Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Forming new habits. Why is it so hard to give things up? Part 2.

Why losing things is twice as painful as gaining things.

In this series I am going to cover some of the behavioural science and neuroscience of forming habits, giving up bad habits, goals and rewards. I am going to come at it from a different tack possibly to the usual writings on fitness and nutrition, and at points I am going to extrapolate, stretch the science if you will, or apply some principles to exercise and diet that you may not have seen framed in this way before.

Human decisions are complex, the brain is complex(go figure), so there will be some simplification as necessary.

Over the next few posts I will cover the parts of the brain that deal with addiction and reward, loss and memory, making comparisons, motivation and decision making.

But lets break it down.

First up

Prospect Theory.

I've covered forming new habits before, see here for part one.

Essentially, I don't think the process of forming the new habit is hard. What is hard is the things you have to give up for the new habit to work.

It might be time you have to give up to go to the gym, this could be time when you normally watch TV or cruise the internet.

It could be some foods you have to reduce or give up and then replace with better alternatives. Despite what you may have read, you can't just eat what you want and lose weight, you may have to actually modify what you eat.

I am an example myself. Yes, I add in healthy foods, vegetables, green tea and all that but I still eat way too much cheese. Yes, there may be some addiction here (which I will cover in future posts) but basically I don't want to give it up.

If humans were following purely rational utility, then we would not eat the donut if there was an option of an apple as well. But as we all know, this is not always the case.

Most of these traditional theories of economics and utility ignore emotions but obviously your emotions have a profound impact on what you choose.

Human beings are risk averse and loss averse.

In some classic studies by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, they showed people when given a choice generally accept the less risky option. Even if they could possibly win more money, people generally go with the sure thing.

Two of their classic problems:
Which do you choose:
Get $900 for sure OR 90% chance to get $1000?

Which do you choose?
Lose $900 for sure OR 90% chance to lose $1000

Most people choose option 1 in the first problem and option 2 in the second problem, essentially for the same reason. People don't like losing things, they like the sure thing, but will take a risk if the sure thing could involve a loss.

In fact, most people find losing something twice as 'painful' as gaining something.

See the graph below.

Prospect Theory graph: Note how losing something causes twice as much psychological pain, as the joy of gaining something.

(The caveat being if you trade on the stock market and take class A drugs there is a chance you are not risk averse and are prepared to lose big time).

These studies are normally done in purely economic terms, you could win money, but what if we applied these ideas to fitness and nutrition?

If you are trying to develop a new lifestyle there is uncertainty and this cause emotional arousal.

Yes, logically you know eating healthier and  exercising is good for you But these are things that are going to happen in the 'future'. All the time you brain is making a cost benefit analysis.

To frame prospect theory in fitness and nutrition terms, as some people see it:

Which do you choose:
Give up an extra hour in bed, eating crisps and chocolate, sitting on the sofa when you get home OR the chance you may lose weight, feel better and possibly prevent a future disease.

Or when taking out a gym membership think of it this way:

Lose £40 a month for sure (gym membership fees) and you may get fitter and lose weight and prevent disease


Keep £40 a month for sure (don't join a gym) and you might get fitter a lose weight by going for a walk everyday or may not develop those diseases anyway by doing nothing.

Some speculation on my part...

There is the potential loss of your old self or things you enjoy. This can fire off a part of the brain called the Insular Cortex. This part of the brain is also monitoring body states such as disgust, if you are eating something you find horrible then could this part of the brain fire. If you find exercise painful and not enjoyable then this part of the brain could again be active. Meanwhile the part of the brain that responds to reward and potential gains (the fabled dopamine response) could not be so active.

Going into a gym, getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new are all 'risky' things. And to begin with you may not perceive them as pleasurable, in fact they may be decidedly uncomfortable to begin with.

Where you Insular is, in case you were wondering.

Then we have the amygdala, the so called fight or flight part of the brain. But, it is a bit more complicated than this. The amygdala is also working out cost benefit (should I do this new thing, what is the cost, what is the benefit), fear conditioning and more.

Of course, if you start to really enjoy exercising, or enjoy the health new foods, and enjoy the feeling of being healthier and maybe carrying a little less fat, then the potential gain has outweighed the potential loss of Dominos pizza and 10 hours on the internet. But, the gain would have to be perceived as twice as much as the loss.

This also relates to what Kahneman calls system 1 and 2 of thinking.

In general system 1 is quick, emotional, intuitive and can actually make better decisions than your logical mind when there are a lot of factors to consider.

System 2 is slow and rational.

When you eat that donut, you are probably already licking your lips before system 2 has had a rational chance to start working.

People are not risky in all aspects of their life, for example, people can make sound financial decisions, wear a seat belt while driving and still smoke.

People normally view monetary risk in terms of the status quo, you don't want to lose what you've already got.

In terms of health and well being you have to re-frame it in your mind. Make the potential gains and benefits overwhelming.

So to re-frame one of the statements above:

Invest £50 a month in your health, add a new enjoyable activity into your life for 4 hours a week, try some new nutritious food and it is a sure thing your health and fitness will improve and you will probably live longer and have less chance of developing certain diseases (and look better naked!).

People make subjective probability choices rather than objective ones. For example, If people were being objective they would never buy a lottery ticket, and they would realize that something like a terrorist attack in the western world has a very low probability (which they will tend to overreact to, thanks media) whereas heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes have a large probability and people tend to under react to them.

Except, if they get a health scare, then some people modify behaviour but some people don't.

One thing Prospect Theory cannot contend with is regret and disappointment. The choice you should have made, that could have been an easy financial win but you were greedy. OR in terms of health, the small lifestyle changes you could have made that would have had a profound impact on your well being but you chose the status quo instead.

Why is that? Why would your brain let you continue on a path of behaviour that may result in its early demise?

Find out in part 3.

Kahneman D (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Introduction to Neuroeconomics, How the Brain Makes Decisions, MOOC, Higher School of Economics(Moscow).

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