We often chalk up unhealthy habits—our own, as well as those of others—to a simple lack of willpower. But Duke psychologist Wendy Wood suggests that those seeking, for example, to eat healthier foods, lose weight, or cut down on television time may want to instead look outward, to their environment.
"Many of our repeated behaviors are cued by everyday environments, even though people think they're making choices all the time," says Wood, James B. Duke Professor of psychology and neuroscience. "Most people don't [realize] that the reason they eat fast food at lunch or snack from the vending machine in late afternoon is because these actions are cued by their daily routines, the sight and smell of the food, or the location they're in."
Alcoholics and addicts have long been counseled to avoid things that trigger their cravings, such as frequenting bars. But research indicates that environmental cues can control other behavior, as well.
For example, Wood conducted studies demonstrating that people repeat well-practiced actions regardless of whether they intend to do so. She found that people with a habit of purchasing fast food at a particular place tended to keep doing so, even after deciding they no longer wanted to.
That's because physical locations are some of the most powerful cues to behavior, Woods says. A person who wants to stop eating fast food might change travel routes to avoid passing the restaurant. "You need to change the context. You need to change the cues. And that requires understanding the triggers to your own behavior."
In another study, she found that college students who transferred to a new university were able to break their television-watching habit if the television was in a different location at their new school. Students who found the television in the same location were less successful at breaking the habit.