Behavioral Contracts: A Useful Tool for Changing Bad Habits


Changing bad habits.

It’s not easy.

In fact, whether you’re trying to stop biting your fingernails, go to bed earlier, smoke less, study more, exercise consistently, or eat healthier, changing bad habits can be downright difficult.

And it can be downright frustrating.

I’ve written previously about my many attempts to lose weight. And few things in my life have been more frustrating than successfully changing my habits and losing weight, only to fall back into old habits and gain it all back again.

But as I’ve learned more about behavior change over the years, I’ve come to better understand (a) why I (and others) engage in bad habits and (b) what I can do to increase the chances that I will be successful when I try to change them again.

One tool that has proven effective in helping me (and many others) change bad habits is the behavioral contract.

(If you’re so inclined, searching Google Scholar for the term “behavioral contract” will provide you with thousands of studies that have examined the effectiveness of behavioral contracts in changing various bad habits.)

But before I get to the specifics of what a behavioral contract entails, let me take a minute to discuss a useful framework that we can use to understand and subsequently change our bad habits.

Changing Bad Habits: The Three M’s

In his excellent little book, “Self-Help Without the Hype,” Dr. Robert Epstein (who worked with the famous psychologist, B. F. Skinner, in the late 70s and early 80s) discusses how changing our behavior can be boiled down to three simple (but not necessarily easy) steps—steps he calls “the three M’s.” These include:

Measuring our behavior

Modifying our environment

Making a public commitment

The rationale behind these steps is fairly straightforward.

measurementFirst, to know whether our bad habits are changing, we have to measure them. To determine whether we’re eating healthier, for instance, we need to identify exactly what we mean by “healthy eating” and, then, count (or measure) how often we’re doing it. This gives us the ability to say with more certainty whether our healthy eating is changing. Interestingly, simply measuring our behavior is sometimes enough to change our bad habits, largely because we finally see how often we’re engaging in the undesired behavior. (To measure my habits, I have found to be a valuable resource. There are numerous iPhone and Android apps that do the same thing as well.)

Second, we need to modify, or change, our environment. For over 100 years, researchers have shown that much of our behavior is affected by our surroundings (even when we’re not aware of it). For example, did you know that eating with other people significantly increases the amount of food you eat? Or did you know that eating off a large plate makes you eat more than eating off a smaller plate? (For a great review of how the environment affects our eating habits, check out Dr. Brian Wansink’s book, “Mindless Eating“). What this suggests, then, is that to understand our bad habits, we have to look at what’s happening around us when we commit them.

Ultimately, our environment can be separated into two general categories, both of which have an affect on our habits: consequences and antecedents.

ABC figure

(Note: This framework for understanding behavior has been around since the late 1800s. For awhile, it fell out of favor in psychology, but it has once again gained a following because of books like Charles Duhigg’s New York Times bestseller “The Power of Habit.“)

The first—and most important—part of the environment that affects our behavior is what we call consequences, which are the events that follow our behavior. Loosely speaking, these are the “rewards” we experience when we behave a particular way (although the technical name for these events is “reinforcers“). Some consequences consist of “getting things we like.” For example, when you eat, you get to taste good food. When you smoke, you get a nicotine rush. When you drink to excess, you get social approval from friends (although you might also experience a “punisher” in the form of a hangover the next morning). When you study hard for an exam, you (hopefully) get a good grade. Other consequences consist of “removing or avoiding bad things.” Taking aspirin when you have a headache removes the pain. Skipping class allows you to avoid a boring lecture (Anyone? Anyone?). And putting up an umbrella allows you to avoid getting rained on.

These consequences ultimately make our behavior happen again: We do things to “get the good” or to “avoid the bad.” Importantly (and a point that is often misunderstood by critics of this approach), some of the most powerful rewards we receive are subtle “social” rewards such as smiles, pats on the back, sincere compliments, and so on.

Using this framework as a guide, we can assume that if we are engaging in a particular behavior, it is either allowing us to get something we like or to avoid something we don’t. Thus, a good question to ask when we’re trying to understand why we (or others) engage in bad habits is, “What happens after I do them?”

Simply asking this question can go a long way in understanding why we do what we do.

The second part of the environment that affects our behavior is what we call antecedents. Antecedents are “cues” that occur before our behavior and signal that a particular consequence will occur if we behave a particular way. For instance, seeing a red light is a cue to stop your car, which then allows you to avoid an accident. Similarly, hearing your psychology teacher say “Be sure to read Chapter 5” is a cue to study Chapter 5, the consequence of which might be a better exam grade. And seeing a lit-up “Starbucks” sign might be a cue to go and buy a White Chocolate Mocha, which provides you with the consequence of sweet, frothy goodness. These antecedents have their effect because they are associated with—they are signals for—”getting good things” or “avoiding bad things.”

