Biting Fingernails

Our lives are full of habits, healthy and unhealthy, big and small. Sometimes we don’t even realize how deeply ingrained some of our regular behaviors are until we try to break them.

According to a new study from researchers at University of Regensburg, some habits might be harder to reverse than others.

Some of the difference seems to come down to whether a given habit is an approach habit or a withdrawal habit. Approach habits, as the name suggests, are habits that involve engaging with something or someone. Withdrawal habits, meanwhile, are about avoiding a certain object, situation or person.

To learn about how people learn and unlearn approach and withdrawal habits differently, the researchers did a pair of experiments. In the first experiment, participants started by practicing approach or withdrawal behavior toward various everyday objects. In the second experiment, participants did the same thing but with people instead of objects.

Subsequently, the participants in the experiment were asked to reverse some of the habits they’d formed — that is, to switch some of their approach behavior to withdrawal behavior and vice-versa.

Because people learn habits so strongly, this kind of reversal can be difficult. When people are asked to switch between approach and withdrawal behavior, it’s typical that people will sometimes react according to their old, habitual responses rather than the new behavior they’re trying to cultivate.

This held true in the current study, but researchers noticed something else interesting: people were more likely to engage in the “wrong” behavior when trying to switch from an approach to a withdrawal habit than the other way around.

Generally, people had a harder time breaking habitual approach behavior than breaking habitual withdrawal behavior. Withdrawal behavior seems to be more work for the brain to keep up, and therefore easier to reverse.

In the words of the researchers, “approaching former enemies seems to be easier than withdrawing from former friends.” Of course, there’s some nuance here — if this were literally true, the world would probably be a much better place!

But it does appear to be the case that some habits take more effort to break than others, and that approach habits specifically can be harder to reverse.

Image: Flickr/aptmetaphor