Behavior Change Myths–Part 6, The Power of Triggers

As usual, my thoughts come from this presentation by Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab.

I’ve already written a lot about triggers in previous posts on this topic, but it’s nice to get a post dedicated to triggers by themselves.

Triggers are, of course, things that prompt a response, in this case behavioral. A trigger can be any thing that causes that response, including emotions, events, people, smells, sounds, words, and so on. The classic example is Pavlov and his dogs. You all know the story of course… The bell rings, you give the dog food. Eventually you can ring the bell and cause the dog to salivate in anticipation of getting food.

This kind of trigger is a learned response, and we give ourselves learned response triggers all the time. Habits are generally made up of learned responses, and that’s important to recognize that when dealing with addictions.

Addictions (and behaviors) do not begin in vacuums. We gain them over time as we continue to practice the behavior. If we can control the triggers that promote the behavior, we will have greater success in avoiding the behavior.

What is it that you do or experience that promotes the opportunity for the negative behaviors?

We’ve talked about environmental conditions as being a part of triggers. Are there elements in your environment that push you certain directions?

An important point to remember is that triggers work both ways. Often when we talk about behavior change, I see many people focusing on the negative aspects of behavior and eliminating negative behaviors, but there is real change in using these principles for positive growth as well.

In the arena of weight loss, my wife often tries to pay close attention to what her body is telling her and even verbalize it. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being starvation and 10 being throwing up from overeating, she’ll rate her current “fullness.” When she reaches comfortable and satisfied (around a 7), she stops eating. In many ways, my wife is teaching her body to respond to the natural built-in triggers she already has to tell her to stop eating.

Similarly, I’m one to create encounters as I like to call them. If I am trying to create a habit or remind me to do something, I put triggers in places where I will encounter them. My scriptures go by my shoes, and I put them out the night before. This simple trigger reminds me to call the family together for morning scripture study.

The subtext to this slide says that no behavior happens without a trigger. I don’t know if I agree completely with that, but I will agree that behavior is within our control and triggers are essential to modifying and controlling that behavior.

One last thought…. Our emotional behavior is also within our control and also responds to triggers. If you find yourself consistently getting frustrated with a situation or angry or whatever, what is that is promoting that response? Those are your triggers. While those triggers are important to understand, you have to recognize that you still have the choice and the responsibility to choose regarding those triggers. Those triggers do not make you angry or frustrated. You do. And that is your choice.

And while you can’t always remove all triggers that influence you, you can put in place other triggers to help you.

One that often comes to mind for me was something our bishop taught us a year or so ago. For him, he made it a habit to say a short prayer asking for help each time he faced a specific temptation. In many cases, temptation is brought about by a trigger, and his prayer-based response was an attempt to shift the behavioral response. In some sense, his triggers led to another trigger that led to a positive response.

The point is this: You are free and enabled to choose how you will respond to any given trigger. If you choose to become angry and frustrated, you made that choice yourself. Next time, make a different choice. My wife uses the “Good Choice or Bad Choice?” question when disciplining Katherine. In analyzing our own behavior and responses to triggers, it might be helpful to ask ourselves if our response to a particular trigger was a good choice or a bad choice.

If bad, we have the power to change and be different. Behavior is NOT self anymore than what you wear defines your true appearance. Behavior is, however, an external manifestation of your strengths and weaknesses. Like any strength or weakness, they can be changed. They can be strengthened. And they can be weakened.

The choice, however, remains yours.

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One Response to Behavior Change Myths–Part 6, The Power of Triggers

  1. Pingback: Emotional Custom | eitheory.com

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