[Paleopsych] BH: Why Bad Habits Persist

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Why Bad Habits Persist

Automatic behaviors undermine good intentions

    Betterhumans Staff
    11/16/2004 4:18 PM

    Breaking up is hard to do: Quitting smoking and other bad habits,
    suggests new research, is difficult in part because maintaining new
    behaviors takes memory control eroded by such things as stress and

    Bad habits beat good intentions because learning new habits requires
    memory control while past behavior becomes automatic.

    US psychologists including [1]Cindy Lustig of the [2]University of
    Michigan in Ann Arbor have shown that fulfilling good intentions is
    undermined by previously learned habits, which remain strong in more
    automatic, unconscious forms of [3]memory.

    "People usually think of memories as fading as time goes by. In
    addition, learning new information often interferes with the retrieval
    of older memories," the researchers write. "At the same time, old
    habits are infamous for their ability to return. Both the retroactive
    interference caused by new learning and the spontaneous recovery of
    old information after a delay have been observed at least since the
    classic experiments of Pavlov, but how they occur remains a mystery."

    Cue the cup

    The researchers set out to determine how time affects the controlled
    retrieval of old memories and their accessibility.

    Participants first learned one way of responding to a cue word and
    later learned another. For example, if they first learned to associate
    "coffee" with "cup," they then learned to associate "coffee" with

    The participants were given memory tests immediately after learning
    the words and the day after. Some were told to control their memory
    and give the first response ("cup") while others were told to give
    whatever response came automatically to mind.

    The group controlling their responses did well at giving the first
    response on both days.

    For the group giving their response automatically, however, the new
    word association faded fast. On the first day, their answers were
    evenly split, but on the second they gave the first response more
    often than the second. The memory of the second response faded while
    the memory of the first response grew stronger than it had been on the
    first day.

    Stress and aging

    The researchers say that the findings might help explain why both
    stress and aging can cause people to return to bad habits.

    Stress weakens control over memory and behavior, making habitual
    responses more influential. Aging can erode aspects of memory control
    while leaving automatic, learned behavior unharmed. The latter might
    explain why it's more difficult for older adults to learn and maintain
    new behaviors.

    Overall, the findings suggest that while an old habit's strength may
    fade over time, the memory of it will still be stronger than good
    intentions that follow.

    The research is reported in the journal [4]Psychological Science.


    1. http://www.lsa.umich.edu/psych/people/directory/profiles/faculty/?uniquename=clustig
    2. http://www.umich.edu/
    3. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memory
    4. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/index.cfm?journal=ps&content=ps/home

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