Thorndike’s “Law of Effect” (1905) stated that, “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.” It’s one of the core tenets of behavioral psychology. It’s not rocket science. Behaviors that are followed by a positive (satisfying) effect tend to be repeated, and behaviors that are followed by a negative (discomforting) effect become less likely to occur. In extreme cases, negative consequences will completely eliminate or extinguish a behavior. While it’s probably quite clear that Thorndike was onto something with his law of effect, it may not be clear how this relates to health. I think it has a very interesting, perhaps inverse, link to both physical fitness and diet.
To be healthy takes effort, and there’s a psychological hurdle that anyone has to overcome, before the “satisfying” benefits outweigh the “discomfort”. In essence, any successful “health turnaround” requires enough motivation and commitment to stick with the new, healthier routine for 60-90 days before the law of effect begins working in your favor. However, when you begin trying to eat healthy you often feel like crap, are constantly fighting strong cravings, and you may actually be in state of “poor diet withdrawal” as your body expels the built up toxins. And when you start a work-out routine, your muscles ache, your throat may burn (when running), and you feel every single moment of pain as your body tells you, “you really haven’t been doing enough of this activity, so you’re going to pay for it”. Thordike’s law kicks in, and although you want to look and feel better, sitting on the couch, eating a pizza and watching Modern Family makes you happy immediately – – so this much easier habit is more likely to be repeated.
It’s not an easy gamut to run, but I think understanding the hurdle and building a plan to tackle it may help you win the war, even if you lose a few battles along the way. The goal is simple. Begin taking enough small steps when it comes to nutrition and fitness, so that you begin feeling “better” (aka start building a stockpile of healthy “satisfiers”). Fight through the cravings and pain for 60-90 days, and the way you look and feel will improve, and the “pain” will lesson. Before you know it, you will have flipped the “Law of Effect” so that if you were to eat something you know is bad for you, or miss a workout, you’ll feel like @#$@! And, on the contrary, eating healthy and working out will feel great (as will the way others respond to you). When the “Law of Effect” working for your health and not against it, you’re on the right path!!!
Small steps add up!!!