Thursday, April 23, 2015

And I Keep Hitting Re-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat

We all do it…whether it is driving the same route to work every morning regardless of how much traffic is present, picking up your afternoon coffee/tea/soda even though you know you will need to pee on the drive home, or stopping by McDonalds for a quick bite even though the food is awful. We all have bad habits. Sometimes these habits are much easier to spot from the outside. For instance, who hasn’t questioned Selena Gomez’s habitual boyfriend choice of Justin Bieber? From the outside it seems so obvious…just quit him or it: whatever it is. But it must be more difficult than it sounds, I mean why else am I drinking my afternoon tea as I write this?

That pretty much sums it all up. I keep hittin’ re-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat.
Habits, good or bad, are behaviors that have become automated. They are activities that were once goal-oriented that now occur in response to a stimulus, activities that we do without really thinking about outcomes. For example, I would get thirsty in the middle of the day after eating lunch, which led me to consciously get a drink in the afternoon. Now getting an afternoon drink has become routine – a habit. Regardless of whether I am thirsty or not, I grab a drink in the afternoon. This has become problematic as I am attempting to be healthier and drinking more water in the morning; hence my problem when I drive home.

The exact mechanisms by which a goal-oriented activity becomes a habit are not well understood. Recent studies have demonstrated a shift in brain activity: while goal-oriented, conscious activity stimulates the prefrontal cortex (the place in the brain where decisions are made), habits are traced to the basal ganglia, which plays a role in emotions, voluntary motor movements, and certain types of learning (Graybiel, 2008; Yin and Knowlton, 2006).

Well, maybe I should just grab a smaller tea, one that isn’t larger than my stomach…
So, why do we form habits? Since habits are generally formed from goal-oriented activities, we receive a reward when we perform these behaviors. For example, drinking tea quenches thirst. This reinforces the thought process in our brains leading to habit formation. But then one has to wonder: why do we maintain bad habits that don’t stimulate reward anymore?

Most of these habits, like smoking or eating junk food, once came with a reward – perhaps the idea of looking cool or a quick way to stifle hunger, respectively. Regardless of whether it may be harmful or whether your opinion changes about what is cool, once the habit is formed it is very difficult to break.

Another explanation for persistent bad habits is the concept called “sunk cost fallacy”. Sunk cost fallacy is the idea that once you have invested in something you are compelled to see it through, even if the benefit remains elusive. For example, how many of us have eaten to the point of bursting our jeans at an all-you-can-eat buffet? I know I have (it’s all you can eat, not eat all you can!). We feel we have to get the most bang for our buck, even if it means we’ll be spending more money to buy antacids later. The same concept holds true for some habits - it may be difficult to stop a habit once you have invested in that behavior. I know I will continue drinking this tea because I already bought it. Selena Gomez may feel she has already invested so much in Justin Bieber that it doesn’t seem right to just give him up.

Interestingly, studies have shown that other animals, including pigeons, are also affected by the sunk cost fallacy (White and Magalhaes, 2015). In this study, pigeons were given a reward (food) after pecking a button a few times. The scientists then introduced a second button and varied how many pecks it took to receive food, one requiring only a few pecks and the other requiring up to 30. Pigeons were more likely to stick with whichever button they initially chose, regardless of how many pecks it took to get the food. In other words, after investing in an option that works, pigeons were less likely to change course and expend energy exploring other options. So maybe we can blame our inability to break bad habits on ancient evolutionary echoes of our animal instincts?
Scientists have shown pigeons also fall prey to "sunk cost fallacy", providing a fertile ground for bad habits to take root.
Habits are routines; they are triggered by a reoccurring stimulus. So how do we break them? It is difficult to break habits because you perform them without thinking. Simply being aware of what triggers your habit will help you break it (Quinn et al., 2010). So next time you find yourself stopping at McDonalds or grabbing that unhealthy snack, think about what just happened. What triggered your desire? Force your brain not to take the short cut or easy way out, but to think objectively about your choice and the ensuing outcomes.

Studies have also indicated that the best time to break a habit is when you go on vacation because you are changing up your routine - you won’t have the same stimulus or trigger provoking your habit (Gross, 2012). So I guess to break my afternoon tea habit I should take a week and go to Hawaii…yeah, I like the sound of that.

This is where I will be until I break my tea habit. I kind of hope it takes awhile.
Contributed by: Sarah Deffit

Graybiel AM (2008). Habits, rituals, and the evaluative brain. Annual review of neuroscience, 31, 359-87 PMID: 18558860

Quinn JM, Pascoe A, Wood W, & Neal DT (2010). Can't control yourself? Monitor those bad habits. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 36 (4), 499-511 PMID: 20363904

White KG, & Magalhães P (2015). The sunk cost effect in pigeons and people: a case of within-trials contrast? Behavioural processes, 112, 22-8 PMID: 25305066

Yin HH, & Knowlton BJ (2006). The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 7 (6), 464-76 PMID: 16715055

Gross, T. Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them. NPR (2012).

1 comment:

  1. I <3 this article. My next vacation will be for the sole purpose of breaking the 'I am going to skip this workout today' habit. #IUSMScientistsRock.