“To promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing.” – Mark Twain
“I can resist anything except temptation.” – Oscar Wilde
Thinking of giving up smoking? Trying to trim a few inches off the waistline?
If so, you’ll already be halfway aware that breaking bad habits is often harder than you hope. When it comes down to actually going on that diet or running in the snow, we have a tendency to waive the promises we make. However, if we become aware of why this is the case, we will be better equipped to follow through with our resolutions.
We know that certain activities are bad for us and we should eliminate them from our lives; we know that certain activities are good for us and we should integrate them into our routines. But our routines run automatically and are hard to divert or interrupt. Although we know what is good for us and what is bad we have a propensity for fulfilling our desires in the present moment and disregarding the effect our actions will have on our future selves.
This knowledge of our action’s adverse effects but nevertheless repeating such an action resembles a state of mental stress that psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’: the discomfort caused by conflicting beliefs or ideas about something. One method to help change a habit is to crank up levels of cognitive dissonance. By deploying a ‘self-talk’ that reminds you, for example, that eating lots of saturated fat is bad for long-term health, whilst also visualising the effects of weight gain and heart disease, you can undermine the belief that eating bags upon bags of crisps is solely enjoyable and pleasurable.
But the part of your brain that attests to the crisps’ pleasurable nature, the ‘limbic system’, or ‘monkey brain’, troubles this. Cocooned inside our neo cortex, or ‘rational/thinking brain’, the monkey brain evolved to serve our basic emotional functions and fundamental drives. When we are feeling down or energy-sapped, our brain makes us crave foods with a high sugar content. This often leads us towards the biscuit tin, rather than the fruit bowl.
However, if we understand the affect our ‘monkey brain’ has on our decision-making we can begin quieting it, making our rational thinking brain our primary advisor. For instance, in Walter Mischel’s famous ‘Marshmallow Test’ a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. The successful children abstained from eating the marshmallow instantly because they found methods of diverting their attention away from it. This redirection of attentional focus enabled them to attain self-control and regulate their emotional brain. Research found that the children who used willpower to delay gratification had better later life outcomes than those who gave into their desire.
Another phenomenon that psychologists note is our tendency for ‘cognitive ease’. The term and concept relate to Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 outlined in his famous Thinking, Fast and Slow. When the mind is at cognitive ease (System 1) it is in a natural and unthreatened state, experiencing what it knows. However, when it becomes conscious of something unknown or not previously experienced, the brain is forced into a mode defined by ‘cognitive stretch’ (System 2). This ‘stretch’ – the process of understanding and comprehending the unknown – is necessary for learning, but it is more arduous than cognitive ease, meaning that the mind is predisposed to undertake activities it knows and has previously experienced. Habits are hard to break because the mind has a preference for habitual activity.
Because System 1 is our default state, it is crucial to try and scramble our frequency for ease by initiating cognitive dissonance – alerting ourselves to the necessity of ‘stretch’. The best way to do this is to, well, to just do it.
If we generate the willpower to just do it, to try something new and challenge ourselves, we can develop new habits which will soon enough become cognitively easy. It is only by committing oneself to and practicing a new pursuit (see Brian’s post on ‘Neuroplasticity’) that this will happen.
It has been shown that practicing activities encouraging ‘stretch’ – no matter how simple or small – can make us readier for change. For example, regularly brushing your teeth with the opposite hand to the one you normally use correlates to an increase in willpower. This process helps us prove to ourselves that we can change our behavior by boosting two key qualities that create change: determination and conviction.
By understanding the psychological conflicts behind our bad habits, increasing cognitive dissonance, stretching ourselves, and visualizing success, we can significantly improve our chances of changing behavior, regulating out attention to ensure we get some use out of those box-fresh running shoes.
 Vincent Deary, How to Live 1. How We Are, ‘The Automatic’ p. 28