Interview with Art Markman

  • March 11, 2014

Here we are, two months in, and what of our newly minted New Year’s resolutions? Have they reverted back to good intentions? If you had five tools to turn from bad habits to good ones, could you convince yourself to use them?

Interview with Art Markman

Habits are highly resistant to change. Unfortunately, it’s one more human default. We’re designed that way. But for those really serious about change, Dr. Art Markman, a psychology professor and author, can help. His book Smart Change (Perigee Trade, 2014) identifies five ways we can systematically alter our behavior to kick bad habits and develop new ones for greater success in life. The only thing left is to get up and get started. 

Smart Change Q&A with Art Markman, Ph.D. 

How did you  decide to narrow the process of change to five “tools”? If you had to add one more, what would it be? Alternatively, if there could only be four, what would you eliminate?

Looking at the research on behavior change, it became clear that you could classify most of the factors that affect behavior into five groups. The five tools had a nice relationship to the motivational system as well. The motivational system has goals. Those goals are engaged by mechanisms that I call the Go System, which ultimately creates habits for routines you perform mindlessly. When you engage a behavior that you realize you should be avoiding, there is a Stop System that tries to prevent the behavior from happening. All of your behavior takes place in a particular environment. Finally, it often involves other people. Those elements of the motivational system are the basis of the five tools.

In my view, if you eliminated one of these sets of tools, change would be much less effective, because the most persistent behaviors require a comprehensive approach to succeed.

Did you create the tools during your own exercise of change or from the distance of understanding how change could happen? 

These tools come from my understanding of the best research that is out there now on habits and motivation. Some of the research is from my own lab, but much of it involves studies I have read over the past 20 years. I have used many of these tools to change my own behavior as well.  In the book, I talk both about learning to play the saxophone and weight loss as examples where I used these principles.

How many users of the Smart Change philosophy have you followed? Have they all made successful transitions? Or perhaps more realistically, are they still living the process? 

I have been teaching classes on behavior change to companies for six years, reaching  hundreds of people. I get a lot of feedback from those people later about the ways that these principles have influenced their personal and professional lives. The overwhelming number of them are continuing to live the process of change and to recognize that even small failures are ultimately learning experiences to help them improve in the future.

The Cleveland Clinic is a marvel. Have they exported their programs to other medical centers? The clinic seems to already understand and practice Smart Change. How did that happen? 

The Cleveland Clinic works closely both with other hospitals and with companies to help them transform the health of their employees. It is an uphill battle for companies, though, because it requires a significant initial investment in programs that attack the five elements of Smart Change. Without that substantial investment, companies will not see the amazing increases in employee wellness that the Cleveland Clinic has obtained. 

They developed their tools by using research and also through trial-and-error. Not all of their programs were successful, but they had such a strong commitment to wellness that they did not give up. Individuals like their chief wellness officer, Dr. Michael Roizen, were key driving forces in ensuring that the Cleveland Clinic continued to innovate. 

How do we control a brain that wants to spend as little time thinking as possible?

The brain wants to compile away as many routines as possible into habits. That means that when you want to change your habits, you need to start by making it difficult for your old habits to be engaged. Changing your environment to make undesirable behaviors difficult is a key part of that process. Then, you want to create opportunities to reprogram your Go System to create new habits. In order to do that, you need to set up situations in which you consistently perform the new behavior in situations where you want to perform it later so that it ultimately becomes a habit.

It seems like thinking about change ought to be the right thing to do. You say as much on page 147, and yet we’d be better off if we could turn our behaviors to habit, which means we wouldn’t have to think? Are we just playing games with ourselves? 

When you first start changing your behavior, you do have to think about it. You need to become mindful of all of the mindless routines you have carried out in the past. Behavior change will only succeed in the long term if those new behaviors can become habits. That means that you want to reach a point where you are no longer thinking about the new behaviors, but rather they have become a part of the fabric of your life.

 What about good habits that are no longer useful? Are they harder to change? 

There are two kinds of habits that are no longer useful. Some of them are no longer useful because the environment has completely changed. You have all kinds of habits related to the way you cook and eat in your kitchen. If you move to a new house, your habits will no longer help you navigate the new house, and so you will quickly and easily develop new habits.

Other kinds of habits are no longer beneficial, though they can still be performed. Often, these habits involve things that are enjoyable in the short term but have bad long-term consequences,  like eating too much ice cream or biting your nails. Those habits are quite difficult to change, because the environment still supports the old behavior, and so you need to find a way to associate those same environments with new behaviors.

In D.F. Schwaab’s book We Are Our Brains, he states that fear, shock, and trauma are far more easily remembered than anything else. Why don’t we just shock ourselves into good habits by conjuring up fear of the consequences of bad ones? 

We have strong memories of traumatic events, but those are memories of information (sights, sounds, and emotions), but not of behaviors. In order to really create a new habit, you need repeated experience performing a behavior in a particular situation. Without that repetition, a habit will not develop.

