How To Break Bad Habits: Train Yourself Like A Dog

FROM A LECTURE SERIES BY PROFESSOR PETER VISHTON, PH.D.

While bad habits can seem like minor, unimportant behaviors, they are, in fact, significant activities that can derail an otherwise healthy, happy lifestyle.

As Aristotle noted, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” How can you use the tools of cognitive neuroscience to alter your behaviors?

Image of Breaking bad habits

1. Take Notes

Consider this simple tip—one that is startlingly effective for reducing the frequency of a bad habit. An effective strategy for behavioral training is to call attention to the problem behavior whenever it appears. An additional step is to write down the times when this problem behavior occurs, then read that list at the end of the day.

Image of person taking notes to help break bad habits
An effective strategy for behavioral training is to call attention to the problem behavior whenever it appears.

Walk around with a notepad and pen. At the start of the day, write the date at the top of a page. Any time you engage in your problem behavior, don’t unduly criticize yourself. Just pull out the notepad and write down the time of day and a few words summarizing the details. If you’re trying to cut down on television, note the start and end time of the television watching. If you have a doughnut-eating habit, write down the time, place, and flavor of the doughnut.

See Also: Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies to a Better You

At the end of the day, as you are about to go to sleep, read over your list of incidents. Then, turn the page and put the notepad and pen away.

Many programs aimed at objectives such as smoking cessation use the notepad strategy as a baseline task. You start by noting how much you actually smoke for one week, and then you start the intervention— perhaps chewing nicotine replacement gum or exercising to reduce cravings. The baseline procedure itself—simply noting the incidents— often has a very strong effect all by itself.

Over short spans of time, by exerting our conscious will, you can immediately—often drastically—alter your behavior.

Over short spans of time, by exerting our conscious will, you can immediately—often drastically—alter your behavior. That explicit control of behavior takes continual attention and a great deal of mental energy, however. As you get distracted by other concerns, the conscious control drifts away. As it does, the unconscious control takes over.

Cognitive neuroscientists have identified several few reasons for the success of the notepad strategy.

The most basic explanation derives directly from our knowledge about the unconscious processes that control behaviors. Since these unconscious processes are often in control of behaviors, you may not actually be aware of how often you engage in a particular habit. As you see the pages of your notebook filling up, you will tend to eliminate some of the unconscious repetitions of the behavior.

2. Stretch Muscles

Researchers have explored another technique of behavioral modification using the theory that self-control is like a muscle. After an exercise workout, the muscle will be fatigued and less useful; however, when it heals, it gets stronger.

The same process seems to apply to our self-control.

In one set of experiments, conducted by a team led by Mark Muraven, participants were recruited and asked to refrain from eating any sweets for two full weeks. The participants noted whenever they ate something sweet. The experiment was largely successful; participants reduced their sweet-eating habits.

In one set of experiments, conducted by a team led by Mark Muraven, participants were recruited and asked to refrain from eating any sweets for two full weeks. The participants noted whenever they ate something sweet. The experiment was largely successful; participants reduced their sweet-eating habits.

However, the most interesting result emerged when the participants came into the lab at the end of the two weeks to complete a stop-signal test.

Participants in the stop-signal test watch a computer screen. If a rectangle appears on the right side of the screen, they quickly press a key with the right hand. If the rectangle appears on the left, participants quickly press a different key with the left hand. For a randomly selected 25 percent of the trials, however, a beep sounds when the rectangle appears. On those trials, and only those trials, participants have to ignore it and make no key press.

This sounds simple, but the test pits one part of the brain against another. The visuomotor system learns the task very quickly, but when the beep sounds, the voluntary, conscious self-control system has to kick in and stop things. People who are better at stopping themselves from hitting the keys have better general self-control.

What’s interesting is that this self-control ability is improved after two weeks of avoiding sugary snacks. It seems that if you practice self-control, you improve self-control—just like a muscle.

See Also: Optimizing Brain Fitness

3. The Seat of Self-Control

Several functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have characterized the location of the self-control ability in the brain. When people are engaged in successful stop-signal behaviors, the superior medial and pre-central frontal cortices show greater activation. These frontal lobes are associated with such tasks as problem solving, creativity, and strategic thinking.

