Habit control

Habit reversal, or installation of a “counter-habit” or “competing response,” is to action what the behavioural technique of counterconditioning (or desensitisation) is to feelings.

A habit of action is created which is mutually incompatible with the negative behaviour which you wish to stop.

Azrin and Nunn developed the behaviour therapy technique of Habit Reversal in the early 1970s, although it is notable that the underlying notion of practicing an opposite behaviour had been around in therapy for much longer.

Based on treatment with over 300 participants in their study, Nunn and Azrin found an average 90% reduction in the frequency of the habit following a single 2-hour session of habit-reversal treatment, improving with practice, to approximately 97% on average after one month, although only 10% of participants in the study reported that the habit never recurred.  Nevertheless, despite minor setbacks being common, even after six months the average reduction was 99.5% overall.

The four most common classes of habit that are dealt with are nail biting (over 50% lifetime prevalence), hair-pulling (10% lifetime prevalence), stuttering (2-5% point prevalence of chronic sufferers), and nervous tics (about 1%-point prevalence), although there are considerably more habit disorders that can be addressed.   It is precisely because habit works so forcefully that the treatment of a variety of conditions by installing counter-habits can be so powerful, lasting, and effective.