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Neurohacking: How to Make Behavior Change Stick

Easy techniques to help you follow through on your New Year's resolutions.

‘Behavioral neurohacks’ are a way to ‘convince’ your mind to see yourself in a different way.
Source: Pixabay

Just 46% of New Year’s resolutions are still intact by July 4, according to an academic study conducted in 2014. To make resolutions stick over the next six months, give thought to not just the goals you set on New Year’s Eve, but how you can incorporate ‘neurohacks’ to achieve them.

Throughout my work as a behavioral scientist, researcher, and professor at UCLA and UC Irvine, I have spent much time researching and developing behavior change interventions. These insights learned throughout my career led me to build a process to help people not just set goals, but also to stick with them. Stick With It, the book I wrote on keeping resolutions and goals, demonstrates that using neurohacks—a set of psychological tools to quickly and easily reset the mind—greatly increases the likelihood of long-term behavior change.

Neurohacks get people to stick with things through two psychological processes; the first being that people convince themselves that if they’re doing something without being pressured to do it, it must be important to them. They will stick with that behavior to remain consistent with what they have prioritized. The second process is that people form an identity of themselves by looking back on things they’ve done in the past and will continue doing that behavior because it is part of their self-image.

Neurohacking can take a number of different forms. ‘Behavioral neurohacks’ are a way to ‘convince’ your mind to see yourself in a different way. The ‘new identity’ that you see yourself as can be instrumental in making you follow through on the necessary steps on the path to long-term change. Similarly, ‘body movement neurohacks’ use one’s physicality to change the way people think about themselves. An example of this is a study that was done in 2003 with head nods. While listening to an advertisement, half of the student research participants were told to shake their heads, and the other half to nod their heads. They were then asked if they agreed with the advertisement. The researchers found that people who nodded were more likely to agree with the ad, and the people that shook their head were more likely to disagree. Nodding likely had an impact on the participants agreeing with the statements. From this, we can learn that body movements can be used as neurohacks to change the way people think about themselves, and what they are capable of.

Speech and cognitive neurohacks can also be used to influence people’s self-image and actions. A set of studies in 2011 asked people to answer questions about their likelihood of voting. The questions were phrased in one of two ways: “How important is it for you to vote?” or “How important is it for you to be a voter?” The results showed that voting rates were higher for the group that was asked if it was important for them to be voters. Why? Because those participants saw themselves as voters—it had become a part of their identity—rather than the act of voting being a one-off activity that may or not occur. The research subjects who were asked if it was important for them to be voters felt that they should follow through on the identity they had created for themselves and voted. From this, we can see that little changes in speech can affect how people think of themselves and what they do.

We have applied these neurohacking principles at the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT) lab in Southern California. Much of our research has been focused on coming up with effective interventions and solutions for the opioid epidemic that claims 130 lives around the country each day. Last year we worked on a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Harnessing Online Peer Education (HOPE) study to prevent opioid overdose among chronic pain patients. We used digital interventions on social media in the hope that chronic pain patients—on long-term and high doses of opioids—could ‘see themselves’ in a different light, as capable of not using opioids instead of feeling dependent on them. We found that these digital interventions, or neurohacks, reduced anxiety and misuse of opioids in the intervention group.

In 2020, we will start a new NIH-funded HOPE study for opioid use disorder, that is focused on MAT—medication-assisted treatment. In this study, the intervention group will receive peer-led support on the benefits of MAT. It is our hypothesis that the group provided with intervention and neurohacking tools throughout this study will not only be more open and committed to seeking medication-assisted treatments but see themselves as empowered in their recovery and therefore will be better equipped to address their addiction.

These neurohacking principles can also be applied to more general behavior change. As you set your New Year's resolutions, think about how your actions can guide your mind in making your goals stick. Here are some more strategies that can help:

  • Make doing the goal fun. Find a way to make it pleasurable so you will keep doing it. If your goal is eating healthier, be creative in making healthy food enjoyable.
  • Build a community to support you—whether supportive or competitive. Doing with others is more fun and helps make the behavior last.
  • Make it easy to change. Gamification and other tools make the activity rewarding. Research has shown repeatedly that once the rewards stop flowing, people’s behaviors will revert to what they were before.

Once a routine has been built, it becomes easier to do. It then becomes a go-to default behavior, meaning you will stick with it long after July 4, Labor Day, and when the summer sun has come and gone.

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