Piece of Mind #1 : The Neuroscience of Habits

With the rise of social media, and the emergence of documentaries such as Social Dilemma, we all become aware of the neurological mechanisms involved with technology.

While we do not know the long term effect, we start to understand how technology manages to keep us engaged, yet almost addicted. In that context, you probably heard about Dopamine : a chemical produced by our brains that plays a key role in motivating behavior, and the formation of Habits.

WHAT IS A HABIT ?

To fully understand Dopamine we have to understand how our brain works.

In a nutshell, our brain consumes more than 20% of the energy in the body, even though it represents only 2% of the total weight. And to maximize its efficiency the brain is always looking for HABITS.

Habits, at the brain level, are actions that do not require the brain to process too much information/energy. When the Brain identifies patterns/behaviors it starts to create new neural pathways, so the information travels faster, and requires less energy.

The more we do such behaviors, the less energy it will require. Think about driving a car, at first it requires a lot of attention and energy. But the more you drive the easier it becomes, as the brain wires pathways that will make the actions easier.

This is how habits are made, and why it is so hard to break them once set.

WHAT IS A REWARD LOOP ?

Because the brain is inclined to create habits, it needs to foster repeat actions to do so. This is where REWARD comes into play. In order to motivate actions, dopamine is released to reward specific behaviors, so we are motivated to repeat them.

The more dopamine is released the more likely you will redo these actions, leading at some point to habits. However recent studies show that such response is not triggered by the reward itself but by the “reward prediction error”, meaning the difference of the expected reward versus the actual one.

In other terms, if you know exactly what the reward is going to be, you will release less dopamine and get less excited over time.

This is what tech companies or books such as Hooked mean by “variable reward”, so the dopamine release gets bigger, and remains high over time.

SO WHAT ?

Biologically, Dopamine exists for very specific reasons, most of them related to our survival as a species : searching, hunting, eating, having sex. But in the last 20 years it has been leveraged by Tech Companies to hack our brains :

  • The constant discovery of new and unexpected content maximize the release of Dopamine.
  • The more we use them, the more we wire our brain and create habits.

And this works great …

According to GlobalWebIndex, millennials are spending 2h30 on social media daily (for a total of 5h spent on their smartphone, daily).

So, Social media have leveraged these mechanisms for more than a decade now, and it worked. So why not tapping into these mechanisms for our own good, and setting positive habits.

THE HABITS FORMULA

BJ FOGG, founder and director of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab (now named Behavior Design Lab), has been working on reward Loop, dopamine release and habits forming for two decades now.

His work has been influential in the tech scene. For instance Instagram was founded by FOGG’s students, who leveraged his work, so they can create the App we all know.

According to FOGG, a habit is a set of repeated behaviors, according to the following model:

B = M x A x T

B: Behavior | M: Motivation | A: Ability | T: Trigger

THE “TINY HABITS” MODEL

FOGG’s entire work was based on the fact that motivation decreases overtime, so we need to constantly repeat tiny actions that have the right level of difficulties, in order to keep us engaged.

He named this theory TINY HABITS. In a nutshell, to succeed in setting a habit, one need to :

1. Find and leverage existing behaviors, so it helps trigger new behaviors by stacking them right after.

2. Adapt actions to ability (this is where the “tiny” comes from):

  • Too hard, it will be too painful and you will stop.
  • Too easy, you will get bored and you will stop.

3. Celebrate every (tiny) success, to release dopamine, and close the reward loop.

Let’s take an example, to make it more concrete.

Say you want to start journaling : every evening you’d like to take 5 minutes to write down 3 things that happened during the day for which you are grateful.

One method would be to start doing it and simply do your best to stick to it. Easy, no? But for those who already tried … it does not work.

A “Tiny Habit” way to do it would be the following:

  • First you must find the trigger; something you already do on a regular basis. In that case it could be when you set the alarm clock for the next morning.
  • Then you will start small … I mean very small. Say something like : “I am grateful for my day”. That’s it. Keep it simple and seamless. The objective is to do it every single day.
  • And you will celebrate each time ! Cheer yourself for doing it and setting this new habits (=Dopamine)
  • After a week you can increase “the difficulty” . Start reminding yourself more specific things for which you are grateful.
  • After two or three weeks, set the full behavior, and write down 3 things in a notebook.

THE MOTIVATION FACTOR

But what if you really struggle with Motivation? FOGG was assuming motivation decreases overtime.

But is there a way to remain highly motivated?

In this field of psychology, multiple methods have been proven being beneficial to increase motivation. Here are the most powerful ones.

1. Pre-Commitment : as theorized by social scientist Jon Elster, who developed its theory of pre-commitment (self-binding) in 1979, this method consists in pre-committing yourself to do something.

Ex: You book your personal trainer for a 6am workout, which “forces” you to wake up at 5.30am, since you pre-committed yourself to this workout

2. Loss Aversion : also called prospect theory, it was developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979, and finds its application initially in behavioral economics. It stands that “losses weigh twice more as gains’’. The pain from losing $1,000 could only be compensated by the pleasure of earning $2,000.

Ex: In our case, loss aversion means that if you paid your personal trainer in advance, you increase the motivation to attend the class, since cancelation will lead to losing your payment.

3. Accountability : as the name suggests, it encourages people to follow a particular course of action, as they are held accountable by a third party to report on their progress/actions.

Ex: keeping with our example. The personal trainer — by design — is the accountability agent. You follow instructions and report on your performance. With a personal trainer you cannot stop your workout halfway to the end.

4. Peer Pressure: introduced by social psychologist, Wendy Treynor, the peer pressure process works in the following way: “One’s state of harmony is disrupted when faced with the threat of external conflict (social rejection) for failing to conform to a group standard. Meaning that you fill more at ease when you fit in your immediate group.

Ex: In our current example, depending on how hard people surrounding you are training, you will be more motivated to push yourself up.

WHAT’S NEXT?

All these mechanisms have been proven to be pretty powerful. However, people tend not to use them to set personal goals/habits; hoping that their initial motivation alone will suffice.

But we are talking about neuroscience here (!) and it takes time for our biology to wire these new pathways through what is called neuro-plasticity (we’ll dedicate a newsletter on that soon).

Actually, According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit with -on average- 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.

Now, you know about these science-backed tools, I hope you could try and apply them for your everyday life, and enjoy the process … because this is all that matters.

Indigo is a Venture Lab dedicated to Mental Health and Inner Transformation. www.labindigo/com