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Why Old Habits Die Hard?

Why a change is often impermanent?

Why are old habits so enduring even when we gain insight about their damaging effects and are determined to change them? How can we explain such behavior that goes against our own self-interest? The answer might lie in our unconscious motives. That is, many decisions are made on the basis of emotional and unconscious processes. Unconscious motive is mostly inaccessible to any verbal articulation, and activated upon perceiving a cue (temptation).

For example, seeing and smelling fresh-baked cookies make one reach out before realizing one is on a diet. We then ask: “what was I thinking?” sadly, the answer is: not too much thinking was involved. Yet we might be unaware that our environment influencing our behavior because stimuli can activate goals and cravings. This explains why it is easier to change our environment than to change our habits. Change the environment and then let the new cues do the work.

Who is actually in charge when we make decision in daily life? Individual decisions are best understood as the interactions between deliberation and impulse. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has described these two systems as deliberative (System 2) and impulsive (System 1). The deliberative system is typically effortful. When we are calm, the deliberative system guides slow rational thinking. The impulsive system acts spontaneously without consideration for the broader consequences of the action. The everyday snap judgments are made by the impulsive system without processing information. The impulsive system is relatively effortless and spontaneous.

The final decision is determined based on the relative strength of impulsive system and the deliberative system. The ability to “balance” these two systems is critical for successful self-control and to sustain effortful control in pursuit of long-term goal. Self-control failure implies that these two systems come into conflict with each other.

The core of an impulsive system is made of learned habits. In the absence of self-control, habitual behavior is the default option. Especially when under the sway of overwhelming emotions, we react to surrounding cues without awareness of doing so. We fall back to our old habit whenever we face stressful event. With each repetition, however, behavioral patterns become more automatic and part of an unconscious system.

The habits both produce and are reflections of changes in the brain. Psychologist Gerald Edeman notes that most of our habits take shape at the neural level through the connections between brain cells. The more often a particular circuit in the brain is used, the stronger its connections become. For example, the experience of depression imprints a tendency to fall back on certain patterns of thinking (e.g., feeling hopeless vocalized as “what’s the point?”). If there is no attempt to modify these unconscious patterns, we are all prisoners of old entrenched patterns, and beliefs. Emotional freedom (e.g., freedom from the fear of loneliness, despair, anger, or self-hate) depends on overcoming this habitual pattern.

Reflective awareness lead to free will. The slower, more deliberate reflective awareness enables flexibility in providing effective brakes on impulses and habitual responses. However, insight is not enough for sustained change. It needs to be followed by repeated efforts to reinforce new understanding and new coping skills. In fact, evidence indicates that a lengthy therapy provides an opportunity for effectively changing entrenched old habitual pattern. As much as one would wish to quickly fix a wide range of symptoms and emotional difficulties. However, rapid symptom relief is not permanent.

Research on the power of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is actually malleable and shaped by experience. For example, evidence shows that cognitive-behavior therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in the OCD patients. Thus mental training (e.g., meditation and CBT) can alter the brain chemistry and physically change the brain. Eventually, a new way of thinking can become automatic and second nature. The message is we need to exercise our brain the way we exercise our body. This means that, to some degree, we have the power to change the structure and function of our brain.