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Techniques for Learning New Behaviors

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 25th 2016

Learned behavior is perpetually shaped by these forces; intrinsic approach and avoidance motivations, the presence or absence of rewarding or punishing stimuli, and the making of associations between unconditioned (instinctually meaningful) stimuli and other things. Any given animal's behavior represents that animals best effort at navigating through these forces so as to maximize its access to rewards and minimize the punishments it has to endure. The process of learning never stops, but rather is always ongoing. As stimulus conditions change, so too will behavior. Understanding this process is key to successfully managing behavior change.

Human behavior and most animal behavior is considerably more complex in nature than than simple associational learning (such as salivating at the sound of a bell) can account for. Complex behaviors are built up out of multiple simple behaviors that get strung together into chains of associated behaviors. It is not possible to learn a complex behavior all at once. Instead, they must be built up over time out of smaller parts. And so, a baby does not learn to walk in one day, but instead, spends time first learning to flex muscles, later to crawl, and then ultimately to walk (but at first, only with the aid of a wall). Examination of a baby's process of learning to walk reveals an ongoing process of successive approximation. As time and learning progress, the target behavior is more and more closely approximated, until it is achieved.

When learning is new, it is often effortful. A baby must think about the process of standing, for example. It takes concentration to achieve. There are mistakes and missteps. A lot of falling occurs. Repetition is key to the baby's ultimate success. The process of practicing over and over makes the new behavior more familiar and ultimately something that can be just performed without thought or effort. Repeated practice trains the child's brain to be able to perform the behavior unconsciously. Once the ability to stand has been mastered, the child is free to pursue the more challenging and complex task of walking, which requires a new level of effort and new challenges to practice and master until it too becomes just another unconscious, effortless behavior. 

  • Practice Makes Perfect/Overlearning. A technique can be pointed out at this point, which is that practice makes perfect. Any new behavior you try to learn (or unlearn) will initially be difficult to accomplish. Your body and mind are not used to doing things in the new way and will require repeated practice of these new ways of doing things before they become second nature. With practice, what is initially effortful becomes effortless.

    Sometimes people are worried about how they will perform in a new or feared situation. Speaking in public frightens many in this way. You can use the practice makes perfect principle (sometimes referred to as "Overlearning") to help insure that you will perform well when you speak. To do so, you need to write out your speech, and then practice it, over and over in as naturalistic a setting as you can find, until it comes out of your mouth effortlessly and stops feeling forced. The more you practice your speech, the more its points will stick in your mind and the less you'll have to look at your notes.
  • Shaping. Another principle can be broken out now as well. New behaviors you want to learn are likely complex in nature, requiring effort and practice to achieve. It is not possible to learn complex behaviors all at once. Instead, you must use the principles of successive approximation and overlearning in order to gradually master your goal.

    Let's say that you want to learn to golf. Successful golfing requires mastery of the golf swing, a complex and somewhat unnatural-feeling motion involving the entire body. Without mastery of the swing, it is difficult to even hit the ball accurately at first, much less gain the distance you need to play at or under par (at or under the allotted number of strokes per hole). In this scenario, practice, and feedback and advice from experienced golfers are the ingredients necessary to gain ability. Practicing your swing is necessary to make it become less of a consciously driven process, but practice alone will not insure that you learn proper technique. You need experienced people to watch you practice your swing, critique it, and then give you feedback on what you are doing wrong. With each bit of feedback, you have the opportunity to make a correction to your swing; a successive approximation or shaping of what your swing will ultimately become. You must be open to the feedback and do your best to benefit from it, or your swing will not benefit.
  • Chaining. Shaping is the technique of choice when you are attempting to learn a single isolated behavior. A complementary technique,chaining, is useful for situations when you are interested in learning a complex sequence of behaviors. Chaining and shaping approaches may be used concurrently when you are faced with learning a complex behavior that can be broken into a series of smaller sub-behaviors. Take the golf swing again. A golf swing can be seen as a single complex behavior, or, alternatively, as a series of smaller behaviors that are performed in sequence. Seen in this latter way, a golf swing starts out with a particular way of standing. This initial behavior gets followed by a particular way of holding the golf club, which is followed by a particular way of eyeing the ball, then raising the club in preparation for the swing, and so on. An experienced trainer might attempt to teach the golf swing by teaching each of its component parts in order. As each component part is mastered, the trainer builds out the chain of events that becomes the golf swing by having the student add new components to the end of known behaviors. When all the components are known and can be executed seamlessly, the trainer may switch to a shaping mode of training, where the student receives critical feedback concerning his raw swing which he can use to make further successive approximations of the perfect swing.

One tracking site that can be used to create new habits/behaviors is HabitForge. The free-to-use site allows people to set a goal for a behavior/habit and have assistance in tracking whether they are meeting that each day for 21 days (the time research has shown it takes to form a habit).  Users will receive a customized daily email asking how they did and can click "yes" or "no" daily. Succeed for 21 days, and the new action will be easier to make into a habit. Skip a day and the clock starts over at day one.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

target behavior for shaping - angel - Dec 15th 2009


i need a target behavior for shaping? and need the successive approximations for that behavior.

i wanted to use an example from work experience( im dsw)  client had to learn to take a bath.

my example would be learing to take a bath. then write the steps how to take a bath. like turn on tabs. right temp. grab towels/face clothes. undress. shut off water. ect..

is that right? or am i wrong?

- Jak - Oct 1st 2008
Thanks for an understandable piece...For memory I use word association,I used to think it sounded crazy,using half a dozen things to remember one word,but it works,make rhymes out of phone numbers,break words up and link them to other words,it makes it a lot easier.When I was waitressing,I used to note little things about customers,red shirt ,curly hair,and write first letters to remind myself who was who,this will often work with names too,which I'm shocking with ,If I link the name to a physical feature,say long tall sally ,or long john silver(grey hair),and so on,it helps me a great deal,I love musical rhymes they work the best especially when teaching children letters and numbers or anything really...cheers and thanks for some thought provoking..

a complex person - - Aug 24th 2008

what happens when u get a complex person that differs

Practice makes permanent - Gareth Bloomfield - Jul 20th 2008

Practice does NOT make perfect - all the research in this area suggests whatever techniques we are using to learn something practice makes PERMANENT. You can rehearse someones name, making it a permanent neuro' connection in your memory, however when you discover it was wrong, it takes you a long time to correct it!

Editor's Note: That's a good point.  Simply working hard won't make your technique perfect.  But it will make whatever you are doing easier to do again.  

Practice Makes Perfect - Laura Johnson - May 30th 2008

As a person with a memory problem, I found this section very interesting. I use the practice of repeating a new persons name (in my head) over and over to help me remember them later. I will also repeat phone numbers in my head until I get to my desk and write them down. It was good to read this and realize that on some level everyone goes through learning things in a new way and that it isn't second nature to everyone. I also practice before giving a speech and it sounds like that is a smart thing to do. It's just good to know that complex behaviors take time to learn and no one is able to do them all at once.

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