18 November 2004


Do you ever wonder why you can't stop shopping or why smokers find it hard to quit?

It seems smoking and shopping fall into the category of "learned behaviors," and whenever one is in a stressful state, your unconscious memory automatically recalls some learned behaviors which, correctly or incorrectly, works under the assumption that it helps you.

Other than smoking we have other "learned behaviors" and you can probably enumerate them when I ask you what you usually do during your free time or when you are under extreme stress.

Watching TV, surfing the internet, malling, watching movies, hanging out with friends, shopping and shopping for the ladies, working out in gyms, gossiping, and many more are some of these learned behaviors.

It's true, anything in excess can be problematic, says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychology and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. "You need to ask yourself, 'How excessive is it? How much does it interfere with my life?'"

Not all mindless indulgences are bad habits, says Kaslow. There's a place in our lives for pointless conversations, all those Seinfeld reruns, and mocha-almond fudge. "We do these things to cope with stress in our lives," she tells WebMD.

"It's legitimate after you have a stressful day, you need to chill out some," says Kaslow. "But if that's all you do, and you do it every night, all weekend, that's another matter and it's not good for your mental health.

Judith Wright, author of Soft Addictions: There Must Be More Than This, agrees. "It's when they become habitual and we're just going through the motions that they become a problem," she says. "These bad habits keep us from living a greater life of meaning and satisfaction that we really deserve."


Recalling a "learned behavior" is automatic.

Despite your good intentions to quit smoking and to shop only when necessary, nothing much comes out of it. Researchers have recently documented this in a study.

Forty-eight undergraduate students at Washington University learned two different ways of responding to certain cue words. For example, they were instructed to "Say 'cup' when you see 'coffee,'" and then told to "Say 'mug' when you see 'coffee'."

After learning the new behaviors, the participants underwent memory tests both immediately after learning the words and the day after.

Some of the students were told to specifically answer in a certain way -- to respond using only the originally learned word "cup." The other groups were allowed to answer freely using either the words "cup" or "mug."

Lustig and her colleagues found that those who were told to control their response recalled the correct words on both days of memory testing.

However, those who responded with whichever came to mind -- either cup or mug -- showed an even split between the two word choices on the first day but, on the second day, the word "cup" became the more prevalent answer.

The researchers say the finding shows that the second response (the word "mug") "seemed to fade from memory" while the first response (the word "cup") maintained a stronger position in one's mind.

It is unclear why "original responses maintain their strength better than new response over long delays," the researchers wrote in the November issue of Psychological Science.

According to the journal article, one theory is that people use their "best" brain power when learning an original list, or habit, and do not commit later lists to memory as strongly.

[WebMD, Nov 17 2004]

Even if it is automatic, don't despair. Here are some tips offered by Judith Wright to break those bad habits:

  • Start by identifying one bad habit - maybe you head out shopping every Saturday morning. Next time, stop at a used bookstore on your way home, and find something worth reading. This way, "you've broken the routine, and added something more nourishing to your life," Wright says.

  • Find other things that you enjoy - add more things to your new routine. Soon, you'll be cutting back on shopping sprees --- but you won't feel deprived, she says. It's what she calls, "The Math of More." "You learn to add more nourishing things to your life, so you can subtract your soft addictions. Eventually, you come to enjoy these new things so much, they crowd out your soft addictions."

  • Take time to write down a bigger vision for your life. This way your new choices have a context, so they make sense in terms of your priorities.

  • Don't worry if breaking bad habits seem difficult. "It's not like it's a quick fix. It's not going to happen overnight," says Wright. "It's really about learning to live the journey of life. It's cumulative. You're discovering who you really are."
[WebMD, Nov 17 2004]

I agree. Everything here in life is about learning. The first thing everyone must learn is how to deal with oneself. If you can't overcome now, don't worry. What matters is that you're trying.

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