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Changing behaviour

Bringing about changes in modifiable behavioural risk factors is very difficult.

From a behavioural science perspective one reason why health messages are not making an impact is the habitual nature of human behaviour. A significant barrier to changing behavior is people’s pre-existing personal and lifestyle habits that render them resistant to change.

Although a minority of people will heed health advice and change their behaviour because it is good for them, others will have the intention to change, and understand the need to change but will nonetheless persist with their pre-existing behaviours.

This is not due to a lack of knowledge; most of us know what is healthy and what isn’t. And if we are not certain, there is an abundance of information available at the click of a button. So why do we find it difficult to make these changes even though we understand their importance?


Habit machines

Think about what you have done so far today. How often were you actually thinking about what you were doing? Were you mainly doing what you’ve done before? How much was habit? We aren’t in control of ourselves as much as we’d like to be. Most of the time we are not in control at all.[1]


We all have many habits. Some are useful and good for us, like washing our hands, brushing our teeth and putting on seat belts. Others aren’t so good, like repeatedly checking our phones, or eating unhealthy snacks while we watch tv. So how does our brain create these habits?


Habits are generally formed by repeating a behaviour until it has become more or less automatic.[2] By repeating behaviour in a consistent context, we forge a direct link in memory between the context and response.[3] Therefore, we learn to associate the behaviour triggered by that setting; this process is termed ‘context-dependent repetition’. This reinforces a mental context–behaviour association, such that alternative options become less accessible in memory.[4] Eventually, the mere perception of the context automatically triggers the responding behaviour.[5],[6]

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© 2020 by Onmi B.V.

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