In addition, anxiety and stress impair the Stop System in the brain. The Stop System is a set of mechanisms that we often call willpower. If you cause yourself stress, then you actually make it harder for your brain to stop performing undesirable behaviors.

You, too, say that unique memories are easy to find. Why don’t we uniquely imagine ourselves ridiculously obese and half dead because of it and then diet? (What about the story of the 600-pound woman who accidentally suffocated her nephew? Isn’t that example enough, or is it too distant?)

The problem with all of these memories is that their power pales in comparison to the power of our habits. The human motivational system is exquisitely designed to help you achieve your goals. For example, cigarette smokers are aware that smoking causes lung cancer. They have even seen the grotesque pictures of the charred lungs of smokers. But when the goal to smoke is engaged for habitual smokers, their concern about lung cancer actually decreases. When the motivational system is engaged, it really clears a path to achieve goals. 

Ultimately, when you are trying to change your behavior, you are fighting against millions of years of evolution that have optimized the system for creating and maintaining habits.

“Habits are a type of memory.” What do you say to all of the autonomic brain function? It seems that it would prevent change, no matter what we did? Are we really fighting against our own infrastructure? 

The autonomic system is a bit different. There are certain bodily functions that are hard-wired in for survival. We will breathe and our hearts will beat regardless of what the rest of our brain is doing. That is why some brain-dead patients will still survive for years if they are given nutrition and water.

But the habit-learning system is optimized to turn any routine into a habit that can be performed mindlessly. Almost all of the habits we create are quite good for us, and that makes the bad habits we have difficulty changing all the more noticeable.

Why aren’t we simply programmed to be sensible? Are we the only species constantly charged with keeping ourselves in check? 

We are one of the few species that is able to survive in a nearly infinite variety of information landscapes. Deer, for example, are optimized for the forest. When they find themselves running around suburbia, they are unable to change their behavior to avoid walking into the street. 

Because we are so flexible (and because we are so talented at inventing new technologies that have changed the environment even further), many of the preferences that are wired into us — like eating lots of fatty and sweet foods — are no longer optimal for our environment. Those preferences are things we have to overcome. Unlike deer, though, we do have mechanisms that allow us to change our behavior and to adapt to the world as it is.

Environmental help makes a lot of sense. But humans are a cantankerous lot. Don’t you think the beauty of nature should be enough to keep us from polluting it? If we have no fattening foods in the house, won’t we just eat them when we go out?

The difficulty in life is that we have many goals and those goals conflict. Clearly, the beauty of nature is a wonderful goal, and so, all else being equal, we want to preserve beautiful places. But we also like to eat food, and that requires land and water. We want televisions, computers, and other devices, and those require factories. We want to be able to travel the world, but our modes of transportation create pollution. 

Part of the problem is that saving the environment is a long-term goal, and lots of these other things, like hopping in the car or making a purchase, are done in the short term. We tend to focus on these short-term goals and so we systematically fail to achieve our long-term goals unless we plan for it.

For years, we did not recycle, even though that would reduce the amount of waste we put into the environment. Only by making recycling easy by giving everyone baskets and regularly picking up materials for recycling did we help people to develop the habit to recycle.

Years ago, on the “Flintstones,” of all places, Fred Flintstone joined “Food Anonymous.” As a result, there wasn’t anywhere he could go in Bedrock to eat anything that he wasn’t supposed to eat. He was forced into dieting. Of course, it’s a cartoon, but the way you suggest engaging our family and neighbors suggests a similar paradigm. Maybe shame isn’t such a bad thing, either. If people continue to be cruel to the obese, etc., will it also force change, maybe faster and meaner but with engagement, memory, and contract?

I think there is a lot of room between friendly familial nagging and cruelty. I do think that we should all hold each other accountable for healthy behavior. Sometimes, we even need to be strict in the way we hold the line. The Cleveland Clinic fired several employees, including doctors, because they refused to stop smoking in their offices. 

I do think that one important tool in the arsenal of behavior change is the commitment contract. A commitment contract is an actual contract between two people. One person is trying to change her behavior and will pay a sum of money to the second person if she fails. These contracts have to be used in conjunction with other tools for changing behavior, but they can help to bring some social pressure into the process.

For the typically lazy, television-watching, not terribly obese but unhealthy individual who will not read your entire book or would procrastinate too much to ever start anything that takes work, what is your one piece of advice?

At the end of the day, the old joke is right. Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? A: One, but the light bulb has to want to change. Changing your behavior is hard work, and you’ll never do it if you don’t want to.

That said, I encourage everyone to spend some
time thinking about how they will look back on their lives and to see whether
that encourages them to change their behavior. Research on regret shows that
older adults tend to regret the things they never got a chance to do in life.
People who spend a lot of time sitting on the couch watching TV, munching on
chips, and playing video games may someday regret that there were lots of other
activities — like travel or learning a musical instrument  — that they never engaged in. By taking this
backward-looking perspective periodically, you can find the motivation to do
something new.


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