Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
People had been training dogs for nearly ten thousand years before Ivan Pavlov described a “conditioned response.” He observed that if you ring a bell before you feed a dog, eventually the dog will associate the bell-ringing with getting fed and begin to salivate before the food even arrives. This is called “classical conditioning,” and it is one building-block of behavior change. We animals easily link one stimulus (a bell) with another (food) and it can cause us to respond, consciously or not, to our environment. When I hear the mail slot on our house open and close, I associate it with getting mail, and I feel a sense of curiosity. I’ll probably go check to see what the mail carrier has brought us. We call the sound a “cue” or a “trigger.”
The other building block is “operant conditioning.” If a rat pushes a level and receives some food, it learns that its behavior is linked to a reward. It is likely that when it is hungry, it will push the lever more.
These simple principles—classical and operant conditioning—are responsible for most of our daily behavior. I wake up in the morning and feel groggy, but the scent of freshly-ground coffee hits my nose and I start to crave it. Here’s the crazy part: I don’t even have to drink the coffee to feel more awake! I’ve been conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to have a certain response to the scent of coffee. And through cues, repetition, and rewards over many days (wake up tired -> drink coffee -> feel refreshed) I’ve used operant conditioning to create a habit in my morning routine.
I think of this process in both behavioral and theological terms. The author of Deuteronomy in the passage above knew that it was not enough to say, “Keep these words in your heart.” The author added, “recite them when you lie down and when you rise.” They knew repetition was key to making something important in your life, and building into a morning and evening routine was the most certain way to give it priority.
We human beings are animals, and we learn things through repetition, by forming and strengthening the neural pathways along which electrochemical information moves. Ideas and experiences don’t just float around in the ether—they are embodied in proteins and neurotransmitters, incarnate in sound, smell, saliva, and morning routines.
This is why we don’t form or break habits through sheer willpower. I usually can’t simply decide to change my routine behaviors. I have to set up cues and rewards to train myself in that direction. For example, if I want to run in the morning, I may set out my running gear the night before. If I want to remember to set out my gear, I may need to create a reminder on my phone.
Or maybe my phone is the habit I’m trying to break. If I want to be less distracted and check my phone less often during the day, I may need to reduce the cues in my environment that cause me to reach for it when I’m bored or curious. If standing in line has become a cue to check my phone, perhaps I can carry a book with me when I know I’m going to be standing in line at the grocery store or the DMV. Part of this process is simply learning to recognize the cues that cause our automatic behaviors.
Becoming aware of our triggers and rewards is key to changing our habits. For all our lofty thoughts and goals, we humans are still animals. Our complex behavior is built on fairly simple principles.
God, may you be my first and last thought of the day.
—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.