Battling Temptation – Get Your Brain on Your Side!
For many of us this is the time of year for making new resolutions such as quitting bad habits and winning the battle against addiction. However, whether it’s quitting smoking, junk food or bad management habits, we all know how this can be extremely difficult to follow through. In fact, the reason why it’s so hard to break our bad habits is because they get literally wired into our brains.
Addiction is a term used in many contexts to describe an obsession, compulsion, or excessive psychological dependence. Behavioural scientists have been studying how unhealthy behaviours become ingrained in our biology for a long time and we now know that bad habits are in fact stronger than most of the good habits because of the type of reward associated with them. The brain is fighting against the power of an immediate reward and we have been hard-wired to give greater value to immediate rewards. Dopamine, the pleasure-sensing chemical in our brain, identifies how habits originate happiness and conditions the brain to want that reward again reinforcing the connection, especially when triggered by our environment.
Experimental psychologist Loran Nordgren, an assistant professor at Northwestern University"s Kellogg School of Management, studies the battle between willpower and temptation. He claims that people tend to overestimate their ability to resist temptations around them, they have this self- control hubris, this belief they can handle more than they can thus undermining attempts to shed bad habits.
In one experiment called "Coffee and Cigarettes", he measured whether heavy smokers could watch a film that romanticizes the habit without taking a puff. To make it even harder, they"d be paid according to their level of temptation such as holding an unlit cigarette while watching, keeping the pack on the table or leaving the pack in another room. The results showed that those smokers who"d predicted they could resist a lot of temptation tended to hold the unlit cigarette — and were more likely to light up than those who knew better than to hang onto the pack.
Your brain memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward. If you always snack in front of the TV, eventually, that environmental cue will trigger the striatum (a dopamine-rich part of the brain) to making that behavior almost automatic.
So, here are a few important tips for helping your brain fight bad habits with you and not against you:
- Replace the bad habits for new ones
You cannot simply eliminate a bad behavioural pattern by erasing habits; you can only replace it or substitute one habit for another.
Create positive immediate rewards for each good habit
Reward yourself with something you really desire and that your brain will immediately associate with pleasure.
Cut out the rituals linked to your bad habits
Stop eating in front of the TV!
Repeat, repeat and repeat the good habits consistently
Repeating the same routine at the same time of day consistently will make the striatum recognize the habit so eventually, if you don"t do it, you"ll feel awful. If you"re trying to exercise, doing it at the same time of the morning, rather than fitting it in haphazardly, will help to create a new pattern in the brain because exercise itself raises dopamine levels, so eventually your brain will get a feel-good hit even if your muscles protest.
- Evaluate your environment Guard yourself against the environmental clues around you that can trigger your behaviour eliciting your bad habits. Don"t assume you"re stronger than you really are, always remember it is biologically improbable that you will succeed in resisting a temptation so protect yourself from being in a vulnerable situation.