New Years' Substitutions

January 3, 2015

As I have been learning a lot about psychology this year, I thought to make some changes to my New Years' Resolutions. Specifically, for the bad habits I want to cut down on, I will now rely on substitution.

Substitution, as a strategy for habit change, is based on a psychological theory of behaviours. The first thing this says that the behaviour can be broken down into a trigger, a routine and a reward:

  • The trigger includes both the context and the specific prompt for the behaviour
  • The routine describes the sequence of physical actions and the though processes being carried out in the behaviour
  • The reward specifies which results of the behaviour stimulate any of the various reward centres of the brain [1]

Keeping this in mind, we now turn to the dual process theory [2]. This says, again in brief, that most day-to-day decisions are made by "System 1", which responds to incentives simply, quickly and largely subconsciously. It is the other system, "System 2" with which we actually make resolutions. This system follows (relatively slowly) a chain of reasoning to arrive at a rational conclusion. So, we have the situation where we tend to formulate our strategies according to the processes and preferences of System 2, whereas it will be the instinctive System 1 that actually carries them out.

Therefore, in our deliberations (System 2) we must always seek to make more efforts to come up with an approach to change that will also work for System 1. In the case of behaviours we want to get rid of, this means making substitutions. And more precisely, this means looking for new behaviours that will reward us in the same ways as our current behaviours - but without the negative effects associated with them.

To get a bit more concrete, one habit [3] that I want to modify for 2015 is my TV-watching behaviour, which I feel is sometimes too extensive and a bit of a time sink. More specifically, I regret watching shows which I am already familiar with and which are essentially always the same. The process of breaking this down will also be a good way to illustrate substitution in practice.

Behaviour Change: TV-Watching

The literature suggests [4] that a primary motivation to watch television is a desire to relax. And, indeed, TV is generally successful in sating this desire. Interestingly, what also comes with the relaxing effect of television is a certain amount of arousal - the extent of which depends on the specific programming. Hence it has been suggested that TV watching can be used in a variety of ways to regulate mental states in different ways [5].

This accords with my own experience. My primary time for TV-watching is after work, at which time I am carrying a moderate amount of generalized stress, some cognitive fatigue, and perhaps some ideas to address outstanding work problems may be bouncing around in my head. With this simple realization, we have enough information to nail down a specific behavioural pattern:

Reward: Let go of stresses
Routine: Make dinner then watch TV
Prompt: Coming home from work, tiredness

With this made clear, it is possible to start thinking about substitutions. There are indeed many ways to let go of stresses but when we analyse it we will see that few are quite as flexible as watching television is. However, not all is lost; we still have some possibilities:

  • Meditation

    Pros: Extremely effective relaxation technique
    Cons: Can be difficult if too tired, and difficult to tie into system 1 as the benefits are subtle. Not that time consuming (or is that a positive..?)
  • Exercise (Gym/Running)

    Pros: Good to dispel thoughts, healthy activity too!
    Cons: Not always feasible due to injuries/bodily fatigue
  • Reviewing Ideas or Writings

    Pros: Could be a good, low-energy way to engage creatively, and to be drawn into a different realm of ideas
    Cons: Depends on having some creative output and in those having remaining loose ends to latch onto
  • Cooking

    Pros: Engaging and creative activity, so long as the dish is not second-nature or just trivial. You need to eat to live, so some kind of cooking must be done anyway
    Cons: Dependent on having something (relatively) new that you want to cook
  • Random Browsing

    Pros: Amply distracting, find some interesting ideas
    Cons: Not optimally relaxing, easy for worries to intrude, similar to the aspect of TV I have a problem with in that some genres of article come up repeatedly without carrying any thought I haven't seen before (N.B. I also want to do a little less of this activity)

This was just a very idiosyncratically-chosen list, of the activities that are most salient to me personally. There are many more possibilities than this. But hopefully the commonalities between the activities are clear, in that they are all motivated by the same desire. And hopefully, it is clear that while each is not as flexible as TV watching, in aggregate they do become as flexible - for while one might not always be feasible, another will be.

As always, the proof is in the pudding, and it is no different for this concept of substitution. However, this general approach - of decomposing activities and addressing their motivations - seems to have great promise.


  1. Primarily the Dopamine System, also see other brain areas such as the Nucleus Accumbens or the Anterior Cingulate Cortex
  2. Described in great detail and lucidity by the pre-eminent psychologist, Daniel Kahneman in "Thinking, Fast and Slow"
  3. A point we have not addressed until now - what precisely is a habit, beyond our intuitive understanding? This is a bit of a diversion here, but my first pass would be "a self-contained endogeneous behaviour that manifests consistently in a particular context"
  4. See (eg) Henning + Vorderer (2001); M Csikszentmihalyi, R Kubey (1981); AM Rubin (1983, 1984) D Ferguson, E Perse (200). Unfortunately there is not much consistency in terminology amongst the various motivations that are identified.
  5. I have not been able to uncover a consensus on which psychological needs motivate TV-watching, but the following three seem to have the most credence:
    1. The need to down-regulate mental arousal (i.e. the need to de-stress).
    2. The need to up-regulate mental arousal (i.e. being bored and looking for stimulation).
    3. Avoidance of doing nothing (psychological escapism). This is the most phenomenologically interesting, as it says that for some people, being left with their own thoughts is unpleasant and an experience that they are driven to avoid. This is related to the traits of neuroticism and the Hardiness metric (as proposed by Maddi et al).
    Of course, there are more reasons to watch TV beyond needs in mental/emotional state. We have not even mentioned how we may value TV as an art form...