Can Technology Really Change Your Habits?

Hate to break it to you but downloading an app won't get you to your habits. Here's the science of what will.

If you want to lose weight, improve your memory, even stop using technology so much, as the saying goes: there's an app for that.

There are hundreds if not thousands of apps designed to help you change behaviors and drop bad habits.

There’s the Freedom app, which blocks you from the Internet so you can focus on work; the Fitocracy app, which uses gamification to reward you with points, and allows you to accept challenges from other users and advance to other levels; the Lift app, which allows users to choose what behavior they want to achieve, such as "run" or "eat breakfast." Once the behavior is completed, users can check-in and track their progress.

These apps are efficient when delivering "rewards" to users, whether that’s a simple check-in or seeing the progress you’ve made on a graph. Many of these technology companies are teaming up with psychologists to understand what kind of rewards drive people to use their products.

Rewards are key to long-lasting behavior changes. "What we’ve learned in the last 10 to 15 years is that there’s an automatic behavior and then there’s a reward after, which is really important because that’s how our brains latch on to behaviors," says Charles Duhigg, business reporter at the New York Times and author of the book The Power of Habit.

A habit forms because you have repeatedly practiced an activity and your brain creates a neural pathway, made up of neurons, and this exists for the rest of your life. These behaviors become unconscious habits and only when you stop practicing the behavior does your brain destroy the connecting cells that formed that original pathway.

What types of rewards work

To change a behavior, you need to receive an even greater reward than the one you get with the old habit. For example, when you exercise and you give yourself a reward like a piece of chocolate, that behavior, after some time, becomes automatic. But if your schedule changes and exercise makes you late, then the reward of not exercising (not being late) becomes greater than the reward of exercising.

A reward will lose its effect over time so to make your behavior long-lasting, the reward needs to be intrinsic, not extrinsic. An intrinsic reward is a sense of achievement that comes from within you, such as the endorphins and pride you feel after exercising. It’s a conscious satisfaction that can’t be taken away. On the other hand, an extrinsic reward is something that is tangible or physically given to you for doing something, such as that piece of chocolate you eat after exercising or the trophy you get for winning a race.

If technology can provide the rewards needed to change your behavior, what happens to your behavior after you stop using the app or program?

Do Apps Work?

The answer comes down to the behavior you were originally trying to change, says Arun Sundararajan, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business whose research program focuses on how information technologies transform business and society.

According to Sundararajan, there are three kinds of behavioral changes.

  • The first includes changing behaviors that you learned through experience, such as the way you manage your time.
  • The second involves retraining your biomechanical system to behave differently, such as not pressing the breaks constantly while you’re driving.
  • The third has to do with physiological behaviors such as smoking and exercising.

The behaviors that have the highest chance of changing even after app usage are the second and third. Why? "Because they’re not changing you. They’re training you to do something differently, so once you’ve trained yourself, you can stop using [the app]," says Sundararajan. When it comes to learned behavior (the first one), there’s a greater chance you’ll revert back to your old behavior after using the app."

If the app only changes your reaction to feedback, such as reprimanding you for checking your social media, then there’s a good chance you’re only changing your behavior because you’re using the app. When it comes to changing, Sundararajan says your best bet is to not put too much stock in the digital and technology.

"Over the last decade, we’ve started to overestimate the power of technology and we reduce the importance of things like community," he says. "A big part of behavior change has to do with changing the environment that you’re in and changing the interactions that you have with people."

There’s no pill or app that will stop you from gambling or stop you from checking Facebook every hour. Technology can certainly help you track your progress and remind you when things need to be done, but, at the end of the day, we’re complex people and the only way you can really change is to do it yourself.

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[Image: Flickr user N i c o l a]

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3 Comments

  • You can get really charged up at the idea of changing a habit and any prop is welcome but, in my experience, changing habits is still a hard slog and the rule of thumb of 21 days to change seems very optimistic!

  • Brianna Brennan

    A study on R3ISE technology has found that people who become personally engaged in their health decisions and are rewarded by positive feedback and encouragement are more like to develop sustainable behavior change. The addition a "feed-back loop" is instrumental for diverse populations because those who feel more supported and connected are more likely to adhere to treatment plans and experience long-term behavior change. The use of R3ISE technology has been effective in improving the following actionable behavior changes: school attendance, medication administration and therapy attendance. Not only did behavior change happen immediately but the encouragement and reinforcement has sustained change well after the interventions end. At 6, 12, 18 month followups these tracked the behaviors had been generalized.

    I am not suggesting that technology alone produces these tremendous effects, rather that targeted treatments that incorporate technology seem to have the greatest effect.

  • atimmons23

    This is a great article. Thanks for sharing, Vivian. Check out the Activist platform, it holds you accountable to your fitness/health goals by introducing community and self-discipline, not daily reminders and a constantly notifying app. Oh, and you generate a ton of money for your favorite cause in the process... www.TeamActivist.org