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Habit and Reward: Good for Target, Good for Maintainers

Posted Feb 20 2012 12:59pm

By Barbara Berkeley, MD

Here's an article everyone should read.  In yesterday's New York Times magazine section, there was a long and eye-opening piece on the science of consumer behavior.  It seems that we buy things because it becomes our habit to do so.  Marketers rely on this habit and try to create it.  There are times in our lives when we are more susceptible to changing habits.  Target has found that pregnancy is one of those times, and it has gone to great lengths to identify pregnant women and to market to them.

Research with rats gives us insight into our own behavior.  It turns out that habits have three components:  a trigger, a behavior, and a reward.  The brain is actively engaged only during parts one and three.  What makes the habit a habit is that the behavior component, no matter how complex, is run automatically.  In other words, once the habit is triggered, it’s on autopilot. 

I’m sure that many of you will be horrified, as I was, by the extent of mind-control and manipulation that goes into modern marketing.  But if we leave that aside, the information on habit formation gives us some powerful tools for changing things we may want to alter in our own lives.  Changing habits is arguably the most vital task for maintainers.

So, I see two avenues to explore.

First:  Since habits are so automatic and ingrained, and since powerful rewards like the pleasure of eating junk and sweets have carved habits deep into our neuro-pathways, we must consciously avoid putting ourselves in situations that pull the trigger.  We’ve discussed this many times here, most recently in the last post.  As much as we’d all love to eat controlled amounts of the modern foods that everyone else is downing, we’ve mostly learned that we can’t.  We’ve also observed that when we do indulge, we are punished by a return of cravings.  This is addressed in the Times article:

Habits aren’t destiny — they can be ignored, changed or replaced. But it’s also true that once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making. So unless you deliberately fight a habit — unless you find new cues and rewards — the old pattern will unfold automatically.

“We’ve done experiments where we trained rats to run down a maze until it was a habit, and then we extinguished the habit by changing the placement of the reward,” Graybiel told me. “Then one day, we’ll put the reward in the old place and put in the rat and, by golly, the old habit will re-emerge right away. Habits never really disappear.”

 Habits never really disappear.  Words to live by.

Second:  Since habits are created all the time and since we know their components, why not create our own?  Rather than let someone else manipulate us with their chosen reward, how about deciding to reward ourselves? When I think about my own maintenance, I realize that I’ve set up many of these loops and that they are what keep me going.  Weighing myself every day is a reward in maintenance.  When I have to lose some weight because I’ve edged up a little, the scale is both my trigger to lose and my later reward.  I’ve learned to get pleasure out of the feeling of being hungry on days when I have to bring my weight down. How have I done that?  I associate that feeling with a pleasant day I’ve set up. I follow a pre-set reversal plan that I enjoy---usually to have a non-fat, skim mocha for both breakfast and lunch, a nutrition bar at 3 and to try to do some shopping if I can, which is fun and which distracts me. Then I have a huge salad and some protein for dinner.  I look forward to these days rather than dreading them.  The scale on the next morning’s weigh-in is a further reward.

I find that my Primarian eating style has become a reward in itself.  After forcing myself to stay away from starches and sugars for many years, I now truly enjoy eating chicken, fish, nuts, veggies and fruit with some low fat dairy mixed in.  I look forward to these meals and they have become their own reward.  Each day, the pleasure that comes from eating this simple good food ingrains the habit more deeply.  I have no doubt that if I started eating Mallomars again, I would immediately re-activate my chocolate cookie circuits.  Why do that?  I simply don’t want to.  

One of the toughest jobs I have is to convince non-exercising patients that fitness has rewards that are as strong as bread, chocolate cake and pasta.  I never used a muscle until I discovered aerobics in my late 30s.  Within a month or so, the music and the energy took over from the pain of using those veal-like structures for the first time.  Now, years later, I’ve found that I can create the same high from running to Michael Jackson’s “Jam” on a sunny day or playing a great set of doubles in tennis.  Nothing beats a high-energy, dance-y aerobics class though.  For me, the pinnacle is exercising when I am in the Bahamas: a place where dance, party and exercise all exist in one class at one time.  When setting up your new reward circuits, don’t forget to search for the bliss that is found in physical challenge.

The Times article makes the point that rewards can be subtle.  You are rewarded for backing out of your driveway successfully simply by the fact that you achieved that tricky maneuver.  A reward doesn’t always have to be a treat.  It can be a sense of balance, completion or satisfaction.  The trick with food is to eliminate the over the top rewards of drug-like sugars and starches.  It’s hard to compete with the hit of a drug to the pleasure centers, and these foods come way too close to that experience.  Don’t put them in competition with other rewards because lesser rewards will lose out.

In essence, the Times article leads to conclusions that are just the opposite of those in my last post ( Tied to the Mast ).  The two go well together because they demonstrate the two opposite faces of maintenance.  The first:  studious, focused avoidance of things that others find pleasurable.  The second:  the creation of a brand new world of habit and reward, based on one’s own rules…not those of the culture at large. Part Two completes Part One.

After all, there is no point in getting past the Sirens if you land in a grim place that no one would want to inhabit.  Make it beautiful and you will want to stay. 

Creativity is the basis of all art, even the art of maintenance.  


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