Are people capable of change?

Changing Behaviors

People can change. Even this guy.
People can change. Even this guy.
Don Arnold/Getty Images

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.

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  • Moos, Rudolph and Bernice. "Rates and predictors of relapse after natural and treated remission from alcohol use disorders." National Institutes of Health.2011.
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