Breaking Bad Habits
“Most people don’t have the willpower to break bad habits. What they do have are a lot of excuses.”
What experience do you have in changing bad habits? Modern behavioral research shows – in contrast to Carlos Santana’s skepticism – that bad habits are not only about lack of willpower, but also about developed circuits in the brain that can be almost impossible to put out of play.1
Habits can be described as automatic actions connected to various signals in the environment.2 The arm which as if on its own reaches out to take a piece of chocolate at the sight of a candy dish. The index finger that unconsciously presses the elevator button even though the door to the stairs is next to it. The ill-considered reproach, as soon as the demanding colleague opens their mouth.
An attractive solution to change habits is naturally to take away the signals. Put away the candy dish and refrain from bringing home junk food. But it’s not as easy to rebuild the elevator lobby or avoid a meddlesome colleague.
Another way to change habits is therefore to add new signals. Informational signs about everyday exercise near the elevators have actually been shown to change behavior.3,4 Major changes of environment in particular, such as retirement, moving or changing jobs, can really open possibilities to both take away and add signals. But in many cases it is still hard to control the external environment. For that reason instead of influencing the signals, we may need to change our response to them.5
It is seldom effective to think in terms of not doing something.5 The Swedish national team that took bronze in the 1994 World Cup was particularly successful in penalty kick decisions. One of the users of this tool, who was part of the championship team, has told us that the players had been trained by psychologists to stop thinking in terms of “I must not miss the penalty kick.” It’s unclear, of course, what specific influence this had on the championship saga, but it tallies well with research that shows that the brain is bad at creating images of avoiding something – it is far more effective to connect the signals to a positive target image.5
One way to create new, positive habits is to consciously connect the signal to a new behavior: when I enter an elevator lobby then I will choose the stairs. When we start working in a new habit in this way two alternative actions (taking the elevator or the stairs) become linked to the same signal.6 Instead of acting automatically, we then need to make a conscious decision, in the frontal lobe of the brain.
A large portion of self-control may be required to choose the healthier habit every time.8In one study the participants chose the new habit in 70% of the cases. But when they were under time pressure the share went down to only 30%. So with stress we easily fall back into old habits.5
In order to facilitate self-control with two competing habits what is known as mental contrasting may be applicable.5 This entails that you think through how you want to live in the long term and set the long-term consequences of the old habit against the consequences of the new one. By consistently resorting to the new behavior little by little we can suppress the old habit, even if it is often lurking in the background, tempting to “relapse.” 7,8
Your questions to yourself can help you become aware of how you want to live in the long term and what habits you therefore need to break. Research shows that we need to change both the external signals and the brain’s reaction patterns and to be very consistent. It can almost feel like you are “fooling” your brain into a new behavior. But even so perhaps that is better than fooling yourself with constant excuses about bad habits!
What bad habit do you want to break?
1. Bouton, M.E. (2000). A learning theory perspective on lapse, relapse, and the maintenance of behavior change. Health Psychology, 19, 57-63.
2. Lally P et al., How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 40, 998–1009 (2010)
3. Soler, R.E., Leeks, K.D., Buchanan, L.R., Brownson, R.C., Heath, G.W., Hopkins, D.H., & Task Force on Community PreventiveServices. (2010). Point-of-decision prompts to increase stair use: A systematic review update. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 38(Suppl. 2), S292-S300.
4. Holland, R.W., Aarts, H., & Langendam, D. (2006). Breaking and creating habits on the working floor: A field-experiment on the power of implementation intentions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 776-783.
5. Lally P et al., Health Psychology Review, Vol. 7, Supplement 1, S137-S158 (2013)
6. Gollwitzer P. American Psychologist. Vol. 54. No. 7, 493-503 (1999)
7. Botvinick, M.M., Braver, T.S., Barch, D.M., Carter, C.S., & Cohen, J.D. (2001). Conflict monitoring and cognitive control. Psychological Review, 108, 624-652.
8. Quinn, J.M., Pascoe, A., Wood, W., & Neal, D.T. (2010). Can’t control yourself ? Monitor those bad habits. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 499511.