Why is it so hard to change our behavior, even if we know we should?

What? Let’s face it: most of our actions are not the result of careful weighing of all the possible factors and alternatives. The world is too complicated and frankly: who has the time?

Habits solve this problem for us. After being in the same situation many times, we learn to make decisions habitually, i.e. without (over)thinking. I liken this to training and using the autopilot in your brain. Going on autopilot for the easy decisions means more time and energy for more interesting stuff.

Most of the time, this is a great idea: habits are automatic (easy), fast, and mostly lead to good outcomes. Until of course they don’t. When we want to make changes to our behavior, we are confronted with the downside of habits: they are hard to overcome.

This is what I study. How do people learn to use their autopilot to their advantage? How do they become stuck on autopilot mode, and how can they disengage and then retrain their autopilot to meet their (new) goals?

How? I use computational models to understand these learning and decision-making processes. I also use neuroscientific methods such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and non-invasive brain stimulation (TMS; transcranial magnetic stimulation) to study the underlying human brain activity.

Why? Behavioral change is difficult and needs more than information campaigns. Usually, people know why they should eat less meat, drink less, move more, recycle waste, or take the bike to work. Usually, people want to do these things. But that doesn’t make it easy! Changing behavior in a sustainable way required us to first turn off our autopilot and then build better habits. A scientifically informed approach to behavioral change can help people make healthy lifestyle changes, make organizations run more smoothly, and have a tangible positive impact on our planet. It is worth getting these things right.

My work is funded by the Flanders Fund for Scientific Research (FWO) and the European Commission’s Marie Curie Actions through the Pegasus2 scheme.