New Year's resolutions? Brain can sabotage success

Associated Press | 1/5/2011, 6:11 a.m.

A movement to pay people for behavior changes may exploit that connection, as some companies offer employees outright payments or insurance rebates for adopting better habits.

It' not clear yet just how well a financial incentive substitutes as a reward. In one experiment, paying smokers at General Electric up to $750 to kick the habit nearly tripled the number who did, says Dr. Kevin Volpp, who directs the Center for Health Incentives at the University of Pennsylvania.

A similar study that dangled dollars for weight loss found no difference - and environmental temptation might help explain the differing results.

It’s getting hard to smoke in public but “every time you walk down the street, there’s lots of sources of high-calorie, tasty, low-cost food,” Volpp says.

However paying for behavior plays out, researchers say there are some steps that may help counter your brain’s hold on bad habits:

-Repeat, repeat, repeat the new behavior -- the same routine at the same time of day. Resolved to exercise? Doing it at the same time of the morning, rather than fitting it in haphazardly, makes the striatum recognize the habit so eventually, “if you don’t do it, you feel awful,” says Volkow the neuroscientist, who’s also a passionate runner.

- Exercise itself raises dopamine levels, so eventually your brain will get a feel-good hit even if your muscles protest.

- Reward yourself with something you really desire, Volkow stresses. You exercised all week? Stuck to your diet? Buy a book, a great pair of jeans, or try a fancy restaurant - safer perhaps than a box of cookies because the price inhibits the quantity.

- Stress can reactivate the bad-habit circuitry. “You see people immediately eating in the airport when their flight is canceled,” Volkow points out.

- And cut out the rituals linked to your bad habits. No eating in front of the TV, ever.

“What you want to be thinking about is, ‘What is it in my environment that is triggering this behavior?’” says Nordgren. “You have to guard yourself against it.”

Associated Press