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How a Law Can Help People Break a Bad Habit

Asking the government to help you keep your New Year's resolution.
A sign announcing no smoking within the park is set up at the entrance of Lower Manhattan's Battery Park in New York City. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

A sign announcing no smoking within the park is set up at the entrance of Lower Manhattan's Battery Park in New York City. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

University of Southern California psychologist Wendy Wood has spent a career studying habits, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that she's got a lot to say about breaking those not-so-good routines, like vegging out after work, or getting that pricey daily latte. To be sure, Wood's research has been cited by several well-known publications looking to offer advice on changing our habits. Her basic lesson: Many more behaviors are habitual than people realize, and to change a habit, you need to change whatever it is in your environment that acts as a trigger—heading straight to the couch when you come home, for example.

That got us thinking: If people's environments cue habits, couldn't you break a lot of bad behaviors at once by altering an environment, such as how a town is laid out? In other words, could Wood's work have implications for bigger-picture policies?

Pacific Standard talked with Wood recently about how habit science can inform laws and campaigns that could affect entire cities—and why sometimes, as was the case with New York City's proposed soda-size law, they don't work.


What role can governments have in making people healthier? Isn't being healthy just a problem of personal choice and willpower?

What psychological research is showing us is that people who are really effective at meeting their goals and living healthy lives don't do it through willpower. They do it through setting up environments that allow them to form healthy habits. There have been studies of people who exercise regularly in the United States, and most of them have some cue, some physical location that they have tied to exercise, so that exercise becomes habitual. That allows it to become more automatic.

If you want to take that on as an individual project, you can. You can try to change the food in the environment that you live in, or reduce your exposure to alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances. But it's also part of the government's responsibility to help people live in environments that are going to be healthy and going to allow them to be productive and happy.

What's one new policy you really want to see, as a habit scientist?

I think exercise is something that is very difficult to do on your own. Most people only do it for a few weeks in January and thank heavens for that, because that makes all of our gym memberships cheaper. But because exercise is very difficult to do on an individual basis, structuring local environments to encourage exercise is really important. It becomes a broader policy issue.

We do know that certain types of environments encourage people to develop habits to regular exercise. There's some very good data showing how close you live to a park predicts how much exercise you get and also your weight. People who live in pedestrian-friendly environments also get more exercise. Bike share programs also increase exercise. Making it hard to park cars downtown discourages automobile use and encourages more active forms of transit.

Wendy Wood. (Photo: University of Southern California)

Wendy Wood. (Photo: University of Southern California)

So there are lots of policy-oriented initiatives that make it easier for people to live a healthier life. And we're learning that's how people are going to do it, that relying on individual behavior changes may not be realistic given what we know about human psychology and the ways in which people do change their behavior.

So should we just focus on laws that change the environment, and forget about campaigns that educate people or change minds?

I think that there's good reason to focus on trying to change people's thoughts and beliefs about a policy. With smoking bans, for example, they had a major effect on people's smoking because they removed the ability to easily smoke wherever you wanted to. But there had to be a lot of public knowledge and understanding of the dangers of smoking in order for the public to support those bans. So policy really needed to be focused on the more deliberate, thoughtful aspects of behavior, as well as the more automated, environmental influences because you want people to support policies that are going to be healthy.

When you think about Bloomberg's aborted attempt to try to control the size of soft drink cups in New York, that wasn't successful because there wasn't public support for it. People felt like he was taking away their freedom. Smokers obviously felt the same way when they were not allowed to smoke in public buildings, but the general public sentiment was in favor of those bans so they got implemented.

What's new in the world of habit science?

I think there have been such major developments in the neuroscience of habit. We understand much more about how the brain systems support habit performance and make habits really sticky so they don't shift easily once you've formed them. All of that neuroscience data is being integrated with behavioral studies of habit formation and habit change.

That sounds like a good sign, that new neuroscience is matching what behavioral scientists have been finding.

Oh, absolutely. Any time you can usefully integrate across levels of analysis, you have a much more powerful theory.