What can a story about heroin addiction among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam teach you about how to live better at home? A story heard on NPR this week offers a fascinating glimpse into history, the intricacies of human psychology, and how you can manipulate your environment to help you meet your goals.
Here's how the story goes: testing done on servicemen in Vietnam, as they were leaving the country, showed that 20 percent were addicted to heroin. This was especially disturbing to those back home because relapse rates for heroin addicts were known to be incredibly high — around 90 percent. A whole new government office was started: people were concerned that these soldiers, having developed an addiction under extremely stressful circumstances, would struggle with it their entire lives.
Only that wasn't what happened at all. The servicemen who were addicted were kept in Vietnam until they were clean, and then they returned to their normal lives. Government researcher Lee Robins, who followed the servicemen after they returned to the States, discovered that 95 percent of them never touched heroin again.
For a long time the results of Robbins' study were questioned, since they flew in the face of what people knew about heroin addiction up until that point, but new research about how our brains handle habitual behaviors has uncovered evidence that supports Robbins' findings.
Psychologists used to think that changing your behavior was all about wanting to change your behavior: wanting to get up earlier, eat healthier, exercise more. But, they discovered, these sorts of resolutions only work for things that you don't do all that often (like giving blood or donating to a charity); for habitual behaviors, like smoking or overeating, we tend to "outsource the control of the behavior to the environment."
What this means is that, even if you really want to do something, sometimes your behavior doesn't match up with your intentions, because your old behavior has become a habit, and subtle cues in your environment prompt you to keep doing the same thing. The example offered in the story is that of a smoker who, when confronted with the entrance to his office building where he smokes a cigarette every day, gets an urge to have a cigarette.
The way, then, to change the habitual behavior is not just to want to change: you can also give yourself a boost by somehow disrupting the environment where the behavior takes place, which will make the things that have become habits less habitual, forcing you to think about what you're actually doing. Of course most of us can't move to a completely separate country, but there are little ways you can 'disrupt your environment' and help yourself develop newer, better habits. Here are some ideas:
1. If you find yourself hitting the snooze button in the morning (this is a huge one for me), try sleeping on a different side of the bed, or in a different bedroom if that's an option for you. Even changing the alarm ring on your phone could help.
2. Move foods you're tempted to eat too much of into different cabinets, which will disrupt the process of getting up to get whatever it is and help you un-learn the habit.
3. If you're wanting to exercise more but always find yourself feeling lethargic and not in the mood at the end of the day, trying leaving the office in a different manner (different exit, stairs instead of elevator) to help re-charge your brain.
Have you found that little changes like these help you to break bad habits (or develop good ones)? We'd love to hear your experience.
You can read the full story about history, psychology and how to change bad habits at NPR.