Part of behavior change is gaining awareness of your habits so that you can change them. Bringing self-awareness to those habits, you can more easily make decisions toward the goals that you want- effectively changing your habits. One behavior change intervention using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is self-monitoring. Self-monitoring is the ability to both observe and evaluate your behavior.
Effects of self-monitoring on weight loss.
Much of the research on self-monitoring has been around health habits and fat loss, and have found that self-monitoring was great for reinforcing healthy habits. For instance, a study by Butryn et al. (2007) had 3003 participants who were members of the National Weight Control Registry who had lost at least 30 lbs and kept it off for over a year. The participants were administered a self-weighing frequency assessment and followed up with a year later.
In the study, they found that participants whose self-weighing frequency decreased within the time had gained back more weight since the pretest. They reported increases in food indulgence and less restraint.
The study suggests that self-monitoring through self-weighing may increase dietary vigilance, and maintaining or increasing self-weighing frequency is associated with less weight regain.
Catching yourself in the act! What next?
Unfortunately you can’t be vigilant of your behavior 100% of the time. You might catch yourself nervously biting your nails or eating a snack when you’re not hungry WHEN YOU’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF IT! At that time, you probably make yourself feel bad about lapsing on your goals, but is it the right thing to do?
Punishment leads to less self-awareness.
When you catch yourself in the act, the subsequent action will be placed around the context of the rest of the chain of behaviors, including your self-awareness and self-monitoring!
A paper by Dinsmoor (1954) posits the avoidance hypothesis- describing that when an action is punished, that single action is not affected in a vacuum, but rather together with the chain of behaviors it was linked to. Dinsmoor explains:
“The stimuli which come immediately before the punished response are paired by the response itself with the ensuing punishment. By virtue of this pairing, they gain an aversive property in their own right. Any form of behavior which is incompatible with some member of the chain and delays the completion of the sequence will be reinforced, and thereby conditioned and maintained by the corresponding elimination or transformation of these conditioned or secondary aversive stimuli.”
In other words, all behaviors in that behavior chain will be punished, and thus will be less likely to occur- including the self-monitoring. Once you stop self-monitoring, it’s much easier for the habit you were trying to stop to return.
In a study by Mahoney, Moura, & Wade (1973), 53 obese adults were randomly assigned into groups for weight loss interventions. Their groups were:
- Self-rewarding positive behaviors.
- Self-punishing negative behaviors.
- Self punishing negative behaviors & self-rewarding positive behaviors.
- Self-monitoring behaviors.
- Given information about weight loss (control)
Groups 1-4 were all self-monitoring, recording frequency of negative verbalization (fat talk), positive verbalization (thin talk), instances of indulgence, and instances of restraint. Using a money system, the participants in groups 1-3 could earn (reward) or lose (punishment) money for their behaviors.
Results showed that the groups who self-rewarded (1 & 3) after their self-monitoring had higher retention of healthy behaviors. Self-reward strategies appeared to provide an effective incentive for weight loss.
Limitations in research.
In a recent review of the literature around self-monitoring in literature, Burke, Wang, & Sevick (2011) found that between the 22 studies on the topic found methodological limitations. These are limitations in the scientific method. The most significant limitation was that participants in the studies have been very homogenous samples of mostly white women and relied mostly upon self-reporting. However, with these limitations, in the studies, there was still found a significant association between self-monitoring and weight loss.
This article may be updated with future research, and may be expanded with examples outside of weight loss.
Burke, L. E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M. A. (2011). Self-Monitoring in Weight Loss: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(1), 92–102. http://doi.org.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/10.1016/j.jada.2010.10.008
Butryn, M. L., Phelan, S., Hill, J. O. and Wing, R. R. (2007), Consistent Self-monitoring of Weight: A Key Component of Successful Weight Loss Maintenance. Obesity, 15: 3091–3096. doi:10.1038/oby.2007.368
Dinsmoor, J. A. (1954). Punishment: I. The avoidance hypothesis. Psychological Review,61(1), 34-46. doi:10.1037/h0062725
Mahoney, M. J., Moura, N. G., & Wade, T. C. (1973). Relative efficacy of self-reward, self-punishment, and self-monitoring techniques for weight loss. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,40(3), 404-407. doi:10.1037/h0034565