You Can't Teach a Human New Tricks

ByABC News

Nov. 15, 2006 — -- Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better.

Yeah, right.

That old bromide doesn't hold up today, and in fact it never did. We are creatures of habit, the unspoken rules that govern our behavior.

Repetition has made us what we are, both for the good and the bad, and those comfortable old rules are so hard to break that we seldom change our ways.

Even when we know some of our habits can be deadly, we find it hard to change. Scientists from many disciplines have looked at why we continue to do things we know are harmful, and they've come up with various reasons, most of which are obvious to anyone who has taken the plunge into the abyss of self improvement.

One recent study shows the near universal affliction of some bad habits on specific communities, and the inability of the people to do much about it.

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada studied residents of two aboriginal communities in the far north. They found that most ranked lifestyle habits as far more dangerous than such things as pollution. Most ranked cigarette smoking, for example, as "very dangerous."

And nearly everyone in both communities ranked risks associated with alcohol as "very dangerous."

Those findings led Cindy Jardine, an assistant professor of rural sociology, to conclude that it doesn't do a lot of good to tell people that something is bad. Chances are they already know that.

But why can't they change?

Why, to follow her research a step further, does alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking continue to plague the natives of villages in the far north, if they already know it's bad? Why, for that matter, do those habits continue to persist in most sociological settings, among the rich as well as the poor?

One obvious explanation is that cigarettes and alcohol are chemically addictive. But volumes of research point to more complex reasons.

According to researchers at several universities, reported in the journal Psychological Science, bad habits (as well as the good habits) become automatic, learned behaviors.

We do it enough, like eating too much, and pretty soon we eat too much because we eat too much. It's that simple. Similarly, some people exercise every day because they exercise every day.

Our habits help define who we are, allowing us to go through the day without thinking about everything we have to do. Good habits help us stay the course. We don't have to constantly look at the speedometer to keep from driving too fast. But we may have a little too much to drink that evening because that's what we do in the evening.

And when we try to change those habits, we can think of a million reasons to keep them, or at least postpone our reformation.

An old friend who had struggled with alcohol addiction told me years ago that even when he tried to stop, he could always think of a reason why he deserved just one more drink. It had been a bad day, so he needed a break. It had been a good day, so he needed a little reward. There was always a reason for just one more snort.

The study published in Psychological Science suggested that it's possible to change a bad habit by learning something new. But that requires control, and a constant effort, whereas past habits are relatively automatic. So throw in a little stress, like a bad day at the office, and the old habit takes over.

The study also concluded that as we get older, it really is harder to "learn new tricks," and we become even more set in our habits.

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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