How to quit stuff and be happy instead (a post about people rather than dogs)

I’m still reading The Science of Consequences, and yet another fascinating fact just caught my attention: quitting (1). There’s a chapter on addictions. What I found most interesting is the paragraph about smoking. I like the “smoking” example, because smoking is a nice metaphor for almost anything you’d like to stop doing. Smoking is less hard to quit than certain illegal drugs (the reinforcement value and withdrawal agony of which are greater), and (as someone who smoked for 10 years and then quit), I would venture that the nature of a cigarette addiction is similar to that of other common addictions: drinking, eating, buying things on the Internet. What do these addictions have in common? They are respectable addictions – we can indulge them in public -, and their reinforcement value increases with the amount of stress we experience in our lives, and they often include a peer pressure element. So what did the studies find about smoking, and how can we take advantage of tit?

1. Cash incentives

Studies found that cash incentives increase people’s chance of quitting smoking. (Programs designed that way do not necessarily require lots of public funding: there are programs who ask people to put up their own money and then earn it back – or lose it, if they give in to the temptation.)

2. Shaping is more effective than quitting cold turkey

A study of heavy smokers who wanted to quit was put into two groups: one group were asked to quit cold turkey, i.e. from one day to the next. The other group was shaped: they were asked to smoke less and less every day. In both cases, people who successfully managed to not smoke were reinforced with money. Almost fifty percent of the shaping group succeeded in quitting, but only a third of the cold turkey group succeeded.

3. Progressive schedules of reinforcement are more effective than fixed ones

Another study compared fixed and progressive schedules. (In the fixed schedule, the reward was always the same, in the progressive schedule, the rewards got smaller over time.) Both groups were twice as likely to quit as the control group (who also wanted to quit, but didn’t get positively reinforced for not smoking). However, participants on the progressive schedule were least likely to relapse after the end of the program.

These three findings about studies are all you need to know to quit your own bad habits. What’s a bad habit? Well, anything you’d like to stop doing. Here’s how:

1. You don’t need a fancy program to take advantage of cash incentives. Just ask a friend to help you quit, give her a substantial amount of your hard-earned money, and set up a contract specifying under what circumstances you get your money back. Maybe you get 10/20/100/500 euros for every day/every weekend you don’t have a drink, or don’t snack on sweet temptations?

If you want to integrate punishment in your treatment plan as well, specify in the contract that for every drink/chocolate bar you have, your friend must donate 10/20/100/500 euros (your euros, which will be lost forever!) to an organization you despise, such as a cult, a right-wing political organization, or the sports team you hate.

2. Don’t force yourself to stop your addictions from one day to the next, but gradually decrease their extent. If, for example, you used to drink 20 bottles of beer every weekend, on the first weekend of your therapy plan, you’ll limit yourself to 15 bottles, on the second weekend, to 10 bottles etc. If you used to eat 5 chocolate bars ever day, only have four and a half on day one, four on day two, three and a half on day three etc.

3. Design a progressive reinforcement schedule with your friend. In the beginning, you’ll earn back a lot of money for not engaging in your favorite vices. Gradually, the amount of money you make will decrease. This way, you are most likely to stay “clean” after you’ve earned all your money back.

(1) Schneider, Susan M.: The Science of Consequences. p. 230-33.