Sometimes, we are keenly aware of the antecedents that affect our behavior. But often we are not. For example, if we always eat in front of the TV, it might eventually become a powerful cue for eating. We may not even be aware that sitting in front of the TV makes us want to go to the cupboard and eat an entire bag of Doritos. But every time we watch TV, we find ourselves with a hoagie in our left hand and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia in our right hand. This is why some behavior-change programs ask you to keep track of where you are and who’s around when you engage in a bad habit. These give you clues about what part of your environment might be cueing the undesired behavior.

Ultimately, if our bad habits are being caused by certain antecedents and consequences, then changing these aspects of our environment will change the bad habits.

commitmentThe final step in changing bad habits is making a public commitment. This allows us to capitalize on the social consequences that have such a powerful effect on our behavior. Others can give us social “rewards” when we do well; they can also provide social “punishment” when we don’t follow our plan. The primary goal of this step is to let others know of our intentions, which can allow them to help us during good times and bad.

So, What is a Behavioral Contract?


Now that I’ve spent some time discussing a “behavioral” framework for understanding bad habits, let’s get back to behavioral contracts.

As you may have already guessed, a behavioral contract is a written agreement between two (or more) people specifying what behavior is required by each and what consequences will be delivered when they do (or do not) meet the objectives specified in the contract.

In a behavioral contract, you can specify exactly how you’re going to:

Measure your behavior

Modify your environment

Make a public commitment

Rather than write five more paragraphs on what types of information to include in a behavioral contract—which, I’m guessing, would be a cue for many of you to engage in the behavior of “clicking out of this boring, long-ass blog post”—let me instead link to a sample behavioral contract that I’ve used with a friend several times in the past (and one that I’m planning to implement once again in the next few days).

Here it is (with some information changed to protect the innocent).

Notice how this behavioral contract contains very specific details about the three M’s. It tells exactly what I need to do to avoid sending a large chunk of money to an organization I despise.

And I can tell you that when I’ve used behavioral contracts in the past, my habits have always changed for the better.

Using Behavioral Contracts: Some Important Things to Consider

Now, if you decide that you want to use a behavioral contract to change your own bad habits, there are a few important things to consider.

First, when asking others to be a part of your contract, you need to include someone who will not “let you slide.” If you know that you’ll be able to break your contract without negative consequences, then you probably won’t be motivated to meet the terms specified in the contract. I know that if I screw up, my friend will quickly mail off the check I’ve given her.

Second, you need to find ways for your contract partner to be able to verify that you did what you said you did. For instance, when I was in graduate school, I wanted to exercise more consistently, so I set up a behavioral contract with my roommate. We actually talked to employees at the gym where I worked out, who agreed to watch me when I was there. My roommate was then able to talk to them and verify that I had exercised when I said I did. Providing ways for others to verify your behavior will motivate you to meet the terms in the contract.

Finally, you have to find consequences that are big enough to motivate you to change. For some, losing (or gaining) $1 might be enough to produce a change; for others, the consequence might need to be larger (and, of course, the consequences don’t need to be monetary in nature). When I did the contract with my graduate school roommate, the consequence for not exercising was that I had to pay his rent, which, if I remember correctly, was in excess of $400 per month. For a poor graduate student, that was enough to get me moving. In recent contracts, I’ve used large chunks of money from my “guitar fund”—money that I’ve been saving for years so I can buy myself a nice, new guitar. And in a previous behavioral contact that I used to lose weight a few years ago, I wrote a check for $500 to a political candidate I despised. What I really wanted to do with that money was start a college fund for my son. Which do you think I’d rather do: pay $500 to a politician I despise or start a college fund for my son? You can probably guess that my habits changed very quickly.

So, there you have it—a plan for changing your bad habits along with a description of how you can use behavioral contracts to get it “set it in stone.”

I guess the only question left to address is: Are you ready to sign on the dotted line?


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2 thoughts on “Behavioral Contracts: A Useful Tool for Changing Bad Habits”

  1. Some nice, helpful information! I just implemented a plan to improve my health by increasing my activity and making healthier food choices. This post is a nice reminder to make some of my criteria more explicitly measurable and be more accountable for my behaviors.

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