A bit of history on Classical Conditioning.
As I’ve already partially detailed on my other article on Habits the rules of Classical Conditioning have been discovered by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. These discoveries are probably the most important ones in the field of human science as they explain how the human being learns or absorbs his behaviors.
His most important concept is the Conditioned Response which explains how we learn an automatic response to a certain stimulus and most importantly that we can disassociate stimuli and responses forming new connections. This is the reason why breaking habits with Classical Conditioning is definitely possible.
As an example a smoker anytime he feels stressed automatically puts a cigarette in his mouth. This is not something that comes naturally, it’s a learned response usually linked to pleasurable times when feeling good and lighting a cigarette were a perfect match, like after a good meal. In the effort to recreate that pleasurable sensation whenever he’s stressed a cigarette appears in his mouth most of the times without a conscious decision. It has become a habit.
Why Classical Conditioning can deal with Habits.
But as Pavlov discovered the link between a response (behavior) and a stimulus can be broken or, if desired, created. In this case breaking the habit of smoking whenever stressed could be achieved by consciously putting a gum in the mouth instead of a cigarette or taking ten deep breaths. What has to be a conscious decision with time will become automatic and will continuously reinforce itself just like smoking. Think about learning to drive a car or a bicycle, the first times you have to think about everything, after a while you just have to look at the road.
What is important to remember about Classical Conditioning though is that positive behaviors, the ones you want to keep, have to be reinforced from time to time to remain effective. Like in the example before if from time to time the smoker doesn’t really relax by chewing a gum or taking some deep breaths with time this positive habit will fade away and he eventually will go back to cigarettes when stressed. Because, if you don’t know, is usually harder to lose a bad habit than a good one and the old roads are usually well established.
I don’t know why but that’s the way it goes. However it’s more a rule of thumb than a definitive truth as sometimes once a desired behavior is established it remains permanent as it’s continuously reinforced by itself. Once you’ve learned how to drive a car you know it without the need for further reinforcements as your reflexes are what get lost if you don’t use them and not the knowledge of driving.
So breaking a habit through classical conditioning is definitely possible, you just have to consciously decide which good habit you want to establish to substitute a bad one as a response to a stimulus and consciously do it for a while until it becomes second nature. Again, think like learning to ride your bike.
What do you think?