Are people capable of change?

They say it only takes 30 days to start a new exercise routine. See more pictures of heart health.
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Can people really change? If you troll the Internet with simple searches, you'll meet with a series of Web sites that offer encouraging plans for personal change. The problem is that most of these sites are operated by someone who's selling something, whether it's a self-help book or a series of audio CDs aimed at making you the best you can be. That's not to say that these programs or books aren't of value to some people. Many people undergo some form of self-help therapy and actually manage to make real change in their lives, whether it's to lose weight, quit smoking or make personality changes -- like "I want to be more assertive" or "I will no longer be treated like a doormat."

What's tougher to find are accurate statistics on change. Stats on quitting cigarettes, alcohol and drugs only represent quitting a habit, and they only prove that a set of individuals could make that one change. If you want an accurate assessment of whether change is really possible, a better question to ask than "Can you stop drinking?" would be "Can you fundamentally change your instinct to indulge in addictive behavior?" Sure, someone can quit smoking, but if that person yearns to smoke a cigarette every day until he dies, has that person fundamentally changed or simply ceased to engage in a particular behavioral pattern?


What does change really mean? All animals, including humans, are instinctual, and we may or may not be able to change it. You can probably think of instances in which people's instincts at least appeared to change. A new parent may lose the instinct to think of self first. Someone with trust issues may lose the instinct to run from a relationship once she finds the right person. If change means behavior as a collection of habits, then people are definitely capable of change. We'll look at some ways people have conquered habitual change on the next page.



Changing Behaviors

People can change. Even this guy.
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What is behavior if not a collection of habits? Let's say that a husband has a certain pattern of behavior that's destructive to his marriage. He's dismissive of his wife's desire to take a job of her own. What this husband is doing is defaulting to a series of actions under certain circumstances. In fact, you can even break it down as a collection of habits.

Let's say his wife describes his behavior like this: "When I talk about getting a job, he has a habit of changing the subject to himself," and, "When I talk about our family needing a second income, he has a habit of only thinking of ways he can make more money." A collection of habits represents the husband's behavior. To change his behavior, and, in this case, his instinct to dismiss his wife's ideas, he must address each habit one at a time. Instead of changing the subject to himself, he should engage in a real conversation about his wife's skills and what she could contribute.


Experts say that for a person to change his or her habits, many things need to line up. The person must have a desire to change, and he or she must set up organized systems to achieve this change. Generally, it's believed that people have more success when one major change is tackled at a time. It also helps if you write your plan out and share it with someone, so you'll feel some measure of accountability, although some people are capable of self-monitoring. Self-help books and therapists advise you to repeat your new plan until the bad habit is either broken or the good habit has taken hold.

Most professionals say that it takes 21 to 30 days to make or break a habit. Researchers have pinpointed the basal ganglia region of brain as the region that controls habitual behavior. Tests have shown that when a new habit is learned, neurons fire differently in the basal ganglia. Neural activity also changes when that same habit is unlearned. But it'll easily change back again if the new habit is relearned.

This explains why it's so tough to change old habits. You may reverse the way your neurons fire when you cease to smoke, but they'll change back immediately once you take that first puff. A 2009 study from the UK Health Behavior Research Centre indicated that it takes 66 days to genuinely make or break a habit, to the point where that new habit becomes your default behavior [source: University College London].

Whether it takes 21, 30 or 66 days, it's possible to change habits, which means that behavioral change can be a reality, if the subject is able to stay the course.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • "Five Things You Need to Know About Effective Habit Change." 2011.
  • "How long does it take to form a habit?" University College London. Aug. 4, 2009.
  • "Instincts and Habits." 2011.
  • Delude, Cathryn. "Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard." Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2011.
  • Goetzke, Kathryn. "How Long Does it Take an Action to Become a Habit; 21, 28, or 66 Days?" 2011.
  • Moos, Rudolph and Bernice. "Rates and predictors of relapse after natural and treated remission from alcohol use disorders." National Institutes of Health.2011.
  • Voiland, Adam. "Want to Break a Bad Habit? Try This." U.S. News and World Report. Dec. 7, 2007.