What gets us to change?

A 2018 review out of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences asks how we can use what we know about the brain to influence behavior (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6175225/). Specifically, the ones that feel good at the moment and, ultimately, hurt us.

Three essential factors surfaced along with remedies that apply across disorders and diseases.

  1. Reward valuation. Where does our brain land on the pros and cons of a behavior (e.g., eating the donut)? Sometimes where our brains land gets us into trouble (e.g., our brains may say the pleasure now outweighs the pain later…and be wrong). What’s the remedy? Research suggests that our brains need to see the personal relevance of behaviors (exercise, healthy eating, etc.). That is, is it really relevant to me and/or those who matter to me? So messages about exercise, for example, will influence us more when we can connect them to our values. When people reflect on core values, what deep down really matters to them, and then get messages about healthy behaviors, it predicts they will move toward health (e.g., exercise, healthy eating, loving relationships). People who receive the same messages without having first reflected on who and what they really care about are unlikely to be moved.
  2. Delay discounting. Delay discounting refers to our tendency to discount/devalue the value of a reward the longer we have to wait for it. As a result, we often choose smaller rewards with immediate gratification over bigger ones with delayed gratification. Eclairs over exercise. The remedy? Research suggests episodic future thinking (EFT), which is the capacity to imagine or simulate personal future experiences that may occur. It works like this: You have a talk coming up, so you imagine giving this talk and different ways it may play out. Or you imagine desired health results, such as a healthy weight, as you leave work knowing the gym is on the way home. Or you mentally play out ordering salad before you go to dinner with your friend. Being able to imagine or simulate our intentions increases the chances we will act on them.
  3. Self-control (aka self-regulation), the capacity to direct different parts of ourselves (thoughts, urges, cravings, emotions, actions) toward achieving future-oriented goals. One remedy that the researchers discuss to enhance self-control is physical exercise. In https://tonyalippert.blog/2017/08/01/understanding-adhd/, you can find several ways (regardless of whether you have ADHD).

I invite you to try one, two or all three of these and see what you notice.

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