Why is it so hard to change behavior, or attitudes, or personality? I’ll tell you why. These things are habits. Habits are well learned and they persist from mindlessness.
Our behavior, attitudes, and personality are predisposed by genetics but also ingrained by repeating and reinforcing them over long periods. Thus, the older you get the more inflexible you get. But I see teenagers stuck in ruts too, and they are less likely to have the fronto-parietal cortex executive control to impose changes on themselves.
Regardless of age, being in a rut comes from learning to the point of creating a habit. Habits are really hard to change. Wendy Wood, in her review of the recent book, The Power of Habit, points out that contextual cues trigger habitual behavior. In other words, when you are in a rut, you have mindlessly outsourced your brain’s executive control to these cues. You run on auto-pilot. It is easier to respond to such cues reflexively than think about it and do something else.
Cures for reforming habits require attention to the triggering cues as the core of self-control strategies. When an unwanted response is activated from memory, it needs to be inhibited. Bad habits, unlike responses to temptations, are controlled most effectively through spontaneous introspective awareness and executive control (“Why am I doing this?”…“I don’t want to be doing this”… “don’t do it”… “am I backsliding?”) Vigilant self-awareness and monitoring apparently do not change the strength of the habit memory but are effective because they enhance executive control processes. Wood suggests that the most promising way to break a habit is to “disrupting habit cues so that the old response is not brought to mind and new habits can be learned.”
Some examples of cue awareness and disruption include:
- If you over-eat, use smaller plates or put smaller helpings on the plate.
- If you can’t focus and your mind wanders, notice distractions for what they are. Practice meditation.
- If you are hyper-critical or argumentative, recognize the instant you disagree.
- If you are lazy, be aware of your environment when you aren’t doing anything.
- If you are boastful, notice the situation that makes you want to boast.
If you want to get out of a rut, another important aid is to substitute a new and more desirable habit. I learned this years ago when I tried to quit smoking. I succeeded many times—in other words, I failed to really quit. Only when I decided to take up jogging and forced myself to do it persistently, was I able to substitute the positive reinforcement of nicotine with the positive reinforcement of the endorphins that are released during jogging.
To substitute a better habit, you must pick something that is likewise reinforcing and repeat it enough for it to become a habit. It also helps to simultaneously remove the cues that trigger the old bad habit. For example, when I finally quit smoking, I made myself go jog when I had a strong urge to smoke. Even though I had an urge to smoke many times a day yet only jogged once daily, this single substitution act seemed sufficiently helpful.
Some examples of habit substitution include:
- If you eat more meat than you want, find tasty vegetarian menus.
- If you gossip, restrict all gossip to praise talk.
- If you procrastinate, create a habit of doing the hard things first.
- If you whine, make yourself provide positive interpretations.
- If you associate with people who are dragging you down, spend more time with new associates who can lift you up.
Finally, we have to stop making excuses. Our usual attempts to blame things on “bad genes,” are misleading. In recent years, scientists have discovered that most of our DNA does not have a coding function. They used to call it “junk” DNA, presumably just carried along as useless sludge in the stream of evolution. Now they discover that “junk DNA” actually controls the expression of the coding genes. New discoveries in the field of “epigenetics” are showing that what we think and do influence if and when many of our coding genes are expressed.
Klemm, W. R. (2008) Blame Game. How to Win It. Bryan, Tx: Benecton Press.
Quinn, J. M., Pascoe, A., Wood, Wendy, and Neal, D. T. (2010) Can’t control yourself? Monitor those bad habits. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36(4); 499-511 doi: 10.1177/0146167209360665
Wood, Wendy (2013) On ruts and getting out of them. Science. 336: 980-981