It’s Not Willpower, It’s Science

CREATING GOOD habits, such as eating fresh fruit for dessert instead of ice cream and cookies, can build new neuronal pathways in the brain that eventually make new resolutions easier to keep.  Firmly establishing new habitual behaviors, however, requires motivation, attention and time—at least several months.

The word “habit” encompasses everything from unhealthy sugar consumption and excessive clutter to nail-biting, OCD and drug addiction.  What most have in common is behavior that is generally ill-advised, most often unhealthy, and difficult to change.

In Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick, University of Southern California psychology and business professor Wendy Wood argues against the idea that self-control and willpower are the cornerstones of converting bad habits to good ones.

People who score high on self-control are successful, Wood contends, not because of their self-control but because they have better skills for forming new habits that meet their goals. As a result, learning the mechanics of forming new habits is key for anyone wishing to get rid of the old, bad ones.

People act on automatic pilot about 40% of the time because learned behaviors are a sort of mental shortcut, according to the lytx blog.  “If your brain had to decide muscle by muscle how to complete each task anew each morning, you’d be exhausted before breakfast.”

“The brain’s circuits for habitual and goal-directed action compete for control,” according to UC San Diego psychologist Christina Gremel. Goal-directed actions begin in the orbitofrontal cortex: when this area is quieted—at least in Gremel’s research on mice—habit takes over.

“We need a balance,” writes Gremel.  Habits enable us “to make routine actions quickly and efficiently…but we need the capacity to break habits and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information.” Interfering with habit-directing areas in the brain by way of drugs or behavior therapy can help someone rid themselves of undesirable habits.

Once formed, good new habits can become the default behavior, Wood contends.  In the M&M-and-carrot study Wood conducted with colleagues, participants who were hungry and also fond of both carrots and chocolate played a screen game at which they became accustomed to receiving carrots as rewards.  Even when later offered the choice of M&M rewards, 60% continued choosing carrots.

But when the screen changed, many more chose M&Ms, because “they stopped to think,” explained Wood. “We formed beneficial habits to choose healthy food”— which people will fall back on even when distracted, tired or overwhelmed.  But given time to think about their preference, people tend to opt out and return to the unhealthy food.

Habit replacement looping” is the method of creating better habits described in The Power of Habit by New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg, according to Bernard Luskin in Psychology Today.  Duhigg describes the “habit loop” at the core of every habit: a cue acts as a trigger for a routine, and performing the routine produces reward signals in the brain.

Changing a habit involves keeping the cue and reward the same but inserting a new routine, although the replacement must elicit an equivalent reward. Repetition of new behavior embeds it in “habit memory” —similar to muscle memory that develops with practicing skills like bicycle riding or juggling, according to Duhigg.

While cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) that employs habit replacement looping might be most helpful for some, Duhigg believe his methods work well for individuals doing it on their own. Techniques and responses, such as writing reinforcements to yourself about your progress, support efforts to change an ingrained habit.  And psycho-visualization—“creating visualized scenarios that are memorably vivid and unique”— can reinforce “habit memory.”

Tapping into all five senses creates a “stickiness” that helps form new neural pathways by connecting a new behavior to as many areas of the brain as possible, according to diabetes educator Julie Hani.

Sixty-six days was the average amount of time required to reach “automaticity,” according to a study at the University College London—research used by Duhigg to support the effectiveness of habit-formation techniques.  Occasionally missing a day didn’t interfere with new habit formation, which is dependent on “irregular but consistent conscious repetition.”

But even scientists disagree on the topic of habits.  “Excessive and overly fixed behavioral routines are symptoms in many disorders,” according to Kyle Smith and Ann Graybiel, brain researchers at Dartmouth and M.I.T. respectively.  But about the role of habits, they caution “there is little consensus.”

Some also question brain-based explanations for forming new habits.  About the involvement of muscle memory, for example, eating habits are not skills and not related to the muscles; and habits and skills involve distinct systems in different areas of the brain.

And the Stanford University marshmallow experiment, often cited to show the importance of self-control in forming good habits and “one of the most famous pieces of social-science research,” according to the Atlantic, has recently been challenged.

In the experiment, those children able to delay eating a marshmallow when they knew they would receive a better treat later had more “measurable willpower” — the ability to maintain focus on future rewards—according to the researchers, and that accounted for their eventual greater success as adults.

Using a much larger sample and assessing variables such as race, ethnicity and parents’ education, however, a new study found that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow may come mostly from a child’s social and economic background: poorer kids might be less motivated to wait for the second marshmallow because, for them, daily life holds fewer guarantees.

Learning habit-changing techniques is certainly worth a try—and habit changing might work best for garden-variety ones like substituting fruit for ice cream, compared to disorders like OCD and addiction—but remember to keep working on that new behavior for at least 66 days.

—Mary Carpenter

Every Tuesday, count on well-being editor Mary Carpenter to deliver health news you can use.




One thought on “It’s Not Willpower, It’s Science

  1. Nancy G says:

    This is fascinating. Thanks

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