Friday, February 26, 2010

Breaking the habit

One of the missions of this blog is never to let peer-reviewed, academic papers that address parenting issues from an economics perspective go through without comment. This one in Applied Economics by Mixon, Pousson and Green fit the bill [HT: Craig Newmark].
As a test of elements of Gary Becker's model of habitual behaviours, the present study examines another potential example of a habit - pacifier use - within the youngest segment of the population, infants and toddlers. To explore the facets of a child's pacifier habit, we make use of an extensive questionnaire on the effectiveness of several proposed methods for stopping a child's pacifier consumption. Results indicate that children's pacifier use approaches the habit/addiction threshold, and it is best alleviated with abrupt cessation, or 'cold turkey.' Interestingly, our empirical finding that 'cold turkey' dominates or is superior to other methods of getting children to stop relying on pacifier use (e.g. limiting time of use, altering the pacifier's tip, etc.) has two implications. First, it supports the Beckerian notion that a child's pacifier habit approaches the habit/addiction threshold, as stated above. Second, it contradicts suggestions from many in the health profession to seek methods other than 'cold turkey' to stop a child's pacifier use. 
Some translation is in order. The Becker model suggests that there are some behaviours where your past consumption makes it much more likely you will consume today in the same manner. He was thinking of cigarettes but a parent will think of use pacifiers and, relatedly, the use of thumbs. The model's prediction is that 'cold turkey' -- the immediate cessation of the behaviour -- is the way to break the habit as softer forms of gradual modification mean that it is a constant struggle to resist temptation. Suffice it to say, there are some psychologists out there with another perspective.

The paper then looks at actual behaviour through a survey of parent choices and concludes that cold turkey was indeed far more effective in breaking pacifier habits than other forms. Of course, it is a bit contingent on the parental style and so it is hard to tease this out as something causal. Nonetheless, if a non-Becker view was right, then tough parents would also be failing parents. 

We've taken the cold turkey route in our parenting on this stuff (see here). Of course, we migrated the children over from a pacifier to a thumb as soon as we could so that we could save the fuss. But at about 2 years old, we went cold turkey on the thumb business (actually, it was a bit older for the first child). This was partly a function of our tough style and partly a function of the sad fact that I did not stop thumb sucking until age 11 and unavoidable dental costs. That you don't want to see.