Why are bad habits so hard to break?
With the New Year approaching Quartz has offered an important column on the topic. The hook is the question of New Year’s resolutions. For my part I am far more interested in the notion that most human behaviors are performed on auto-pilot.
Psychologists are working to show that most of our behaviors are not directed by a command and control center in the mind.
Why does this matter?
Effectively, it is one of the central issues in therapy, one that has divided the world of therapy into those who believe in changing minds and those who believe that we can change behavior without changing the mind that is supposedly directing it.
Without trying to make this any more complicated than need be, when Freud invented psychoanalysis he assumed that hysterical symptoms were the mind’s way of expressing thoughts that it could not allow into consciousness. With hysteria the unconscious mind took over the female body and made it express those thoughts.
As I mentioned in my last book, it’s a variant on the notion of being bewitched, by another mind, that is, the mind of a devil. As you know, fallen angels are like the other kind of angels. Both are disembodied minds.
Anyway, Freud bequeathed us the notion that if we wanted to overcome psychic symptoms we needed to discover what the unconscious mind wanted to say, to bring it into consciousness and then to say it with words. He continued to say that all human psychic distress, whether depression and anxiety or even bad obsessional habits, could be overcome by making the unconscious conscious and then by expressing it in language.
It was a perfectly coherent theory, but it never worked in practice. The mind that we take to be a command and control center does not really exist. It is a philosopher’s fiction, something that we conjure up in order to make sense out of experiences that we do not understand. There might be other reasons, but for today we will leave it at that.
But, what if our bad habits are not redolent of meaning, but are meaningless tics? What if our dreams, Oxford biologist Peter Medawar suggested are not messages from beyond but are just a lot of noise?
The theory of habit—symptoms without meaning-- was first promoted by Aristotle, considerably before Freud saw the light of day. More recently, David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein offered substantive objections to the theory of the mind in control. Most especially, Wittgenstein objected to the notion that a mental decision precedes and directs actions.
These latter have provided the theoretical foundation for today’s cognitive and behavioral treatments.
I will spare you too many details in a blog post, and will skip to Olivia Goldhill’s excellent presentation of the question of habit:
Chances are, you’re still doing whatever bad habit you tried to quit for last new year’s resolution. The months and years go by and, perhaps your job or relationships change, but your routines and behavior likely stay overwhelmingly the same. That’s because the vast majority of our actions aren’t conscious. And to change any lingering bad habits, you have to focus on understanding your subconscious behavior.
“Humans can do just about all of our behavior without consciousness,” says Val Curtis, a behavior change expert at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “You could switch off our pre-frontal cortex and we’d still be able to behave in the same way. We’re able to do almost everything we do every day on autopilot.”
For the record, I will point out that some thinkers take serious offense at the notion that we act on autopilot. For my part I find Curtis’s theory to be correct.
As it happens, it is easy to understand. Goldhill continues:
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. After all, says Curtis, “it would just be too difficult for our brains to make minute decisions about every single thing we do at every moment. It would take too much computing power.”
Again, this is intuitively obvious. If you, upon waking up every morning, had to make a new and original choice among four different kinds of juice, six different brands of cereal and three different types of coffee you would be wasting mental energy on inconsequential topics. You do better to save your mind for more significant problems.
For that reason, good personal relationships, especially marriages, run on routines, on couples’ routines. If you and your spouse try to negotiate every action you take during the day you will be wasting energy and adding an unnecessary layer of complexity (and potential conflict) to every interaction.
Goldhill adds an intriguing thought. When we function on autopilot we are simply responding to external cues and stimuli. These external cues provoke us to perform actions automatically.
Instead, we learn to instinctively respond to the objects around us, which allows us to move through the world without having to make a conscious decision about every action we take. Much like driving on autopilot, without giving conscious attention to shifting gears or turning left, much of our daily routine—getting dressed, traveling to work, making coffee—is carried out automatically in response to environmental stimuli.
And she quotes a USC psychologist on the way habits are formed:
Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and business at University of Southern California, notes that while we’re aware of our conscious thought processes, it’s far more difficult to understand automatic behavior patterns. “Habits form when you repeat a response in a given context and it is rewarded (e.g., enter kitchen first thing in the morning, make coffee),” she explains in an email. The result is that we learn to link our context with a specific response—e.g. we know that when we’re in the kitchen early in the morning, we should be making coffee.
“In a way, habits are a short-cut,” says Wood. “You don’t have to think about what to do, the response you have done in the past just pops into mind. And this can work well for coffee making—you don’t have to wonder whether you want coffee today, you just make it.”
According to Wood, half of our behavior is automatic. There is nothing wrong with having Wheaties or a muffin for breakfast every day or with taking the same train to work every morning. Problems arise when the habits are harmful: when we drink too much alcohol or eat the wrong foods or become too sedentary.
How does one go about breaking bad habits? We already have an indication from 12 Step programs. As you know, these programs have been inspired by religion. But some of the steps could as well have been derived from psychology.
Among them, if you are an alcoholic you should avoid bars and should stop hanging around with your old drinking buddies. In order to overcome alcoholism you should reduce your exposure to the stimuli that you associate with the bottle.
Goldhill offers the more theoretically rigorous version:
To change these kinds of behaviors, it’s important to pay attention to the environment we tend to do them in. “Successful behavior change actually involves changing the contexts in which we live,” says Wood. So smokers should avoid the places where they smoke, those hoping to lose weight should re-arrange their food cupboards so as not to instinctively reach for unhealthy food, and anyone aiming to be more productive needs to calm their environment—both by physically tidying, and removing internet distractions.
“You have to recognize that the environment around you will disturb you,” says Curtis.”You have to create both a real environment around you that’s not disturbing and a virtual environment that’s not distracting.”
This means, as the 12 steps also suggest, that you cannot rely on willpower and self-control. It also means that you are not going to get anywhere by trying to discover the root cause and the deeper meaning of your bad habits. At the least, these theories explain why certain approaches never work.
Focusing only on conscious behavior won’t go very far in changing your lifestyle. “Willpower and self-control are not a good match for habit,” says Wood. “Habits will persist long after your willpower is depleted and you no longer can exert self-control.”
But if you’ve tried changing your settings and still can’t change that habit, there’s always one last-ditch option for those who are truly desperate. Wood points out that people tend to be better at changing their behavior after they’ve moved or had another big life change. “The old cues are removed and people have a window of opportunity to do something new,” she says. So if you’re really, really set on ditching that bad habit this year, then relocate, change your job, and get rid of all habitual behavior in your life. It’s drastic, but it just might work.
It does feel drastic, but, then again, many habits are profoundly self-destructive. One applauds Goldhill for an excellent column. She has given us a good rendering of the best thinking in the therapy world.