Why is a habit so hard to break?

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A cognitive neuroscientist at Texas A&M University is conducting research to answer that basic question.

Brian Anderson, associate professor for the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, who joined Texas A&M’s faculty in 2017, is pioneering research into “attention biases.”

People with an attention bias tend to unintentionally direct their attention to stimuli—like an object or an event—that may influence them to take actions that conflict with their goals.

This can make it difficult for patients who struggle with addictions to break their habits. For example, a habitual smoker who is trying to quit cigarettes may find it difficult to ignore stimuli that encourage smoking: a stressful situation, an open package of cigarettes, the aroma of tobacco, a lighter or even an offer of a cigarette from another smoker.

The same can be said for people who are dealing with drug addiction, obesity or depression.

“How reward influences what you pay attention to is largely outside of your control,” Anderson said.

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Trying to find why people pay attention to some things more than others is really fundamental to understanding why people think what they think and why people do what they do. When I got into that line of research, the role that learning played in the control of attention was dramatically underappreciated.

Attention biases are not limited to addicts; this cognitive process applies to everyone.

Anderson’s findings have the potential to address many habit-related problems such as obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As part of his current research, Anderson studies brain activity while subjects play a computer game. They are first rewarded with money for finding simple colored objects, training their brain to associate a certain color with a reward.

They later perform another task in which the previously rewarded color is no longer a factor; however, the objects previously associated with a reward still drew participants’ attention.

Their ability or inability to ignore these previously reward-associated objects are assessed in various ways, including the use of an MRI machine to measure brain activity.

As for breaking a habit, Anderson said that focusing one’s attention on another reward, rather than suppressing the urge to indulge, will yield the most successful outcome.

“The long-term goal is to show us how we can more effectively curb these kinds of automatic habits,” he said. “I really want us to understand the most fundamental building blocks of those higher-level preferences and decisions.”

Anderson’s research has earned two significant awards: the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology in the area of Perception and Motor Performance and the Association for Psychological Science’s Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions.

“These honors have helped me to step back a little and appreciate that the work my team and I do really does make a difference,” Anderson said. “That’s encouraging to me.”

This story was originally reported by the College of Liberal Arts, now part of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Not only is Anderson focused on developing his research, but he takes pride in mentoring his undergraduate and graduate students utilizing what he calls the “apprenticeship model.”

“A truly original idea can establish not only your career but your trainees as well,” Anderson said.

Photos by Anna Burson ’24


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