target behaviours tell us what we should not do and this can create many problems. Let’s revisit Johnny from above. He has been told by his parents to stop yelling (deceleration target behaviour), meaning the only thing Johnny knows is that he is not allowed to yell. In this case, it would be more productive if Johnny were told to “speak softly” or “to listen rather than yell,” because this would give him an alternative and adaptive behaviour; something he could do actively.

A general rule that many behaviour therapists use to describe this phenomenon is the ‘dead person rule.’ The dead person rule means that we never ask a person to do something a dead person can do (Spiegler & Guevremont, 2003). “Don’t yell” is a violation of this rule because a dead person “can” not yell. Dead people are the only ones who “can” not behave. As such, focusing on providing others with actual behaviours that they can do is more effective. If this is difficult, think of it as the ‘live person rule’ where you only ask people to do things a live person can do (Spiegler & Guevremont, 2003).

In closing, motivation and good intentions alone cannot make us change behaviours. Setting attainable goals that have good target behaviours is necessary. Implementing acceleration target behaviours and the dead person rule are examples of two effective and proven methods to help you and those around you decrease unwanted behaviours.  In Part II of this series on changing behaviours, I will provide an overview of strategies you can implement to increase acceleration behaviours.


  1. Jeetu
    June 14, 2011 at 10:18 am

    very interesting and I am hoping to apply these in my own home

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