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Why Is It So Hard to Change Bad Habits?


Apr. 2, 2019 Psychology Today

I’ve managed to turn around a lot of my bad habits over the years, like reducing my fast food consumption, spending less time glued to screens, and finding an exercise regimen that I like and works for my life.

But my healthy habit journey isn’t anywhere near completion yet. I’m constantly looking for ways to optimize my energy and improve my life. If you’re reading this article, chances are you too have a few habits you’d like to change. So why is the process of adopting new habits usually so difficult? Because there is not a system in place to help you get the job done (unless you’ve reached the problematic tipping point of developing an addiction or diagnosable disorder.) Even then, the systems that are in place just want to help you stop the bad habit, not give you the tools needed to adopt new, healthier ones.

Why does this happen? Partially because, as a society, we still hold onto a false notion that those struggling with addiction or mental health issues are somehow different than the rest of us “normal” folks. This is not only false, but it’s also extremely dangerous because it ends up exacerbating the shame and stigma for those who are struggling, thus preventing them from seeking help.

The good news is that we do know a lot about how to change people’s behavior before things escalate to a problematic tipping point. Today I’ll be sharing with you four different approaches to change bad habits and the scientifically proven tools that will help you adopt new habits.

1. Behavioral Psychology

When we think, feel, and act in a particular way over a period of time, habits form, not only in our behavior but in our memory systems too.

There are different types of memory classification including semantic memory (knowledge), episodic memory (remembering events), and procedural memory (knowing how to do things) which is considered an implicit form of memory and therefore operating mostly below conscious awareness. It’s this last memory type, procedural memory, that is most important in the formation of habits. Over many decades of research, three primary types of learning emerged in the behavioral psychology domain.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian conditioning) is learning through association. It was discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, which he discovered in his infamous study of dogs. In simple terms, classical conditioning refers to two stimuli which are linked together to produce a new learned response. 

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning refers to behavior that is shaped by either positive or negative reinforcement. It was developed by American Psychologist B.F. Skinner who studied the behavior of rats. He found that he could encourage or discourage behaviors based on a reward or punishment system. 

Observational Learning

Albert Bandura, an American psychologist, believed that people learn behaviors by observing and modelling other people’s behavior, attitudes, or emotions. In particular, he studied babies and young children and found that they imitated the behavior of those around them. This became the foundation of his social learning theory in which he highlighted that any form of learning requires the individual’s attention, retention, reproduction and motivation to imitate the modelled behavior.

2. Neuroscience

Researchers from MIT have identified that if neurons fire at the start and end of a specific behavior, then it becomes a habit. Neurons located in the habit formation region fire at the beginning of a new behavior, subside while the behavior occurs, and then fire again once the behavior is finished. Over time, patterns form, both in behavior and in the brain. This can make it extremely difficult to break a habit. 

In the forebrain, the basal ganglia is known to control voluntary movements and it may also play a crucial role in habit formation (both good and bad) as well as emotional expression. This system is not just concerned with motor (body) movements, but it has a strong effect on the emotional part of the brain. Investigator and Professor at MIT, Ann Graybiel, believes that at its core, the basal ganglia works to help people develop habits, so that they become automatic. This frees up space in your brain and memory to take in all the other things we encounter on a day to day basis. Automatic habits may include riding a bicycle, driving a car or brushing your teeth.

However, it’s the same region that helps people develop unwanted, or unhealthy, habits like eating disorders, anxiety, depressed mood, and addictions.

Research in this field, that focuses on the neurons in the basal ganglia, may lead to new psychological and drug treatments in mental health disorders and addiction.

3. Self-help Tools

The self-help industry claims to want to help you develop better habits. Before newer technologies, self-help mainly came in the form of physical books, but these days you can access information from home through eBooks, online courses, apps, and podcasts.

What Else Is Important?

Two factors that effectively help people achieve the behavior change they desire are incentives and accountability.

The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) have released data from their study on accountability and the results were very interesting! What did they find? If you are held accountable to someone else, by committing to someone that you will achieve a goal, then your chance of success is up to 95 percent.

Accountability is the most important factor in habit formation or habit changing. This means that the likelihood that you will reduce your alcohol or lose weight will go up if you share your goal with friends, family or your community, either in person or online.

Though the above-mentioned tools are proven to work, physicians and therapists typically don’t employ them that often because they don’t think they are relevant to mental health issues and compulsive behaviors.

So, when people become “addicted” or “depressed” we just tell them they should stop without rerouting those “bad habits” and then wonder why it doesn’t work. Why? Because we are bad at stopping ourselves from doing something, especially if it’s already a habit.

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