A new study suggests that people can essentially alter their brain states to counteract troubling habits they’ve acquired, according to a report in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

For example, if you normally leave the room when you hear a loud snoring, then stand up to block their view when they persistently make noises at a wakeful time, you’ve learned to use cognitive dissonance to change your behavior.

“The difference between someone who says ‘no snoring’ and someone who listens to snoring sounds is two to three seconds,” said Gerd Gigerenzer, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“But it’s probably cumulative, and can be very hard to fight against, so it may take years to shake off the habit.”

Cognitive dissonance is the ability to maintain an internally consistent opinion while perceiving the behavior of others to be inconsistent.

Gigerenzer gave his subjects objects to choose from: two mugs, one with a colored drinking straw, the other without.

They could then be first to say which mug was the “right” one, and repeat their answer back to the professor.

There were 21 subjects on the study. All the subjects also answered a survey at the start of the experiment asking about their sleep habits and whether they’d ever heard snoring. Some were led to believe that the two mug-size objects were different: the one with the straw was an “easier” one to use, and the one without had a “harder” straw.

To gauge which mug was going to be chosen, Gigerenzer also raised the subject’s heart rate, while monitoring his or her brain activity.

If the subject perceived the mug with the straw as easier to use, he or she was predicted to say the mug was the right one. But if the mug with the straw was perceived as being harder to use, the subject would generally pick the less convenient one.

Subjects who saw the mug with the straw as being harder to use also had higher blood pressure, and had greater oxygen consumption after they thought the two mugs were different, suggesting that they had also had a broader definition of what constituted necessary exertion.

“They’re seeing it as not just staying in bed, but as having to get out of bed, be directed to go out, be directed to walk a certain distance,” Gigerenzer said.

Most people perceive their own habits, social situations, and behavior as being consistent, and can exert self-control to respond to others’ demands, Gigerenzer and his co-authors said.

However, cognitive dissonance can sometimes slip into complacency, they said.

“When we think about conforming to norms we’re used to, we can’t cut away from that,” Gigerenzer said. “So we don’t pursue the behavior we’re subconsciously avoiding because we feel comfortable with it.”

In the study, the goal was to make the subject more aware of their own cognitive dissonance and to make them seek out practices that circumvent their habitual behaviors, the researchers said.

“This is pretty basic: you have to really want to change things,” Gigerenzer said. “And if you can’t change it, you have to actively look for something else to do. You have to say, ‘You know what? I have to do this. I’m going to do something I don’t like, but if I’m going to do that, I’m not going to do that habit.’”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Using Cognitive Dissonance to Shape Your Behavior