Habits are life's little shortcuts. They exist so that we don't have to think too hard about how to respond to the same old stimuli. Our mind makes connections between things and expects that these will continue to work for us. We call this leaning; and when the response become so ingrained that it happens without having to think about it, we call it a habit. Those that do not serve us well get labelled as bad habits. There are mind traps too, that we are born with or develop through conditioned behaviour. In this post I want to explore one of these, as well as habits in general, and the magic 50 hour rule.
Have you heard about anchoring? This is perhaps the most common of the many insidious mind traps that get to work on us when we make decisions. Our subconscious mind latches onto data that accompanies any moment in time. It might be relevant and therefore useful in decision-making, or irrelevant. And it gets tangled into our thinking process. Let me give you an example; one that deal with judicial sentencing or penalty.
We trust that legal professionals will reflect cause and effect in their judgements, relying on rational thought and precedent: the facts of the crime should result in a predictable penalty. However, in an experiment, a bunch of legal professionals were asked to think about sentencing parameters as they rolled dice and something concerning showed up.
Now, these are two unrelated tasks and should not interact, even though they occur within the same contextual moment. However, those who threw a high number went on later to choose a penalty at the highest end of possible options, despite the facts of the case. In contrast, those who threw a low number set a lower sentence. There is no sensible or rational explanation for this except that the mind was tricked into an anchoring bias which played out in the sentencing decision. Let's hope not too many judges go out and buy expensive cars before they mull over their next sentencing decisions!
Of course, there can be benefit in gathering many, seemingly irrelevant cues. These form the wallpaper for every state of mind and body, important in recreating memory. Intriguingly, they can even change us physically, winding back the clock to the way we were in that past moment. This might sound impossible, however Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard University, has built a professional career around discoveries in this area.
In her book, Counterclockwise: A Proven Way to Think Yourself Younger and Healthier, Langer documents how she placed an elderly group of individuals in a house-based environment that replicated one existing in their youth, back in the 1950s. Quickly, the frailty in these people fell away; confidence returned. The process of immersion used architecture, layout, fittings, and music from that earlier period, like a time-warp, and pulled them back into a time past when health and stamina were better. At the end of the week participants had laid aside walking aids, no longer stumbled, and showed a younger state of mind; in fact, many were even playing touch football in the yard.
For another astounding study that serves to illustrate that the information the mind pays attention to, even subconsciously, physically affects us, see here. This one shows how hotel cleaners who expected their work tasks to improve their physical health actually found this to be the case; even showing up improvements measured through blood tests.
As for habits, the brain grows around the link-up of information and the usual response we provide, kind of hard-wiring it into place. Undoing such conditioning, if that is what we want to do, appears best achieved by removing access to the cues or environment in which they occur (see the full paper here). Although the strategy can mean removing our self from certain environments we are used to frequenting; because the cue is embedded here, like the smell or sounds where we gamble, smoke, or compulsively behave in other ways. The alternative is to battle brain structure and chemistry with the kind of mental discipline few seem to have, coupled with constant vigilance. But there is good news.
The brain is plastic and will remould to support us, whether we are breaking or making a new positive habit. But it takes time. How much? Well, research shows that this amounts to 50 hours of use in this new link-forming state. And while this time can be achieved all in one block, more often we come at the task in chunks of time, for example an hour a day, or even in 30 minute sessions. This 50 hour rule maps out how much time it takes to fix brain changes in place. Perhaps it even explains why we take about a week (50 hours of wakeful time) to wind down after going on holidays.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb