Your Primitive Brain Doesn’t Want You to Break Bad Habits. Science Can Help

Your Primitive Brain Doesn't Want You to Break Bad Habits. Science Can Help

Most people associate bad habits with the kind of activities that wind up on a list of New Year’s resolutions—eating and drinking too much, spending too much time on the smartphone and avoiding the gym.

But bad habits are often behind more than just personal peccadilloes. The neural machinery of habit formation is also the root cause of many of the worst collective behaviors: Texting while driving, gossiping about co-workers, littering, mansplaining, farting silently in public, making racist or unfair assumptions about strangers and even spreading the kind of misinformation online that some experts warn is threatening to undermine our democracy.

Many people who are aware of bad habits and recognize them to be potentially harmful blame themselves for being weak and lacking the willpower needed to resist them. But in recent years, scientists have used advanced imaging technologies to peer inside the brain as habits are being formed and they’ve mapped habit-formation to precise structures in the brain—structures formed so long ago in the smithy of evolution that humans share them with other mammals. Getty Research suggests that habits, which operate below conscious awareness, usually cannot be tamed simply by resolving to resist them. By the time you realize you’re munching on that bag of potato chips, picking your nose, fighting with someone on Facebook or veering into oncoming traffic while texting, it’s too late.

If we want to change our habits, research suggests, we need to understand how they work, anticipate the cues that trigger them and find ways to break our habit cycle before it starts. Taming a bad habit requires a lot of planning: we need to reverse engineer the chain of behavior that precedes them, and then either remove the cues that set us off altogether, or take the time to build new habits that will replace them. It involves acknowledging that much of what we do is habitual and not the result of our own decision-making, and setting goals in a way that drives new behavior patterns.

Still, it’s not easy to break a habit—nature has made sure of it. That’s because habits are an essential tool of survival—without them, the simple tasks of everyday life would overwhelm us. Americans spend an average of 43 percent of each day engaged in tasks that are largely unconscious—that have become so automatic that we’re able to think and talk about other things while we’re doing them, according to research by Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California.

“Habits are a unique kind of a learning system—they’re unconscious—so we don’t have access to them in the way that we have access to other decisions,” Wood says. “And I think that’s been overlooked in the popular press and that gets people into trouble.” Americans spend 43 percent of each day engaged in tasks that have become so automatic that we’re able to think and talk about other things while we’re doing them, says psychologist Wendy Wood. Understanding habits and learning how to gain some control over them creates possibilities for making the world a better place. We could all be healthier, happier and less distracted. To hear Wood tell it, it might even improve the state of our democracy. Habit Hackers

One demonstration of how the neural machinery of habit formation can work against us, and how difficult it is to control, is the phenomenon of New Year’s resolutions. Last year, an estimated 40 percent of Americans resolved to change bad habits starting on January 1. By the end of the month, roughly one-third had already given up, and fourth fifths will eventually fail, says Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School and author of the book How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

What’s more, technology has become a potent tool of exploitation in our consumer culture. Social media companies, Wood argues, have been so successful at hacking the primitive, unconscious parts of our brains involved in habit formation that much of the world’s population is now habituated to checking in with Facebook, Tiktok, Instagram and their smartphones—multiple times a day.

“Social media sites are set up to form habits and they do it so effectively that people are responding to cues on social media often without thinking,” says Wood, author of the book Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “They aren’t thinking about the consequences of what they’re doing. They’re not thinking at all.”

One of those consequences is the rapid spread of falsehoods through social media networks. Misinformation has been attributed to growing partisan bias, tribalism, polarization and other factors. But the true mechanism, says Wood, may in fact be habit: the mindless sharing of sensationalistic fake news automatically, often without considering the impact of what we are doing.
That’s the premise of Wood’s new research. She and her colleagues found that habits are highly predictive of whether a user of social media will post misinformation—more so than whether or not the poster agrees with it or even believes it to be true. They published the work in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Malte Mueller/Getty In four studies, Wood and her colleagues presented a series of 16 news headlines, some of which were false, to thousands of volunteers, and offered them the opportunity to share the headlines on social media. The authors then assessed partisanship, critical thinking and the strength of social media sharing habits by analyzing past sharing on Facebook, and whether their sharing behavior seemed consistent with “automaticity.” On Facebook the act of sharing information is reinforced and becomes habitual because users get recognition from others for doing so. Once this “reward-based learning system” has formed a habit, the authors concluded, “information sharing is “automatically activated by cues on the platform, without users considering critical response outcomes.”

Misinformation is one symptom of a far larger problem. Intentionally or not, smartphones seem to be optimized for habit formation, offering a cue in the form of […]


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