By the end of January, many Singaporeans will be experiencing déjà vu – New Year’s Resolutions broken and dashed, just like this time last year, and particularly with Chinese New Year round the corner.
But as rates of obesity increase – over 10% of Singaporeans are now classified as obese – and fitness levels decline, what can individuals and companies do to ensure that attempts to effect positive behaviour change (eat healthier, keep fitter and stay happier) have a much higher chance of succeeding?
The good news is that recent insights from psychology and neuroscience (the study of the brain) are now revealing how habits are formed, why they are so hard to break and vitally, how we can fool our brains into replacing bad habits with good ones.
The key reason why old habits are so difficult to break and new ones hard to form is that our brains are essentially lazy and don’t like change.
Once the brain has learned a particular behavioural pattern, particularly those associated with a reward (e.g. those cookies you chomp at 10am, that glass of wine when you get home from work), the behaviour becomes pretty much involuntary.
After all, as far as your brain is concerned, it is rewarded for carrying out the same behaviour each time – so why change? And although we are almost always conscious of our bad habits, we typically allow them to continue despite our best efforts to stop.
But psychologists now know that habits are often involuntarily triggered by specific environmental cues such as the time of day that the habit takes place and sight of visual cues associated with the habit, as well as certain internal physiological triggers (e.g. feeling hungry for cookies at 10am, increases in stress hormones at certain points of the day that prompt the reaching for cigarettes, alcohol or high fat foods).
Removing your exposure to these cues is the first step in reducing the occurrence of bad habits. Another secret is to replace the learned behaviour with another that is equally fun or rewarding.
For example, to avoid the 6pm drink in the bar, stay away from venues or locations associated with alcohol, and make an appointment to play a team sport at that time instead.
Timing seems to be critical – to break the cycle of bad habits at specific times of the day, the alternative behaviour needs to be performed at that exact time.
What about switching to healthy eating patterns? If you know that you’re vulnerable to temptations from hunger pangs at 10am, make sure that at 9.30am, you’re tucking into a vast bowl of salad or fruit – it will tide you over that 10am watershed, and keep you sated until lunchtime.
So the best remedy for bad behavioural patterns is to replace them with good ones that will, over time, also become learned and involuntary.
Sure, it won’t be easy for the first few days or weeks, but as anyone who has started at the gym after New Year will tell you, the most important factor is turning up, even if you only spend 5 minutes on each piece of equipment.
During these visits, your brain is subconsciously learning to perform a new behaviour and will begin to forget the old one.
Another determinant of success is making the new behaviour fun.
For example, de-stress with massage rather than cigarettes or alcohol, or replace exercises that feel like a chore with a team sport like dragon boating!
Psychologists in Sweden found that by making it fun to exit the underground station via the stairs rather than the escalator (by turning each step into an audible piano note – (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lXh2n0aPyw), 66% of people switched to taking the stairs.
The “Fun Theory” greatly facilitates positive behaviour change by ensuring that the brain associates the new behaviour with a rewarding experience.
Supermarkets and brand owners too can help consumers make positive changes to their diet and behaviour.
Changing the layout of a supermarket so that highly visible and colourful healthy foods are positioned at the entrance or exit will increase their selection and providing free samples to customers to experience the product in-store will help the brain associate the product with the positive feelings related to receiving a gift.
Of course, there are many different habits, each associated with a specific set of associated rewards that need to be tackled in different ways. The solution to changing bad habits is within everyone’s grasp, because we can now identify the cues that trigger bad habits and we can then devise goals that will replace them with positive behaviours.
As we learn more about the human brain, what makes us tick, and what causes us to behave the way we do, we will all benefit from insights that will help us all to take much greater control over our own behaviour.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Gemma Calvert is Professor of Marketing at Nanyang Business School, and Director for Research & Development at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight, NTU Singapore. A pioneer of neuromarketing, she helps companies to break into Asian emerging markets through deeper understanding of Asian consumers.