You Can't Teach a Human New Tricks

But I have a bunch of studies sitting on my desk that hammer away at a common theme. It's not just who we are that matters. It's also who we spend our time with. One study maintains that siblings matter more than parents. If our older brothers and sisters have bad habits, we will be much more likely to follow in their footsteps.

Abby Fagan, a University of Washington sociologist, found that young people whose older brothers or sisters smoked and drank were more than twice as likely to smoke and drink than they would be if their older siblings abstained.

But parental influence does matter. Joan Tucker of the RAND Corporation found that teenage girls were more likely to quit smoking later on if their parents had disapproved of their earlier behavior. She says it was easier for the girls to stop than the boys.

But it's hard to escape a fundamental fact of human behavior. Sometimes, we don't change because underneath it all, we really don't want to. We cultivated some of our habits because they gave us pleasure, and we keep them, even if much of the pleasure diminished long ago.

None of that, of course, means we can't mend our ways. It just suggests that, as most of us know, it's hard. Those well meaning but simple slogans that pop up in anti-smoking ads may not be all that helpful. It's possible to change a bad habit, but it will take time, and persistence.

Numerous studies indicate you've got to replace a bad habit with a better one. When you think you need a drink, take a walk instead. And do it every night for at least 30 days, according to one study. Then see how much you think you need that drink.

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