New Year’s Resolutions are a great step towards self-improvement, but unfortunately before you can say “President’s Day Mattress Sale” most people have given up (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1989). In fact, 25% of people can’t even keep their resolution for a week. Most New Year’s Resolutions fail, but there’s a clever trick you can do to help improve your chance of success. The trick involves activating the right set of brain circuits before you set your resolution.
Two studies from the UK figured out how to change your bad habits. The first helped people quit smoking, and the second helped people change their eating habits. They found that the key to success was self-affirmation.
The first study looked at how how self-affirmation might help people quit smoking (Armitage 2008). They took a bunch of smokers and had them answer a set of questions. The control group got asked semi-random questions about their opinions like “Is the beach the best place to vacation?” But the “self-affirmation” group was asked questions that made them focus on the best parts of themselves. They were asked questions like, “Have you ever forgiven another person when they have hurt you?” or “Have you ever been considerate of another person’s feelings?” If the participant answered “yes” on a question then they were asked to elaborate. This had the effect of drawing their attention to their positive qualities. After the questions both groups read an informational packet on the negative health effects of smoking.
The study found that self-affirmation helped change people’s behavior. Smokers who did the self-affirmation developed a greater intention to quit smoking and also were more likely to start looking into how to quit. Importantly, the effect of self-affirmation was strongest on the heaviest smokers. That means for the people who are the worst off, a little self-affirmation does the most good.
The second study looked at the effect of self-affirmation on eating habits (Epton 2008). They basically did the same protocol with the questions, but afterwards, instead of information on smoking, participants received information about the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables. The study found that self-affirmation prior to learning about healthier eating helped promote healthier eating.
The results of both studies indicate that thinking positively about yourself, or even just trying to think of your positive qualities makes it easier to change your habits. That’s a cool phenomenon, but what’s the neuroscience behind it?
The first thing you need to know is that bad habits reside in a deep, unconscious region of the brain called the basal ganglia. And the only way to change bad habits is for the prefrontal cortex to override the activity in the basal ganglia to create new habits. Self-affirmation helps change the balance of neural activity.
We know from other studies that thinking happy memories boosts serotonin. Positive self-reflection in general likely has the same effect on increasing serotonin activity. This is important because serotonin is essential for proper functioning of the prefrontal cortex. We also know from other studies that self-reflection activates the medial prefrontal cortex. So the key for changing your bad habits is that self-affirmation boosts the prefrontal cortex’s ability to override the basal ganglia.
So this year, before you come up with a list of all your terrible qualities that you want to change, spend some time reflecting on all the qualities you like about yourself. Have you ever forgiven another person when they have hurt you? Have you ever been considerate of another person’s feelings? Please elaborate.
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