[Paleopsych] BH: Why Bad Habits Persist
checker at panix.com
Fri Jan 21 15:07:57 UTC 2005
Why Bad Habits Persist
Automatic behaviors undermine good intentions
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 Cindy Lustig of the 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 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
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
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 Psychological Science.
More information about the paleopsych