Opinion

opinion

Control yourself by monitoring your bad habits

ELEANOR BORELLI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

YOU’VE PROBABLY tried exercise. Maybe you’ve given Atkins a shot or done time on Weight Watchers. But, even if you’ve tried a thousand ways to drop pounds, I doubt you have tried this one: the Other Hand Diet.

The approach is simple. If you are right handed, then only use your left hand to eat. Your right hand must stay down at your side. (If you are left handed, of course, then only eat with your right.)

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I can’t promise that you’ll become leaner and healthier on the Other Hand Diet. It’s never been tested as a diet. But it helped people eat less in a recent scientific study, and the idea behind it could help you break all kinds of bad habits.

The research suggests that part of the battle against habits is breaking their “automaticity,’’ the way we perform regular tasks without giving them much thought. Eating with the other hand, for example, forces us to pay attention to what we are reaching for. And so, if New Year’s resolutions are on your mind, today is a good day to reflect on the many ways that you live robotically. What are the unthinking sequences in your life that lead to things you’d like to change?

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The authors give their paper a serious title - “The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict with Motives?’’ Really, though, it is a darkly comedic look at just how pathetic we can be when a bucket of popcorn is dropped in our lap.

Co-author Wendy Wood, a professor at the University of Southern California, explained that her team wanted to understand the conflict between patterns of behavior and what we actually want.

The habit they chose to look at was eating popcorn at a movie. For the experiment, they set up shop at a campus screening and recruited people, some of whom were habitual cinema popcorn eaters, some not. They had two batches of popcorn ready to go, one freshly popped, and one stale (and “nasty,’’ Wood said). Then, on the way out, they measured how much popcorn folks ate.

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For those without a strong habit, the fresh popcorn was a much bigger hit than the days-old, spongy stuff. But the strong-habit crowd ate them both with equal vigor. As the study’s authors put it: “Habitual popcorn eaters at a cinema were minimally influenced by their hunger or how much they liked the food.’’

And this is the perfect metaphor for all our bad habits: We eat popcorn, not because it’s good, but because it’s just what we always do.

The experiment had another twist, though. The researchers asked half the people to eat with their dominant hand, and half to use their other hand. When people ate with their other hands, the habitual eaters were suddenly able to discriminate the good popcorn from the bad. They ate less of the stale stuff; the automaticity was broken.

Consider how strange this is. We think we eat food because we are hungry, or because the food is tasty. But another reason we eat is the sheer weight of the past.

Partly the work serves as a reminder of the power of context. Scholars of bad habits have long known that returning to a particular context - the movie theater, in front of the television, with friends at a bar - can draw people into old patterns. If you don’t like what you end up doing in a particular situation, the safest thing to do is not go there in the first place.

But there is another tool at your disposal: targeting automaticity. Of course, doing things automatically is essential. We can’t be mindful of every decision we make, every minute of the day. It’s too exhausting.

What we can do, though, is look for ways to become more mindful of our bad habits, and find ways of forming new and positive ones, so that our inner robot leads us to the gym or an evening stroll, not a bucket of buttered popcorn that we won’t even enjoy that much.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @garethideas.com.
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