All my life I’ve been told that if I want to change a negative behaviour I need to adjust my habits. I’ve been told it takes 21 days to install a new habit, and that repetition is the most powerful way to make these changes stick.

Now scientists are telling us, that attempting to change habits is not only ineffective, it goes against our natural programming. Psychiatrists, including Dr. Judson Brewer, undertook studies on how to effectively change behaviours. It was assumed by many that the findings would reveal new and innovative ways to speed up habitual training. However, Brewer and his team discovered that human beings have evolved, and no longer respond to Pavlovian stimulus – Pavlov of course famously trained his dogs to feel hungry when a bell sounded. Brewer found that when trying to change behaviour, our inherent habits are generally too entrenched to make any meaningful change. A hypotheses that can easily be proven by giving a cigarette to someone who is trying to quit.

What Brewer’s team discovered however is forming the basis of research that will potentially change the way we see our own negative behaviours. The magic cure?


Findings showed that trying to force behavioural change through habitual adjustment, statistically resulted in a very low success rate. In other words, the existing habit almost always won. However, when dealing with a negative habit such as smoking, psychiatrists asked the smoker to get curious about the habit. They asked them to describe the smell, the texture, how they felt before and after a cigarette and in so doing, they engaged more of their brain than just the part that controls animalistic tendencies. The results were profound. Quitting became easier, and a choice rather than a forced change. What is truly interesting about this, is the objective going into the treatment – the psychiatrists weren’t trying to change anything, they were simply asking the subject to think more about what they were doing, not a negative or positive way – just to be honest with themselves.

I’ve tried this myself over the last week with some minor habits, and it’s incredibly confronting. It also made me realise how much I run on autopilot, despite how proactive I consider myself to be. The study also brings to light the importance of reducing stress and getting a good night’s sleep, as high stress and sleep deprivation result in reduced cognitive abilities and so reduced curiosity. Meditation for me has always been a powerful tool, and has assisted me in managing my stress, and unbeknownst to me until recently, increasing my ability to be curious.

If you’d like to learn more, Dr Johnson Brewer has a few TED talks online or Google will yield plenty of results from other researchers.