Why Breaking Bad Habits is SO Hard

We don’t have as much self-control as we might think. From a finding which also covers the reason new year’s resolutions fail, researchers shed some light on the plight of those who battle with addiction. What really makes breaking bad habits so hard? Why don’t our bodies crave the good ones?

“We don’t have complete control over what we pay attention to,” said Susan M. Courtney, senior author of the study which was conducted by Johns Hopkins University neuroscientists. “We don’t realize our past experience biases our attention to certain things.”

Researchers proved that people’s brain flushes with dopamine when something associated with a past reward is sighted; even if there are no hopes for reward, or don’t realize they’re paying it any attention.

“I could choose healthy food or unhealthy food, but my attention keeps being drawn to fettuccini Alfredo,” said Courtney, the professor in JHU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “What we tend to look at, think about, and pay attention to is whatever we’ve done in the past that was rewarded.”

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From a computer screen filled with different colored objects, 20 participants were paid $1.50 for finding red objects and 25 cents for whoever locate the green ones. Surprisingly, with the same test in the following day when brain scans (positron emission tomography, or PET scans) were conducted; participants automatically focused only on a red object that appeared. But at this time, researchers no longer asked for any color neither was reward involved; at the sight of the previously rewarded ‘red’ which distracts them, brain scans show a particular part of their brain involved in attention was filled with dopamine (a brain chemical proven to be released when we receive rewards).

“What’s surprising here is people are not getting rewarded and not expecting a reward,” Courtney said. “There’s something about past reward association that’s still causing a dopamine release. That stimulus has become incorporated into the reward system.”

Dopamine is always at the highest level in those prone to addiction i.e. those easily distracted at the remembrance of past rewards, than in successful abstainers that find it easy to focus on the task at hand.

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Brian A. Anderson et al. The Role of Dopamine in Value-Based Attentional Orienting. Current Biology, February 2016 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.062

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