Breaking the cycle

Here’s a theory that seems to be true across a variety of disciplines: Once a system or structure for activity is in place, it’s much more difficult to break out of it or change it than simply to continue on in the same way. This is because systems tend to be self-reinforcing. Is that too obvious/vague to be interesting?

Some examples:

  • Biology. The production of hormones, enzymes, and other substances in an organism is usually governed by feedback loops; this way the end product of the loop starts it all over again. Once a feedback loop is established to produce whatever chemical or protein, it’s generally easier to keep producing it than it would otherwise be.
  • Psychology. Habits are hard to break. Because chemical chain reactions in the brain become more stable and cellular pathways more permanent with each repetition, habitual behavior is more deeply ingrained as time goes on.
  • Social Studies. There are plenty of systematic problems here (overpopulation, the ailing finance system, nationalism, etc.) but I’ll pick one: studies show that the prison system in the United States is screwed up in a variety of ways not least because building and running jail houses has become a major industry. (Check out Eric “Fast Food Nation” Schlosser’s old article on the Prison Industrial Complex.) And yet the effort to persuade public officials to adopt a more rational, cost-effective approach to prison policy hasn’t yielded any concrete results. It takes a huge amount of work to offset a system that’s already running.
  • International Affairs. The World Bank continues to pump many billions of dollars into big dam projects in India that have proven themselves dangerous, inhumane, and, to be more precise, disastrous. Why do they continue to invest? Because everyone is corrupt and politicians are evil? No…it’s because they have *already* invested billions, along with all their time and energy. They need to see some kind of return. There are people who make their living allocating these funds after all; they have a vested interest in their own success.
  • Agriculture. I have blogged before about how chemical agriculture is on the verge of collapse. Instead of re-tooling the system on a massive scale, the solution has been to introduce genetically engineered pesticide-resistant crops. It would be much harder to dismantle chemical agriculture and build a new system than it is to just go about business as usual.
  • Humanities. A genre is a type or category of storytelling, governed by an unspoken set of implicit rules that guide the story. When a genre becomes dominant in the publishing world, everything either fits into the generic rules or reacts to them in some way. For example, the novel developed as a huge genre in English literature beginning in the 18th century, stealing the thunder of its French counterparts, and as a result you’ll be hard pressed to find any British prose that doesn’t enter into some kind of dialogue with that genre system. Even more salient is the example of the genres that sprung out of the heyday of the Hollywood studios; that genre system is still going strong. While art house movies are still challenging and responding to it, it would take an enormous shift in the industry to change it significantly.

I could go on…

I was thinking about this theory yesterday when I saw this NYTimes article about making new habits. According to this article, “brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks. ” New pathways form in parallel to old ones. So instead of trying to boldly uproot unsatisfactory old habits, perhaps its better to consciously try to make new ones.

The article also proposes that “the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.” So trying to develop new habits spurs creativity, which in turn would stimulate you to carry new endeavors even further.

This insight about habits might be usefully applied to other non-brain systems that one might wish to change.  Small steps towards a new system could stimulate a cascade of new possibilities, without requiring the huge investment of energy of a large scale change. I think that’s a cool idea.

With regard to social/political issues, I’ve said before that people respond to incentives. So perhaps instead of advocating for environmental utopia, maybe I should advocate for changing the current incentives little by little for new behavioral systems to come into play.  Check out New Rules for more along these lines…

It also appears that creativity bears an important relationship to happiness and long term brain function, as well as forming new habits. So maybe Burning Man, the annual festival centered around self-expression, creativity, and self-reliance, is predicated upon a useful idea, rather than just fun?

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One Response to “Breaking the cycle”

  1. Nola Says:

    Behavior is possibly the most fascinating aspect of human existence. Likely because it doesn’t follow a specific pattern or even make sense in many cases. But what interests me most in the study/discussion of habit breaking/forming is the inconsistency.

    In my observation it can be very easy to break a habit if it is a ‘good habit’ but those seem to be the ones people have the most difficult time forming into habits. ‘Bad habits’ on the other time seem to be very easy to pick up but much more difficult to break.

    I seem to be having difficulties coming up with examples that could not be linked to any form of chemical dependence (alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, or endorphins) or possible psychological link (oral fixation). Possible ‘bad habit’ would be picking at nails/fingers. People try everything to stop and don’t often succeed for long. One slip up and they have ‘fallen back into the bad habit’.

    Many people struggle to make a habit of eating healthy foods. They can do this for various lengths of time before they decide to go through the nearest drive through once and it seems like they tend to lose the ‘good habit’.

    It has never made sense to me. I think the gods are out to get the human race.

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