To overcome these problems, Wendy Wood and David T. Neal argued that the key is changing people’s habits in order to achieve meaningful and lasting change. In their recent Behavioral Science & Policy article, Wood and Neal reviewed the literature on forming and breaking habits to inform policymakers on potential strategies for long-lasting health impacts. They suggested that because people often struggle to delay gratification, a common explanation for when interventions fail to produce persistent change is that individuals lack the willpower to adopt healthy behaviors. However, the researchers found a striking pattern in efforts to change tobacco smoking behaviors that breaks this trend: The most effective interventions changed people’s habits instead of requiring constant impulse control. That is, when a behavioral modification affected a person’s involuntary activity, the new behavior was more likely to stick than when an individual vigilantly monitored a particular desire.
The researchers suggested that changing health behavior through people’s habits takes on two forms: creating new habits and breaking old ones. When creating new habits (more technically, “context-response associations”), the process must include repetition, context cues, and random rewards. Although there are not many interventions that incorporate all three parts, the researchers cited an example of a weight loss program where participants developed new routines, made changes to their environments to trigger new behaviors, and delivered immediate rewards for positive weight loss behaviors. This intervention showed persistent effects well after the treatment period. On average, the group with the habit-change treatment lost about five additional pounds three months after the treatment period, while the control group gained back about five pounds. (See Figure 2.)