5 Ways Your Brain Tricks You into Sticking With Bad Habits
Bad habits can ruin your life. Whether you're gorging on Haagen-Dazs or dressing up like a Power Ranger and flaying hobos every night, you know on some level that things have to change, or disaster will follow. But no matter how badly you want your life to be different, things just keep plowing on the way they are. Why?
Because your brain has a long list of diabolical mechanisms intended to keep your habits exactly as they are.
Your Brain Thinks Your Future Self Is a Different Person
You knew you had to be up at 7 a.m. for a big exam. But there you were, at one in the morning, watching every minute of a double feature on cable including Timecop and a second showing of Timecop. On a conscious level, you knew you were screwing yourself. But on a subconscious level, you always think of the tomorrow version of you as a completely different person. That guy can deal with the consequences; the night version is watching some fucking Jean-Claude Van Damme.
"Can't miss the rest of this movie. Two hours of sleep will be fine."
Well, don't feel so bad. Science says that this feature is built into your brain.
Brain scans have shown that different parts of our brain light up when we're thinking of ourselves versus when we're thinking of other people. That part makes sense -- your brain is partitioned out into separate regions for yourself and for everyone else because you have to look out for yourself first. But where it gets weird is that in some people, when they're asked to think about their future selves, the region that lights up is the one reserved for other people.
"Future Bill can worry about AIDS tests. Now Bill has unprotected sex to attend to."
In other words, if someone asks you to think about what you'll look like in 20 years, your brain treats it as though you're trying to picture some bizarre stranger. Now think about what that means in terms of your ability to fix what's wrong in your life. What motivation do you have to abstain from your 14th peanut butter doughnut today just to help out some droopy manimal in the future? Logically, you understand that you're endangering the person you'll become, but subconsciously, your brain doesn't have the sympathy to spare for that poor slob, and just wants to enjoy the doughnut.
It Takes 10 Weeks of Work to Build a Good Habit
Let's say you have a habit or two you need to break, and you decide to start by picking up some good habits, because as we all know, the surefire way to overcome an addiction is to replace it with another addiction. So, you waddle over to the local gym, sign up for a membership and plan to start working out three times a week to help control your cravings for pie or cocaine or cocaine pie.
So, how much uninterrupted effort would you say it takes to start to become a gym person? As in, how long until you begin to accept working out as an automatic part of your life, rather than a grievous tax on your muscles and time?
Well, according to one study, habits take 66 days to form. That's right; it takes the better part of 10 weeks before any sort of new behavior you're trying to adopt starts to feel automatic. That means you're looking at over two months before that treadmill at the gym becomes more "weekly routine" and less "Spanish Inquisition."
And that's more than two months during which any kind of change in your routine can disrupt the process. You have a week when you can't work out because you get the flu, or pull a muscle, or have to work a bunch of overtime at the slaughterhouse. Boom, habit broken. This is when you snap back into your old habits, because they, too, were formed by long stretches of repetition. Your nightly date with Jack Daniel's and Facebook is firmly etched into your brain thanks to years of practice.
It's not because your brain hates you; it's because your brain likes efficiency, and mindless habits are efficient. See, what your brain really wants is to shift into autopilot, to turn your life into repetitive patterns and create heuristics -- mental shortcuts that help you get through the day using the least amount of brain power necessary. Heuristics allow you to drive to work half asleep and hung over, and get there with no recollection of the trip you just made. They compel you to repeat the same little things over and over day after day, because these routines require way less energy.
"I've got, like, the Prius of brains."
But breaking out of one requires an enormous amount of energy. If you want to change your routine, your previously automatic, effortless choices now have to be made using a conscious, concerted effort. And it will be exhausting. We don't just mean physical effort -- obviously riding a bike to work is more tiring than hiring a rickshaw. We mean just making the decisions is tiring. Which brings us to the fact that ...
Your Willpower Is a Finite Resource
Of course, what is probably more likely to trip you up during your 10 weeks of learning to be the type of person who jogs every morning isn't some uncontrollable circumstance, but your own lack of motivation. Specifically, this shows up as the sense that, because you've been so good with the jogging, you owe it to yourself to take a break.
"Three miles! Time for smoking and cakes."
Once again, scientists can get this same result in the lab -- exercising your willpower in one instance simply makes it more difficult to exercise it in the next. There's even a term for it now: willpower depletion. It is every bit as depressing as it sounds.
For instance, in one study, scientists asked one group of students to memorize a two-digit number, and another group a seven-digit number. They then offered both groups a choice between cake and fruit salad. Amazingly, the students who memorized the longer number were twice as likely to choose the cake. It's as though the simple act of remembering five extra digits was enough to reduce their willpower to a trembling white flag.
"Five weeks sober. Then I memorized all the lyrics to American Pie."
Then you have this study, which tried it from the opposite direction: Volunteers were shown a plate of freshly baked cookies and a plate of radishes. Half of them were instructed to take a cookie, and the other half were instructed to take a radish. All were then asked to complete a difficult geometric puzzle. Bizarrely, those who had been told to take a radish gave up on the puzzle after only eight minutes, while those who were told to take a cookie stuck with it for a full 19 minutes.
Even though no physical effort was involved, simply being forced to resist cookies actually depleted the volunteers' will to solve a puzzle, because apparently we never really stop being toddlers.
"I can hold in my homicidal urges or do Weight Watchers. Not both."
This one has another way of sneaking up on you, too, because ...
Your Brain Uses Progress as an Excuse for Self-Indulgence
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.
"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.
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.
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 ...
You Prefer the Bad Habits to Real Failure
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?
"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.
"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.
"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.
And stop by LinkSTORM to because you don't need to go to the gym anyway.
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