Posted by Jennifer (the RD) on January 28, 2012 (Re-posted from 1/9/12, when we were a new blog)

There probably isn’t anyone on the face of the earth that does not have any bad habits. I was reading an article that discussed a new study by USC psychologists (published in the journal Pesonality and Social Psychology Bulletin), that helps explain why habits are so hard to break. In an experiment, the USC psychologists gave some movie theatre customers buckets of popcorn. Some of the buckets contained freshly popped popcorn and others contained week old, stale kernels.At the end of the movie, researchers measured the amount of popcorn eaten and by whom. It seems that the people that did not usually eat popcorn when watching a movie ate much less stale popcorn. However, those that routinely munched on popcorn while watching a movie ate the same amount of popcorn whether it was stale or fresh. It was a habit. Sounds discouraging, doesn’t it? According to the study, the movie theatre acted as a strong environmental cue that triggered an automatic eating behavior.
So, this may be why it is so hard to stop eating those cookies before we go to bed, or why we just can’t add those extra 20 minutes to our exercise routine. According to the study, changing environmental cues that enforce bad habits may help to break them. For example, eating food with your non dominant hand may disrupt habitual eating. In the study mentioned above, asking moviegoers to eat with their non dominant hand seemed to cause people to pay attention to what they were eating and eat less stale popcorn. I can recall a time when I was struggling with my exercise routine. I wanted to add a little more to my weekly regimen, but for some reason, I was so programmed to exercise for a certain amount of time before work, I just could not do it. So, I decided to break routine, and add a 1 hour walk with my dog 3 times a week so both of us could get more exercise. It worked beautifully! The lead author of the USC study, David Neal, stated that “…will power and good intentions are not enough, and we need to trick our brains by controlling the environment instead.”

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