Change Your Behavior With “The 3 Ms”

As we have discussed previously, the behavior-analytic framework says that behavior is a function of its antecedents and its consequences, which we can notate:

A : B –> C

When we behave in the presence of particular cues—antecedents (A)—and that behavior (B) produces particular consequences (C) —reinforcers or punishers—those consequences will make the behavior more or less likely to occur the next time those cues are present.

For example, when someone asks us to pass the salt (A) and we do (B), they might say “thank you” (C). If “thank you” is reinforcing to us, we will be more likely to pass the salt the next time they ask. Or imagine a person who sees an advertisement on television for a new restaurant (A). If the person goes to the restaurant (B) and has a bad (punishing) experience (C), the person will be less likely to go to the restaurant in the future, even if they see the advertisement again.

Over the years, behavior analysts have studied ways in which we can use this ABC framework to produce positive changes in other people’s behavior. The field of applied behavior analysis, or ABA, has shown this approach to be effective in many areas, including intellectual disabilities, education, business, and health, to name a few.

In addition, behavior analysts have shown that we can also apply the ABC approach to changing our own behaviors—a process called “self-management.”

In short, self-management entails systematically identifying and altering—either adding or removing—the antecedents and consequences that affect our own behavior.

Dr. Robert Epstein, in his book, “Self-Help Without the Hype,” proposed that self-management can ultimately be boiled down to what he calls “the 3 Ms.”

The 3 Ms are:

  1. Modifying your environment,
  2. Measuring your behavior, and
  3. Making a public commitment.

Modifying the environment entails identifying and then manipulating antecedents and consequences to see how they affect behavior. As noted above, this might include removing existing antecedents and consequences, adding new ones, or both.

For example, placing a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to remind you to buy milk would be adding an antecedent to your environment. Buying milk would then produce the (presumably) reinforcing consequence of having milk to pour on your cereal the following morning.

(Note: Turning on your notifications allows Gale to send you “reminders,” which are one way to add antecedents to your environment. In addition, Gale includes “good job” comments after you track your behavior, in hopes of providing a small amount of reinforcement for hitting your daily goals.)

Measuring your behavior means keeping track of when the behavior occurs. For measuring to occur most effectively, we must have good behavioral definitions. For example, “eating a vegetarian diet 5 days per week” is clearer and easier to measure than “being healthy.” Once you know exactly what behavior you’re measuring and how frequently it’s occurring, you can determine whether modifying your environment is having any effect on the behavior.

For example, if you consistently place sticky notes on your bathroom mirror, but you never remember to buy milk, then this antecedent is ineffective, and it’s time to try something else.

(Note: Gale asks you to provide precise behavioral definitions, which then makes it easier for you to measure your behavior and track it in the app.)

Finally, making a public commitment means letting others know what you’re doing: what behavior you’re trying to change, what your goals are, and so on.

Ultimately, the reason that making a public commitment helps is because doing so allows others to become a part of your environment—a part of the antecedents and consequences that might positively impact your behavior. Given that humans are social creatures, antecedents and consequences provided by others often have a greater impact on our behavior than other “non-social” antecedents and consequences.

In future posts, we will break down each of these Ms in more detail, so you have a better understanding of how you can use each to produce long-lasting changes in your behavior.