Can Brain Science Help Us Break Bad Habits?


“A brain scan of someone learning a task shows activity in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, networks associated with decision-making and executive control. With repetition of a task, brain activity moves into areas of the putamen and the basal ganglia, deep in what Wood calls “the rudimentary machinery of our minds.” There, a task is turned into a habit.”

“Our minds, Wood explains, have “multiple separate but interconnected mechanisms that guide behavior.” But we are aware only of our decision-making ability—a phenomenon known as the “introspection illusion”—and that may be why we overestimate its power.”

“Results varied across the groups studied, but the basic finding was that our actions are habitual forty-three per cent of the time.”

“This explains why conscious knowledge is not in itself enough to change behavior, and why public-health initiatives that educate people about healthy choices tend to fail.”

“In Mischel’s marshmallow experiment, only a quarter of the subjects were able to resist eating the marshmallow for fifteen minutes.”

“A study of self-control among college students bears out this hypothesis. The students were told to report every time they thought, “Oops, I shouldn’t do this”—for instance, when they stayed up too late, overslept, overate, or procrastinated. They were most successful at adopting productive behaviors not when they resolved to do better, or distracted themselves from temptation, but when they altered their environment. Instead of studying on a couch in a dorm, with a TV close by, they went to the library. They ate better when they removed junk food from the dorm refrigerator. “Successful self-control,” Wood writes, “came from essentially covering up the marshmallow.””

“Examining corporate efforts to capitalize on habit formation, Duhigg describes the work of an early-twentieth-century advertising guru, Claude C. Hopkins, whose campaign for Pepsodent toothpaste is said to have established toothbrushing as habitual among Americans. When Pepsodent first appeared, in 1915, few people bothered to brush their teeth, and a leading dental researcher of the time pronounced all toothpastes useless. Hopkins focussed his marketing message on the film of plaque that covers our teeth; in 1917, his newspaper ads proclaimed it “the basic cause of all tooth troubles.” In fact, plaque can be temporarily removed simply by eating an apple, and toothpastes of the time didn’t remove any more of it than brushing without toothpaste did. Nevertheless, Hopkins set about amping up the dangers of plaque and telling the public that Pepsodent was the only way to get rid of it. “Just run your tongue across your teeth,” another ad read. “You’ll feel a film—that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.” In just a few years, Pepsodent had become one of the best-known products in the world.

Duhigg, like Wood, sees habitual routines as being driven by cues and rewards. Pepsodent wasn’t the only brand that claimed to remove the film on teeth, but ingredients that it used to insure a fresh taste, such as citric acid and mint oil, also happened to be mild irritants, which produced a satisfying tingle in the mouth. If Hopkins, by making consumers aware of the film on their teeth, had created a cue, the toothpaste itself provided a physical reward. Such loops of cue and reward are powerful: if we haven’t brushed our teeth, something feels wrong. Two decades after Hopkins launched his campaign, using toothpaste had become the norm for a sizable majority of the U.S. population. Hopkins, as Duhigg puts it, had “created a craving.””

“Duhigg writes about a woman who bites her nails and is advised to find something else to do with her hands that will produce a comparable physical stimulation, such as rapping her knuckles on a desk. The idea is to keep the powerful structure of cue and reward intact but to tweak the content of the routine.”

Both, too, emphasize the role of conscious effort—not in resisting habit but in analyzing it, the better to formulate a strategy for reform. Duhigg describes how, after having gained some weight, he gave up getting a cookie each afternoon in the Times cafeteria. Putting a no-cookie injunction on a Post-it note was a non-starter: he’d ignore it, wander to the cafeteria, chat with colleagues at the cash register, and buy and eat his cookie. So he set about identifying the trigger for his habit, adopting five categories proposed by researchers: time, place, emotional state, other people, and the action immediately preceding the habitual one. Was he hungry, or bored, or in need of a break or a blood-sugar boost? He switched up his routine, eating a doughnut at his desk instead of visiting the cafeteria, or taking a brief stroll outside. He was testing hypotheses: if eating the doughnut at his desk didn’t sate the urge to go to the cafeteria, he could rule out sugar. By a process of elimination, he determined that his habit was really driven by a need for interaction and distraction. The best replacement for a cookie turned out to be going over to a friend’s desk to chat.

“Wood ends her book with advice for those of us who have become hostages to our smartphones. She offers a stepwise strategy. First, recognize your dependency, and acknowledge how the habit disrupts work, social interactions, and safe driving. Next, “control the context cues,” meaning identify what triggers you to grab the phone. For me, the cues are aural (the ping, the French horn) and visual (pop-ups on the screen). I already knew that putting the phone on silent wasn’t enough to break the habit, but, as in the marshmallow experiment, out of sight could be out of mind. In the mornings, preparing breakfast, I found that it helped to leave the phone in another room. In the car, it went in the glove compartment. When walking around, I’d put it in a zippered pocket. There were other ways of generating friction and making the habit harder to indulge. Turning the phone off completely was much more effective than silencing it, not because I wasn’t curious about who might have e-mailed me but because turning it back on was a hassle.

Wood advises us to come up with new rewards as substitutes for the ones the phone provided. I listened to music on the car radio. In the evening, instead of scrolling through tweets and e-mails, I sought out authors I’d never read. At the end of each day, I felt calmer, and free.”

Can Brain Science Help Us Break Bad Habits?

via Instapaper

“In Mischel’s marshmallow experiment, only a quarter of the subjects were able to resist eating the marshmallow for fifteen minutes. This implies that a large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life. But a less discussed part of the study suggests a way of circumventing our frailty. The researchers compared the results of two situations: in one, children could see the marshmallow in front of them; in the other, they knew that it was there but couldn’t see it. On average, the children lasted only six minutes when presented with visible temptation but could manage ten minutes if the treat was hidden. For Wood, this outcome shows that self-control is “not so much an inherent disposition but instead a reflection of the situation we are in.””

Can Brain Science Help Us Break Bad Habits?