How Triggers Work

How does a trigger actually work? Are there moving parts between triggers and behaviors? If so, what are they?

When I was getting my doctorate at the UCLA, the classic sequencing template for analyzing problem behavior in children was ABC — antecedent, behavior and consequence. The antecedent is the event that prompts the behavior. The behavior creates a consequence.

Consider an example: A student is drawing pictures instead of working. The teacher asks the child to finish the task (the antecedent). The child reacts by throwing a tantrum (behavior). The teacher responds by sending the student to the principal’s office (consequence).

In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg applied this ABC template to breaking and forming habits. Instead of antecedent, behavior and consequence, he used cue, routine and reward to describe a habit loop.

Smoking cigarettes is a habit loop consisting of stress (cue), nicotine stimulation (routine), leading to temporary psychic well-being (reward). In doing so, they are obeying Duhigg’s “Golden Rule of Habit Change” — keep the cue and reward, change the routine.

I don’t take issue with the first and third segments of Duhigg’s habit loop, whatever terms we use. However, let’s modify the middle part, the routine. The habit loop makes it sound as if all we need is an awareness of our cues so we can respond with an appropriate behavior.

That’s fine with habits. But when we’re changing behavior, we’re adding a layer of complexity in the form of other people. Our triggered response can’t always be automatic, because as caring human beings we have to consider how people will respond.

In the matter of adult behavioral change, I’d like to propose a modification to the sequence of antecedent, behavior and consequence — by interrupting it with a sense of awareness, even mindfulness and an infinitesimal stoppage of time.

I’ve isolated three eye-blink moments — first the impulse, then the awareness, then a choice — that make up the crucial intervals between the trigger and our eventual behavior. These intervals are so brief we sometimes fail to segregate them from what we regard as our “behavior.” But experience and common sense tell us they’re real.

When a trigger is pulled, we have an impulse to behave a certain way. That’s why some of us hear a loud crash and immediately duck for protection. We hear the sound and look around to see what’s behind it.

Same trigger, different responses. We can make any impulse run in place for a moment while we choose to obey or ignore it. We make a choice not out of unthinking habit but as evidence of our intelligence and engagement. In other words, we’re paying attention.

When we’re changing behavior, we’re adding a layer of complexity in the form of other people. Our trigger response can’t always be automatic.

This is how triggers work. The more aware we are, the less likely any trigger will prompt unthinking behavior that leads to undesirable consequences. Rather than operate on autopilot, we’ll slow down and make a more considered choice.

We already do this in the big moments. When we go into our first meeting with the CEO, we’re mindful that every word, gesture or question is a trigger. When we’re asked for our opinion, we don’t say the first thing that comes to mind. We measure our words.

Paradoxically, the big moments, packed with triggers and stress, are easy to handle. It’s the little moments that trigger some of our most unproductive responses: The slow line at the coffee shop, the second cousin who asks why you’re still single, and so on. Even more perilous are the small triggering moments with our families and best friends. We don’t have to edit ourselves. We can be true to our impulses.

That’s how our closest relationships often become trigger festivals with consequences that we rarely see in any other part of our lives — the fuming and shouting, the fights and slammed doors, the angry departures and refusals to talk to each other for a while.

How you respond is important and consequential. Will you give in to the perfectly natural impulse to express your scorn, or will you take a breath and make a smarter choice?