In the eating disorders training I put great emphasis on the simple need to change habits in order to help enable change in the relationship with food. This is because this relationship, which contains many subsidiary habits ( like how to binge, purge, buy food, where we eat and how we eat) is only part of a greater hierarchy of “being” habits which defines how you function in your personal life and your life with other peole.
Health psychologists are interested in habit change for obvious reasons: to assist people in breaking unhealthy habits while helping them adopt new ones. They call on a great number of theories about habit formation but no-one appears to have studied habits systematically as they are formed. NLP suggests that 20 repetitions of a behaviour are likely to make it stick. (Where did this come from?)
What all people seem to acknowledge is how hard it is to change habits. This is partly due to brain architecture, habits are laid down in neural pathways to fire automatically, giving rise to preferred ways of thinking, feeling and behaving in response to circumstances. The automatic firing of these neural networks frees up the brain to respond to more pressing and unexpected matters.
Habits are also hard to change because of the values associated with the performance of certain behaviours. If you are trying to get someone to refuse that extra piece of cake, it might conflict with that person's belief that restrained eaters are boring.
Habits have a great many components which must be taken into account. For example, giving up an unhelpful habit like nail-biting is not quite the same substituting one habit for a different one. I might add a habit rather than change one, for example if I decided to start eating apples for tea but continue to eat a bar of chocolate as well.
A researcher asked a group of 86 undergraduates to do a health related behaviour once a day for 84 days (like eat a piece of fruit with lunch or do 50 sit ups after morning coffee). She studied the patterns of habit formation. The findings were as follows:
• Early repetitions make it more likely that the behaviour becomes automatic.
• There comes a point where more repetitions don’t increase the chance this will become a habit. The best automaticity takes about 66 days but there are huge individual variations.
• More complex behaviours take much longer to form a habit.
• Missed days don’t seem to affect the chance of developing a new habit but “too many” missed days do have an effect.
What can we infer about making and breaking habits?
I don’t think we have learned very much. For one thing, the habit change was randomly suggested by the researcher and tells us nothing about the effect of each person's indivdual beliefs about the new habit or what is the mediating effect of self efficacy beliefs relating to the adapted behaviour.
So it’s back to basics. We have to help people become more flexible to promote health behaviour change. We still don’t know what it takes to make a difference.
With acknowledgement to ThePsychologist & the October issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology.