Surely you have heard the story of Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov was a doctor who rang a bell when feeding his dogs dog food in a scientific experiment. Over time Pavlov found that the dogs reacted to the ringing of the bell, by salivating, even when food was no longer present. This became known as “paired association”. When two things are paired they become associated with each other in our subconscious mind. This can be both beneficial and non-beneficial to the person. For example, if youhave negative experiences in certain situations in your past, you may have some of those same feelings or thoughts happen when you are in those situations in the future. For example: In the past you got overwhelmed during an especially difficult school exam, now when you go into a testing situation you experience that feeling of being overwhelmed as soon as you begin the test even if the content is material you are confident in.


What Pavlov didn’t know

What Pavlov didn’t know was that with some behavioral reinforcement patterns (rewards) he could have made the association even stronger. As psychology progressed we learned the power of the events that happen after a desired behavior. Humans become rewarded (reinforced) for certain actions and punished for other actions. Take the example of getting a good grade on a test, at first when you were young this strategy may have led to some emotional reinforcement. You got the good grade and your family and teacher gave you rewards either emotional (hug) or physical (star). This early experience may have set up some desire to perform well on a test. The opposite is also true, overly negative scolding by a parent or teacher due to a bad test result can make an individual extra apprehensive about taking the test at all.

Be your own behavioral science project

In college, psychologists learn how to train rats to do certain behaviors. The rats learn how to run through mazes, push levers, and even perform tricks. The rats learn all of these skills through a behavioral reinforcement pattern. As psychologists advance in education they begin utilizing the techniques on humans to improve the odds of certain behaviors. By giving humans certain things or taking away certain things, humans can make significant changes in behavior. The goal of this blog is to help you to do this for yourself. To give yourself certain things and take away certain things and shape your own behavior into what you would like it to be.

Our goal is to use the information of paired association and behavioral reinforcement to our advantage. We are going to pair items with good feelings (favorite songs, great food, good times, and positive thoughts) with approaching difficult tasks. We also reward ourselves (money, fun activities, new clothes, food, etc.) for accomplishing certain tasks.

Step 1: Focus on the goal. Decide the difficult task you want to accomplish. For this example we will utilize the difficult task of completing a large term paper.

Step 2: Starve the rat. Take something away from yourself. This could be shopping, a favorite activity, favorite foods, or even disposable income. You must want the reward for it to be effective. Once you take away the thing you want, then it will make a great reward later. A great strategy can be to give some cash to a friend who will only pay you the money back once you have completed the goal..

Step 3: Pair a positive. Utilize something that you enjoy and apply it just before working on your term paper. Good choices include: rocking out to your favorite music, getting your favorite food, or spending time with a good friend who gets you in a talkative mood. You are now giving your brain good feelings in anticipation of writing the paper instead of its old feelings of fear and worry about writing.

Step 4: Just do it: At some point to make a behavioral plan work, you must engage in the behavior. Nike had this one right, just do it! Taking deep breaths during the difficult task is a good way to remain calm through the task. Also approaching the task over several “chunks” as opposed to all at once is a good strategy.

Step 5: Reward. When you complete the paper (reach the goal), it is now time to reward yourself. Now it is time for your friend to give you the money. Or you can now give yourself the treat you withheld in step 2. This reward should be given as close to the behavior as possible.  Continue to utilize the rewards that work to motivate you.

What if it doesn’t work?

You are a science experiment of one. If you run a scientific trial and it doesn’t work, then either run the experiment again to see if the result changes, or design a different experiment. Things you can change are items to withhold, the paired association, and the reward that you give yourself. Change these things around and find what works for you. Most people give up on this type of method if the first thing doesn’t work, but behavioral patterning takes time and repetition until these techniques set in. Don’t give up the first time. Continue to utilize the science lab of your own life.


For more information on self help and self improvement go to