Priming Your Brain for Behavior Change

 If you want to reach an important health goal like consistently eating healthier or dramatically reducing the risk of a heart attack, it’s the small, incremental changes over time that matter the most for success.

The “all or nothing” behavior change approach usually fails: about 80% of New Year’s resolutions come undone by the middle of January, according to this study.

The reason for this lack of follow through on personal resolutions is based on how our brains have evolved: the human brain simply isn’t wired for quick, dramatic changes in long term behavior patterns.

Switching Between Exploration & Exploiting Behavior

We are, however, wired for periods of trying out new ideas and concepts, alternating with periods of doing comfortable and familiar routines. It’s a well understood concept in cognitive neuroscience called Exploration & Exploitation:

Most of the time, we’re in “Exploit” mode: following very familiar routines (good and bad), with known rewards (good and bad), that also don’t take too much think time.

However, a little awareness can open up new possibilities that offer greater rewards, switching us into “Explore” mode. Exploration takes more time than exploiting what is already known, but the trade-off can be worth it, especially when new knowledge can lead to larger rewards.

Kickstart Behavior Change With the Little Things

A recent article in Nature Human Behavior points to how a small shift in choices can trigger other new choices. Using anonymized shopping data from 280,000 shoppers in a supermarket chain, researchers noticed that when a shopper chose a new brand of detergent, it was typically predictive of that shopper then trying out other new items.

In other words, you can prime your brain for important behavior change by starting with a couple new (but mundane) choices.

As an example: If you usually have a high sugar & high calorie breakfast, try oatmeal with a few blueberries instead. One new choice might lead to even better choices.

Curious about your brain? Take the Healthy Brain Test, and learn how diet choices, exercise, and social connections can affect your brain health.