Do you ever wish you could flip a switch in your brain and turn off bad habits? Thanks to recent psychological experiments conducted at Regensburg University, you may be able to train your brain to forget all about unwanted behaviors. Gesine Dreisbach and Karl-Heinz Bäuml were able to set new habits in study participants by teaching them to associate one of two specific keystrokes for each word they were shown.
Next, they asked the participants to distinguish each of the words by gender. This is where the experiment would never work in the U.S., because our words are just a bunch of androgynous collections of letters that focus on meaning without making us wonder which bathroom they use. As a strict English speaking American, I’d like to formally invite every language that appoints gender to words, to stop doing that. It is highly unnecessary, and really confusing. The world is not lacking in legitimate gender related issues, let’s not insert them into grammar, which is already complicated enough.
So in the part of the experiment where participants were to use one of two keystrokes to signify which words were Fräulein and which were Männer, half the words required the same keystroke as used in the initial test, while the other half called for a keystroke that was actually opposite of the earlier experiment. This caused delayed reaction times and mismatched responses, which proved that previous learned behavior often interferes with future tasks. A similar philosophy is demonstrated in the Stroop test, which sounds like that thing where the doctor pokes your tonsils with a long stick, but is actually an interesting experiment that uses colored fonts to spell colors and confuse your mind with scientific trickery.
Back to this German word thing though: so half the participants were administered this experiment and all showed interference during the gender task. The other half, upon completing the first test, were (rudely) interrupted by a pretend computer malfunction and told “sorry” by the experimenter who advised them to forget all about what they just did. This group went on to complete the gender portion of the test with no interference from their previous training in the initial task.
A second experiment took place using similar rules, but with more logical details. Participants were shown numbers from 1 to 9, and asked to determine if each number was low, by pressing the left-key, or high, by pressing the right-key. This was easier because we tend to naturally see numbers from left to right in an ascending order. In the next part, participants were asked to distinguish the numbers as odd or even. The first group did terribly, per usual. The group who witnessed the electronic meltdown charade and was told to forget everything they just did, managed to fair a bit better, but not 100% as in the word experiment. Evidently, it’s harder to break habits when they are formed using meaningful perimeters, but it’s still possible.
So if you want to curb unwanted behavior, just stop what you are doing and ask someone to interrupt you by unplugging your computer and then lying to you about a “mysterious computer crash.” If that doesn’t work, try forming habits with more arbitrary constructs and then have someone retry the whole “oh no the machine did a thing” thing again.