Some readers may already know that I’m a big fan of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a branch of psychology that deals with changing our emotions, choices, and experiences by changing our thoughts. There are two things I like especially about CBT. First, we can get a lot out of it on our own, without professional intervention (although good cognitive therapists can be worth their weight in iPhones), for instance through learning idea repair. Second, it really makes a difference. CBT has been known to work better than drugs for depression, for example, and works just as well for many other kinds of issues, big and small.
These two advantages are probably why researchers at the University of Chicago launched a study to see if teaching some basic CBT techniques to teens at high risk for committing violent crimes would make a difference in their lives (“Preventing Youth Violence and Dropout: A Randomized Field Experiment,” by Sara Heller, Harold A. Pollack, Roseanna Ander, Jens Ludwig, May 2013).
Did it work? Well, it was hugely successful … and then it was pretty much completely unsuccessful.
By “hugely successful,” I mean that in the first year of the program, incidence of violent crime was reduced by nearly half (44%) among teens who had taken the program–yet as NPR reporter Shankar Vedantam points out (“Therapy Helps Troubled Teens Rethink Crime“), the effects faded to nearly nothing within a year after the program ended. In other words, CBT techniques made a huge difference while they were in use, but the teens in the study seem to have forgotten or rejected the techniques after they had been away from them for a while.
Unfortunately, this pattern is all too familiar to anyone trying to change habits: we have a behavior we want to change, we fumble around until we find an approach that works, we make a big change, we eventually become very confident and stop working at it so hard, and then often–not always, certainly, but often–we lose all the ground we gained. It certainly has happened to me. Unfortunately, while we can reprogram our brains, overwriting years and years of habit usually requires years and years of new behavior.
But all of this is good news. Why? Because it suggests one obvious, easy explanation for why we fail so often at habit change. It’s not the only reason we fail–habit change is hard–but it’s probably a key one, and it’s that once we see ourselves acting in a new way, it’s easy for us to think that we’ve changed for good and don’t need to do all the hard work any more to keep the change going. Apparently, we do need the hard work. I’m sure that sounds depressing, but think back to a time when you’ve made a positive change in your life, when things were going well. What sticks with you? I can’t speak for your experience, but for me, thinking back on those times, what sticks with me is not that it was a slog, but the happiness at what I was achieving and pride that I was achieving it. Hard work isn’t really so hard when we’re seeing real results, and while we can’t count on great results all the time, any approach that works in our lives is worth sticking with long after it seems to have had its effect. It’s the difference between tasting success and locking it in.
For the teens in the study, tasting success has already made a big difference in their lives. Quite a number of them have avoided imprisonment, injury, and even death just from that one small study. Even if the effects are temporary, the study is worth far more than it cost–but the techniques they’re learning, like the techniques we can learn in our own lives, will mean the most if they and we find ways to stick with them for life.
Photo by JonoTakesPhotos