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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Good Habits, Bad Habits

The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick

Wendy Wood

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Persistence and Change

Habit is, as it were, a second nature.


Every so often, my cousin goes on Facebook to proclaim that she’s going to change her life. In her case, that means losing weight. It always starts the same way: she has regrets, she weighs more than she wants, she has a bad back and the extra pounds are making it worse. Then she sums it up in language we can all appreciate. She says she feels stuck. She feels like she’s unable to change. Lastly, she asks for help from her social media friends.

The world of social media (or at least her small corner of it) is broadly encouraging: “You can do it! If anyone can, it’s you.”

“There’s nothing I know you can’t do.”

“You’re one of the strongest women I know.”

“This weight-loss thing will not defeat you.”

Her friends bolster her. They successfully play their parts in the sophisticated social process that my cousin is initiating: first, her commitments are shared with her peers, and therefore become stronger and more vivid for her. But there’s a second, less obvious step to it: she’s also raised the stakes of failing. Her public statements hold her accountable for succeeding. Compared with just a private resolution to lose some weight, her public performance makes disappointment costlier. That’s what gives the dramatic edge to these posts. She doesn’t just say she would like to lose some weight; she vows that this time she will make it happen. Her friends respond with advice appropriate for a hero starting her journey: “Never believe them when they say you can’t.” She isn’t going to just lose fifteen pounds; she’s going to start a new life. Her resolve is clear and strong, and she’s made that resolve public.

And yet … we all know where this is going.

Classical economics gives us a lens on my cousin’s dilemma. Homo economicus, or “the economic human,” refers to our supposedly immutable and rational self-interest, the kind that would make economic behavior as predictable as algebra. As good exemplars of Homo economicus, we are thought to be utility maximizers—essentially, we are expected to always be rationally in pursuit of beneficial goals. The notion of this excellent rational figure came into sharp focus about two hundred years ago, in the work of political theorist John Stuart Mill. But even back then, his idea attracted scorn and criticism. In fact, it was early critics of Mill’s overweening view of our collective rationality who coined the term Homo economicus, to caricature his analysis. Ever since, gradually, and in fits and starts, the field of economics has developed a more realistic and more labyrinthine understanding of human nature. Eventually, even the most fundamental tenets of our economics were amended in light of our stubborn irrationalities. Not even the godfather of modern economics was left alone. It may be true, as Adam Smith said, that we all act in “regard to [our] own interest,” but that interest can be defined with spectacular—that is, human—variety.

I couldn’t help but think of Homo economicus when I saw my cousin’s post. If she were a purely rational creature governed by clear intentions, then she could simply and quietly change her lifestyle. No announcement necessary.

How hard is it, really, to change ourselves?

Like most of us, my cousin intuitively knew the answer: it’s pretty hard.

So she came up with some proactive ways to commit to that change. She bound herself to her plans and raised the costs of failure. She went beyond simply choosing to change. She started to craft her own social environment into one that made it harder for her to not lose weight. This should have worked.1

It did. Two weeks after her first post, she updated: down two pounds. “That’s a great beginning.”

But then: silence.

A month later, she posted that she was still trying, but without much success. “No weight loss to tell you about yet.” And that was her last post for a while on the topic.

When I met up with her again six months later, she hadn’t lost any additional weight. In fact, the only change was that now she had an additional failure to feel bad about. A costly public one. The end result for her, as for so many people who try to change their behavior, is that it just didn’t happen. She had desire, she had determination, and she had some peer support. They’re supposed to be enough, but they’re not.

The beginning of a solution to this problem is to acknowledge that we aren’t fully rational. The reasons behind our actions can be obscure. The things that sustain us can be surprising. Scientists have only recently begun to unravel the multifaceted nature of our selves and to identify our resulting biases and preferences. With this understanding, we can never fully undo these influences, but we can account for them when we act. Our own behavior springs from some of the most mysterious, deeply hidden, and (until recently) unrecognized sources of irrationality.

What’s derailing my cousin’s attempts to change? What’s derailing all of us? The answer is that we don’t really understand what drives our behavior. The problem goes even deeper than that. We need to stop overestimating our rational selves and, instead, come to understand that we are made up of deeper parts, too. We can think of these other parts as whole other selves, just waiting to be recognized—and given the command to get to work.

Science is finally starting to reveal why we have been unable to change our own behavior. Better yet, it’s showing us how to take this new knowledge and formulate a plan to effect lasting change in our lives.

* * *

Perhaps you tried to save money by following a budget. Or you attempted to learn a new language through an online class. Maybe your goal was to get out more and meet new people. At the start, your intentions were strong, passionate, resolute. Over time, you couldn’t maintain that commitment. And the outcome you wanted just hasn’t happened.

This is a common enough human experience: we want to make a change, and we form strong intentions. Supposedly that’s all it takes. Just think about how univocal common wisdom is on this subject, from “She just didn’t want it enough” to “Are you giving it your best shot?” This facile reasoning begins in early childhood (“Reach for the stars!”) and doesn’t let up until the very end, that stage of life when many of us will (unfortunately) have to “fight” against diseases such as cancer. The ethos is that your willpower is everything. Self-change therefore becomes a kind of test of our personhood—or at least our conscious part. Nike’s famous slogan may have begun with some irony, but the resolute quality of the message—and our receptiveness—has instead made it into the secular commandment that it is today: Just Do It. The corollary is this: if we aren’t (just doing it, that is), then we must be just choosing not to.

I bet that’d be news to my cousin and to all of her friends. She clearly made a choice, and she clearly tried to make it happen. It just didn’t. Unfortunately, under these conditions, failure is especially disheartening. Comparison with more successful people becomes painful. It’s hard not to contrast our own failures to change with people who are highly successful at persisting in their commitments: professional athletes who train for hours every day; musicians who spend months preparing for a performance; successful writers who continually turn out page after page until they complete a project. We see these super-performers and can interpret their mysterious and enviable success only through the lens of willpower: they must be Just Doing It. But why, then, can’t we? Why do our life achievements look puny next to theirs?

We end up feeling small.

Copyright © 2019 by Wendy Wood