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Key to Changing Habits Is In Environment, Not Willpower, Duke Expert Says

People whose New Year resolutions include losing weight, starting an exercise regime or otherwise changing their behavior should look outward -- - to their environment -- - instead of relying simply on willpower, says a Duke University psychologist who studies habits. Although people like to think they are in control of what they do, almost half of human behavior takes place in the same location pretty much every day and comes to be cued by that environment, according to studies conducted by Wendy Wood, James B. Duke professor of psychology and neuroscience. "Many of our repeated behaviors are cued by everyday environments, even though people think they're making choices all the time," she says. "Most people don't think that the reason they eat fast food at lunch or snack from the vending machine in late afternoon is because these actions are cued by their daily routines, the sight and smell of the food or the location they're in. They think they're doing it because they intended to eat then or because they like the food." Alcoholics and addicts have long been counseled to avoid things that trigger their cravings, such as frequenting bars. But research by Wood and others indicates that environmental cues control much of the behavior in healthy people as well. For example, Wood conducted studies demonstrating that people repeat well-practiced actions regardless of whether they intend to do so. She finds that people with a habit to purchase fast food at a particular place tend to keep doing so, even if their intentions change and they no longer wish to do so.

"Once you form a habit, it takes willpower to inhibit the triggered response. If you don't have the energy to override the response, you tend to repeat what you've done in the past," Wood says. In another study, Wood found that college students who transferred to a new university were able to break their television-watching habit if the TV were in a different location at their new school. Students who found the TV in the same location were less successful at breaking the TV habit, she says. The implication for people trying to stop bad habits or develop new ones is that they should pay attention to their environment in order to sustain a new behavior over time, Wood says. She says she has found that physical locations are some of the most powerful cues to behavior. Someone who needs to take a pill each day might place it by their toothbrush, for example. Or a person who wants to stop eating fast food might change travel routes to avoid passing the restaurant.

"You need to change the context. You need to change the cues. And that requires understanding the triggers to your own behavior," she says.