The frontal lobes are also strongly associated with regulating the rest of the brain in impulse control and avoiding overly risky behavior. Areas in the frontal lobes are the latest sections to develop fully.

In the past, neuroscientists believed that the brain was finished with its primary development by the late teen years; however, some recent work has suggested otherwise.

Between 18 and 22 years of age, there is a surge of development in the frontal lobes. Specifically, there is a large increase in the production of myelin—a fatty insulating substance that increases neuronal efficiency.

During this same period of time, people get much better at self-control in general. Most people presume that it is this increase in development of white matter that leads to a reduction in the high-risk, impulsive behaviors that are commonly associated with the teen years.

4. Develop Links

The human brain is remarkably effective at making associative links. In fact, making associative links is an unconscious tendency that we all share and that we cannot fully turn off.

If you think about something that you don’t want to think about, you are, in a sense, already thinking about it. The same process happens when we try not to think about engaging in some habitual behavior. Calling attention to the behavior will help.

What’s more, your inhibitory self-control ability will get stronger with exercise.

Instead of turning off an existing associative link—which is impossible—you can create an alternative associative link and make it stronger. In other words, to stop a bad habit, you need to replace it with another behavior.

Image of woman eating unhealthy food instead of eating healthy
You need to create a new, automatic, unconscious process that will take the place of the problematic one.

The goal of this training procedure is not to temporarily change behavior but ultimately to change the underlying mental processes that drive a problematic habit in the first place. You need to create a new, automatic, unconscious process that will take the place of the problematic one.

A great deal of research supports this strategy. A study conducted by Marieke Adriaanse and her colleagues asked participants to identify situations that triggered the performance of a bad habit—for example, “When I feel anxious, I tend to go to the kitchen for a sugary snack.”

In the next step, participants were asked to come up with an alternative behavior to pursue when the trigger showed up—for example, “When I feel anxious, I will eat an apple.”

The experimenters found that the focus on associating an alternative behavior with the trigger resulted in a greater reduction in the habitual behavior. They also performed a variety of tests exploring how this change occurred and determined that when you form an alternate intention—an alternate behavioral association with the trigger that usually causes a bad habit—your brain changes its internal association structure. After forming and practicing the alternate association, your brain starts to process the new action faster.

If this happens quickly enough, that new behavior will tend to be triggered instead of the bad habit.

5. Stay Positive (and Negative)

Both positive and negative reinforcement have been proven to effectively shape behavior.

In positive reinforcement, something pleasant gets added to your experience after you perform a behavior. In negative reinforcement, something aversive gets removed after you perform a behavior. (Note that negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment.) In positive punishment, something negative is added to your experience after you perform a behavior. In negative punishment, something positive gets removed after you perform a behavior.

Generally, to promote more general and long-lasting learning, most research suggests that you should focus on the reinforcement side of things.

Image of hand and remote control for breaking bad habits article
Make a contract with yourself: Starting tomorrow, if you remember to turn off the television, give yourself a cookie when you come home.

For example, imagine that you have a bad habit of leaving the television on when you leave for work, and you want to lessen the incidence of that habit. Make a contract with yourself: Starting tomorrow, if you remember to turn off the television, give yourself a cookie when you come home.

Remember that you are not trying to change your conscious behavior. You are, to use the language of a behaviorist like B.F. Skinner, shaping the behavior of your unconscious action control systems. The cookie is for that part of your brain.

Remember — Change Takes Time

Over the course of several decades, a wide range of studies have been conducted on self-administered reinforcement. Students have used it to improve study habits. Dieters have used it to enhance healthy eating practices. People with phobias have used self-administered reinforcement to train themselves to deal with their fears.

You can pick almost any practice, make a contract with yourself, and then change your behavior.

Image of frustrated student studying
One hallmark of behavioral shaping is that it can be a slow process.

One hallmark of behavioral shaping is that it can be a slow process. It might be several weeks before you reach the final behavior that you seek. Often, behavioral scientists who use these techniques to train animals to perform complex sequences of actions will employ a gradual shaping process.

While the training process is slow, the good news is that once the new behavior is set, unlearning the training will also function slowly.

Eventually, you won’t have to reinforce yourself all the time; you will only require periodic reinforcement for good behavior.

From the lecture series Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies to a Better You
Taught by Professor Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D.
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