My review of Atomic Habits - a.k.a fundamental dog training principles applied to human behaviour change

I’ve just finished reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits - an international bestseller that was recommended by many people when I recently asked about which behaviour change methods people had found to be effective in their own life. Among other things, I noticed that the most important concepts in the book are actually straight out of dog training manuals... applied to humans.

I spend a lot of time working with my two spaniels in dog sports like agility and detection dog practice so I think about canine behaviour almost as much as I do humans. That's probably why James Clear's internationally acclaimed book Atomic Habits sounded so remarkably familiar: many of the behaviour change mechanisms he describes in the book are also used in dog training, and based on fundamental psychology concepts like operant conditioning - just packaged in really nice a way that helps us apply them to change our own behaviour.

I've picked out some quotes from the book to show you how they are similar to dog training.

"Who's a good boy?"

To start with, the book is structured around what the author calls four laws of behaviour change: make it obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying. In other words, if you want to increase the likelihood of a behaviour, you need to make it clear what should be, make it an attractive option to try out, easy to perform and round it off with a nice reward to increase the likelihood of the behaviour occurring again.

This is exactly the same approach that is used to train dogs: you need to communicate clearly what you expect them to do so it's an obvious and attractive (=interesting) option compared to whatever else they might want to do. Once the dog is engaged, set them up for success - make it easy to do the behaviour at first, and don't forget to reward them with a treat at the end.

In fact, many of the techniques in the book are actually based on basic rules of operant conditioning: increasing good habits with positive reinforcement or negative punishment, and decreasing bad habits with positive punishment.

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Effective behaviour change with timely rewards and the Premack Principle

Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.

This is the most fundamental rule of dog training: good behaviours are increased with immediate rewards, and negative behaviours are decreased with immediate punishment. In the book, Clear tells a story of a man who creates a commitment device contract to pay out hundreds of dollars to his personal trainer if he doesn't stick to his fitness plan. However, unlike Atomic Habits, modern dog training generally tries to avoid such aversive techniques for ethical reasons and using fear will damage the relationship with your dog, but since it’s yourself you are training, you’re free to do whatever works!

The author also suggests using "temptation bundling" - pairing an action you want to do with something you need to do. This is commonly known as the Premack's Principle: if your dog wants to chase a squirrel, you ask them to sit quietly first to teach them patience and self-control, and once they succeed in that, they are rewarded with the chase!

(As a curious aside, the idea of temptation bundling emerged as a novel idea in a 2014 study that makes no mention of the Premack's Principle even though it's been around since the 70s - perhaps a good example of siloes in academia?)

Building series of good behaviours with habit stacking

Habit stacking ties your habit to an immediate cue, which makes it obvious when to start. Reinforcement ties your habit to an immediate reward, which makes it satisfying when you finish.

Habit stacking is also known as behaviour chaining in the world of dog training. In order to train more complex behaviours (imagine the kind that you see on talent shows), we break them down into smaller steps that are taught one at a time. Each step is individually rewarded, and gradually linked with other behaviours so that a single cue will trigger the whole behaviour chain - or, in the words of Atomic Habits, stack of habits.

Tackling bad habits with the extinction method

Immediate reinforcement can be especially helpful when dealing with habits of avoidance, which are behaviors you want to stop doing. It can be challenging to stick with habits like “no frivolous purchases” or “no alcohol this month” because nothing happens when you skip happy hour drinks or don’t buy that pair of shoes. It can be hard to feel satisfied when there is no action in the first place. All you’re doing is resisting temptation, and there isn’t much satisfying about that.

In the world of dog training, if you want to stop your dog from stealing food from kitchen counters, the first step is to never leave any food around, because this kind of "bad" behaviour is self-reinforcing - the behaviour itself is already rewarding so it will naturally continue. Another bad habit you may want your dog to stop doing is jumping up when guests arrive - a behaviour guests may unintentionally encourage by bending over to shoo the dog away, thereby rewarding them with attention.

However, behaviours that are not rewarded will go extinct - over time, the less you have the opportunity to perform the bad, self-rewarding habit, the more likely you are to forget about it. We are no different: if you want to stop browsing social media, remove all temptations from your phone and over time, your mindless scrolling habit will get extinguished.

Even better than just trying to extinguish a bad habit is to replace it with another habit: just like you can stop your dog jumping up on guests by teaching them to sit politely until approached (using the Premack Principle!), you can also replace your social media habit with, for example, a meditation exercise or reading a book.

Fading rewards when behaviours become habitual

Eventually, as intrinsic rewards kick in, you’ll become less concerned with chasing the secondary reward. You do it because it’s who you are and it feels good to be you. The more a habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through. Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.

Now, I'm not suggesting that dogs actually think about what their identity is, but the basic rule is still the same: extrinsic rewards are needed to start a behaviour, and over time you can fade rewards when a certain behaviour (e.g. sitting down politely when guests arrive) becomes a habit.

Dogs may not think about their identity, but they care immensely about making their humans happy - over time, behaviours that they know make humans happy will become habitual and make them feel good just by themselves.

Ok, ok, enough about dogs - was the book any good?

In short, yes. Definitely worth a read - it's accessible, practical and lots of examples that will help you create better behaviours and decrease ones that you don't like. Not all of the behaviour change Clear talks about in the book are strictly speaking habits - instead would be better termed simply as "behaviours" but I'm guessing habits makes for a catchier book title.

Although I'm not convinced it is quite as revolutionary as some people think, the book does a brilliant job of repackaging fundamental rules and insights from psychology and turns them into highly practical advice. I doubt many people would consider using operant conditioning on themselves because we like to think we are more complex than other animals but if/when Clear's methods work... it suggests we are a lot like our friends in the animal world.

It's not the first time I've noticed an overlap between dog training and human behaviour change. Contrary to popular tropes, there are no bad dogs, or bad habits - both humans and dogs do what works. We are in a constant state of learning and do what we have found effective, even if it's not always be good for us in the long run.

A bad habit still achieves something we desire - mindless social media scrolling resolves your boredom, just like jumping up on people gets dog the human's attention. Whenever we spot a behaviour we would like to change, in ourselves or in others, we need to ask what is it that the behaviour currently achieves and use that as a starting point.

Regardless of how many legs you have.

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About Elina Halonen

  • Amsterdam