Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

Psychology News & Resources

Sticking To The Status Quo: Why Habits Are So Tough To Break

Read the original Research Paper HERE (PDF internal link)

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. @ Psychology Today (excerpted)

A new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms what many confused shoppers, dieters, and investors know first-hand: when a decision is difficult, we go with the status quo or choose to do nothing. [..

..] Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London created a computerized decision-making task. Participants viewed a series of visual tests that asked them to play a referee making a sports call (e.g., whether a tennis ball bounced in our out of bounds).

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Before each test, participants were told that one of the responses (in or out) was the “default” for this round. They were asked to hold down a key while they watched. If they continued to hold down the key, they were choosing the default. If they lifted their finger, they were choosing the non-default. Importantly, the default response (in or out) switched randomly between rounds, so that a participant’s response bias (to make a call in or out) would not be confused with their tendency to stick with the status quo.

The researchers were interested in two questions:

1) Does the difficulty of the decision influence the participants’ likelihood of choosing the default?

2) Is there a neural signature for choosing the default vs. overriding the status quo? [..

As the researchers].. predicted, participants were more likely to stick with the default when the decision was difficult. It didn’t matter whether the default was in or out. If they couldn’t make a confident choice, they essentially chose to do nothing. And as the researchers point out, this tendency led to more errors.

What was happening in the participants’ brains as they chose? The researchers observed an interesting pattern when participants went against the default in a difficult decision. There was increased activity in, and increased connectivity between, two regions: the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and an area of the midbrain called the subthalamic nucleus (STN). The PFC is well-known to be involved in decision-making and self-control. The STN is thought to be important for motivating action.

The researcher’s analyses couldn’t determine for sure what the relationship between the PFC and STN was, but the observations were consistent with the idea that the PFC was driving, or boosting, activity in the STN.

These brain analyses suggest that going against the default in difficult decisions requires some kind of extra motivation or confidence. Otherwise, the decider in our mind is puzzled, and the doer in our mind is paralyzed

Knowing this can help explain why changing habits can be so difficult. If you aren’t sure why you’re changing, don’t fully believe you’re making the right choice, or question whether what you’re doing will work, you’re likely to settle back on your automatic behaviors. That’s why self-efficacy-the belief that you can make a change and overcome obstacles-is one of the best predictors of successful change. The decider and the doer need a boost of confidence.

It also helps explain why we love formulaic diets, investment strategies, and other decision aids. Formulas feel scientific, tested, and promising. They also give us a new default. We can rely on the rules (no eating after 7 PM, automatically invest X% of your income in mutual funds twice a month) when we’re feeling overwhelmed. A new automatic makes change much easier.

So next time you’re trying to make a change, figure out what your current default is, and remind yourself exactly why it isn’t working. Then look for ways to change your default (clean out your fridge, set up direct deposit) so you don’t have to fight the old default as often. And feel free to be your own cheerleader when the going gets rough. Look for the first evidence (a pound lost here, a dwindling credit card statement there) that what you’re doing is paying off. The status quo is seductive, and we all need a little encouragement to lift our fingers off the keyboard..

Study cited:

Fleming, S.M., Thomas, C.L., & Dolan, R.J. Overcoming status quo bias in the human brain. PNAS. Published online before print March 15, 2010. doi:10.1073/pnas.0910380107

Read the original Research Paper HERE (PDF internal link)

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March 30, 2010 Posted by | Books, brain, Cognition, research | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Improve Self Control and Impulsivity Through Abstract Thinking

Read Original Research Paper HERE (Free PDF internal link)

[A] New study shows that self-control can be automatically, unconsciously bolstered by abstract thinking.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just spontaneously and automatically exercise self-control, without all that painful back-and-forth battle with ourselves?

Just automatically resist that cake and choose the apple; or suddenly find ourselves out jogging without resorting to self-blackmail […]

Unfortunately so often temptation wins. And experiments show that when we are run down from exercising self-discipline all day, we become even more likely to give in to temptation.

Apple or candy bar?

[Previous studies suggest ]that self-control can be increased by thinking abstractly about our goals. This suggests we should see our actions as just one part of a larger plan, rather than focusing on the details of what we’re doing. The power of abstract thinking may offer a way for us to increase our self-control without really trying.

But how does thinking abstractly about our goals increase our self-control? In a recent article published in Psychological Science, Fujita and Han (2009) wondered if our unconscious mind is somehow pitching in to help out. They used an implicit association test as a way of measuring people’s unconscious thoughts about eating either an apple or a tempting candy bar.

Before taking this test people were put into either an abstract or concrete mode of thinking. Participants were split into two groups with each asked to think about maintaining good personal relationships, but in different ways. One group thought about why we need to maintain good relationships (abstract, high-level) while the other focused on how we maintain good relationships (concrete, low-level).

As you can see, for the purposes of this experiment, the reason participants were thinking abstractly didn’t matter so much. That’s because when we think abstractly about one thing, we tend to carry on thinking in an abstract mode about anything else that’s put in front of us, including the choice between an apple and a candy bar.

Automatic, unconscious self-control

The results showed that, when participants were thinking concretely, they tended to unconsciously see candy bars in a positive light and apples in a negative light. But this was reversed when participants were thinking abstractly. Just as predicted, abstract thinking automatically made people unconsciously think of candy bars as the devil’s own food.

To back this up they asked participants in the two conditions whether they would like an apple or a candy bar, right now. They found that when participants were thinking in a concrete low-level way, they chose the apple over the candy bar only 50% of the time. But when they were thinking abstractly this percentage shot up to 76%. Not bad for such a simple manipulation.

So it seems you can bolster resistance to temptation by thinking abstractly about the goal you want to obtain because it causes your mind to automatically associate temptations with negativity. Hey presto, more self-control and thank you unconscious mind.

Why not try applying this to whatever you are finding difficult to achieve?

Read Original Research Paper HERE (Free PDF internal link)

Adapted from an article posted at PsyBlog 03/10

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March 21, 2010 Posted by | Cognition, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | , , , , | Leave a comment