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5 Ways Your Brain Tricks You into Sticking With Bad Habits

#2. Your Brain Uses Progress as an Excuse for Self-Indulgence

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In a recent study, scientists gathered a group of successful dieters and started manipulating their self-control. Splitting the volunteers into two groups, they praised the volunteers in the first group for how much progress they had made toward their ideal weight. They made no mention of any kind of progress to the other group, and presumably just stood there scowling.

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"It suddenly feels awfully heavy in here, doesn't it?"

Then, they offered all of the volunteers their choice of either an apple or a chocolate bar as a thank-you gift for participating in their study. A whopping 85 percent of those who had been reminded of their success chose the chocolate, as opposed to only 58 percent of the other group. In essence, those who had been praised for their success figured they could reward themselves just this once with some candy, while the others sat eating apples and brooding in the quiet shame of failure.

In other words, simply acknowledging success triggered failure.

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Thus vindicating Cracked's management methods.

And that wouldn't be a big deal if all it meant was that the occasional "You look great!" compliment resulted in one celebratory cheeseburger later. But as any recovering addict can tell you, it's never "just one" -- one little slip-up is often enough to trigger a cascade of self-defeat. One psychologist calls it the "what-the-hell" effect, but it's officially called counter-regulatory eating. The basic principle is that if you screw up once, that one misstep causes you to say, "What the hell? I already slipped up. I might as well just keep going now."

So, if you make progress on your diet or your 12-step program, you are very likely to give yourself an excuse to splurge just once. But as soon as you do, it's like opening a floodgate of self-defeating behavior that crochets a net of failure to drag you all the way back to square one.

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A square constructed of inadequacies and painted with the love your parents never gave you.

Once more, the brain prefers the previous, easy state of affairs, even if that state involves a series of habits that are on a pace to kill you by age 40. And sometimes ...

#1. You Prefer the Bad Habits to Real Failure

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Remember that smartass kid in school who was always screwing up, but played it off as a joke, like he meant to do it? You know, the kid who would fill out his test answer sheet so that the filled-in bubbles were in the shape of a dick? Or have you ever had that screw-up co-worker who kept talking about how absolutely desperate he or she was for the paycheck after months of unemployment, but then just ... stopped showing up?

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"Uh, psych! Now please get out of my basket."

You see it in all flavors, but it all comes down to the same thing: This type of person doesn't try to succeed, but fails; they invent ways to fail, seemingly on purpose. This has become the subject of a whole new area of research that they're tentatively calling self-defeating personality disorder. Tell us you don't know at least one person who fits that profile. Or five. Or maybe you've seen one in the mirror.

The theory is that it's all a calculation on the part of your subconscious, a process of accepting one type of failure out of fear of suffering a much greater one, almost like a plea bargain in court.

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"Take the excuse of saving gas money during a gouge; save yourself from an embarrassing porn audition."

The kid who turned his test sheet into a dick would rather fail because he's wacky and lovable than try to pass the test and fail because he's not smart enough or wasn't capable of working hard enough to learn the material. The lonely guy would prefer to just never talk to girls because he's "shy," rather than risk talking to a girl and have her reject him for being too nerdy/boring/into anime/etc.

So you can see already how this plays into any attempt to fix a bad habit. Let's say you have trouble keeping jobs because you have a chronic resistance to wearing pants or underwear. You actually have a strong motivation to keep the bad habit, since it's the only thing keeping the world from finding out that you're not competent enough to succeed at work. Yes, you're unemployed, but having the habit to blame lets you cling to the illusion that you'd be a captain of industry if you just didn't have that pants thing. So incredibly, bad habits wind up protecting your self-esteem, specifically because they cause you to fail.

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"If he'd just let me wear my Tommy Lee costume, I could have totally lifted that X-wing out of the swamp."

So basically, while your conscious self is busy hating you for not fixing your bad habits, your subconscious self is secretly doing everything it can to sabotage any efforts to correct them, because self-indulgence -- not self-improvement -- is what it actually wants.


Dennis runs a blog and a dating advice site. You can follow him on Twitter here.

But it's not like it's really that bad. Just check out 5 Ways Your Bad Habits Might Just Save Your Life. Or discover 5 Things You Do Every Day That Are Actually Addictions.

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Ways Green Day Just Had the Least Punk Rock Meltdown Ever.

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