None of the participants, including the habitual popcorn eaters, cared much for the stale stuff, even though they were in a cinematic setting. Bottom line: Taking away even a small cue, like the setting or the hand used to eat the popcorn, overwhelmed the habit, apparently because the participants had to think about what they were doing.
Numerous other researchers have documented the strength of habits. Scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angles found that the best way to get into a regular exercise program is to "train the mind" first. The part of the brain that establishes a habit is packed in a small section at the base of the brain and billions of neurons located there respond quickly to repetition. So start today, do a little on a regular schedule, and soon it will become a habit, making exercise a routine part of the day.
"On average, people have more good habits than bad," Neal, who has since left USC to do research in a private company, said in a telephone interview. But bad habits can be particularly destructive, contributing to the current obesity crisis, he added.
That midnight snack, he added, may be nothing more than the result of snacking at midnight often enough that it becomes a habit. When the right time rolls around, it's time for a snack, even in the absence of hunger.
His formula is pretty simple. Put the cookie jar where you can't see it. Look only at the salad menu while in your favorite restaurant, but only if you don't have the habit of eating a great steak there every Friday night. And it isn't just a matter of willpower.
"Basically, it's not really a matter of setting the right goals or having enough will power," he said. "Those things are valuable, but they don't really get you over the line. The critical thing to focus on is the environment," where you can bring stimulus under control by ditching that dang cookie jar.
So Mary Poppins probably had it right: a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. But do that too often and the medicine will always taste like sugar. It will become a habit. You won't even have to think about it.