Hopkins Study Explains Why It’s Hard to Break Bad Habits

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If you’ve already broken your New Year’s resolution to quit smoking/sugar/TV, don’t worry — it’s not your fault! It’s your brain’s fault!

That’s my (very loose) interpretation of the results of a Johns Hopkins neuroscience study, which found that when people see something they associate with a past experience of pleasure (a beer, a candy bar, an ex), their brain is temporarily flooded with dopamine–even if they insist they don’t expect a reward and that they’re not paying attention to the past pleasure object. In other words, despite our best efforts at self-control, our attention is drawn to things we associate with a previous pleasant experience.

Here’s how the Hopkins Hub describes the study process:

[R]esearchers asked 20 participants to find red and green objects on a computer screen filled with different colored objects. Participants got $1.50 for finding red objects and 25 cents for finding green ones. The next day, while brain scans (positron emission tomography, or PET scans) were conducted, researchers asked participants to find certain shapes on the screen. Color no longer mattered and there was no reward involved. But when a red object appeared, participants automatically focused on it and a particular part of their brain involved in attention filled with dopamine, a brain chemical proven to be released when we receive rewards.

People in the study found the shapes they were looking for; they were just slower doing it. The previously rewarded “red” distracted them.

“We don’t have complete control over what we pay attention to,” said study author Susan M. Courtney, of Hopkins’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “We don’t realize our past experience biases our attention to certain things.”

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