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The Science Behind Breaking Bad Habits

Shannon Harvey

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon as I write this sentence. I’m feeling a little weary after spending my day delving into scientific papers. As I contemplate taking a short break away from my desk, I immediately feel an inner momentum pulling me towards the kitchen. I’m sure if a scientist had electrodes on my head right now they would see that the anticipation and reward centres of my brain light up like a Christmas tree because right now I’m thinking about chocolate.  

The thing about being a journalist who writes about the latest science exploring how our mind affects our health is that I also inevitably become acutely aware of all my not-so-healthy weaknesses. My afternoon chocolate habit is one I’d really like to break. When I last visited my dentist, he took one look at my mouth and said ‘I see you have a sweet tooth.’ The habit really needs to go.  

I’ve written previously about the best way to form healthy new habits, but what about breaking bad habits? When it comes to the spell they seem to cast over us, what does the latest research tell us about how we can break the trance?  

Researchers generally accept that a habit occurs when a situational cue triggers us to do something automatically. The more we repeat the behavior, the more automatic the behavior becomes. For example, you might have a habit of automatically washing your hands after using the toilet, or putting on a seatbelt after getting into the car. These cues can be so powerful that habits may actually dominate over your intention. Even when you’re given an opportunity to break a habit, you may continue to behave exactly as you have done previously. In one fascinating study people with a habit of eating popcorn at the cinema did so even if the popcorn was stale.  

Given that habits are so inextricably tied to an environmental cue, it’s only natural to think that the obvious habit breaking solution is to remove the cue. For example you might walk a different route to work and therefore avoid the sweet smells of your favourite bakery that call to you each morning. While some research has shown this can be effective, unfortunately life isn’t always this simple, especially when the habit is more complex than eating a delicious almond croissant each day.  

Another approach might be to try and replace the behaviour with a different one when you come across the cue. So for instance when your 3PM energy slump hits, instead of reaching for a piece of chocolate, you replace it with an apple. Some research has shown this to be effective. Unfortunately this takes an enormous amount of self-control and research shows that when we’re tired and stressed, our willpower is one of the first things to go offline.  

Lets look at the issue of smoking, which is the leading cause of preventable death in the world. Although over 70 percent of smokers want to quit, fewer than 5 percent actually achieve their goal. Smoking is particularly complex because it is both a physical addiction and a psychological habit. Unfortunately many of the current approaches have only modest success, with 6–12 month abstinence rates of 20-30 percent. It’s likely this is because smoking triggers are ever present and avoiding them in the real world is difficult.  

I’ll never forget a friend of mine who wanted to quit smoking telling me that a series of very disturbing anti cancer advertisements which ran on Australian television actually made her want a cigarette. As a non-smoker I couldn’t understand it, but it turns out this was a common experience among smokers at the time. Rather than turning smokers off, the ads were just another cue triggering the habit. When even the ads designed to help them quit are working against them, what chance do smokers have?  

Fortunately a pioneering neuroscientist is on the case. Judson Brewer is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine at University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, where he is Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness. He dedicates his time to investigating the neural mechanisms of habit and addiction and how mindfulness can help people overcome them. In 2011 he demonstrated that mindfulness training was twice as good as a gold standard program at helping people to quit.  

Brewer’s mindfulness program is unique because it actually encourages people to smoke. By paying attention to their cravings and the act of smoking, they begin to clearly see it for what it is. As he explains in his recent TED talk, one participant in the program discovered that mindful smoking “smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck.”  

Mindfulness programs like this one are also proving to be a powerful tool in breaking the spell of other addictions. A 2014 review found that mindfulness-based interventions were associated with reduced consumption of substances of misuse including alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, and opiates.   Brewer is now turning his attention to two key areas: uncovering the brain mechanisms that might help explain the success of mindfulness in breaking a habit, and also delivering the programs to a broader population. He’s developed an app called Craving To Quit, which delivers the 21-day mindfulness program to your mobile device and is also working on another app called Eat Right: NOW! to help people develop healthy eating habits, which is due to be released early this year.  

As for my own 3PM habit, I’ve found that practicing mindfulness does have one powerful effect. I can’t eat poor quality chocolate anymore. It tastes like utter crap. While this has significantly reduced how much chocolate I eat, it hasn’t helped my bank balance. My next trick will be to go back to step 1 in the breaking the habit loop and work on removing the cue. If I don’t have chocolate to eat, then maybe I won’t be triggered to eat it. I’ll let you know how this turns out.  

Here’s Judson Brewers TED Talk for those wanting to dive a littler deeper.  

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