What If You Could Just ‘Forget’ to Bite Your Nails?

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A bad habit can feel so automatic that it can be hard to even realize you’re doing it, which makes quitting the behavior feel impossible. But what if you could just will yourself to “forget” to bite your nails, or crack your knuckles, or snack late at night? 

That’s the gist of a new paper in Psychological Science, which was recently featured in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. The methodology is a little complicated, but, essentially, the German researchers instilled a habit into their participants, and then changed the rules of the game, requiring them to forget that newly learned behavior.

In one study, researchers trained participants to press a key on the left half of a keyboard when they were shown certain German words, and a key on the right when they were shown others. But after they had that down, the task changed: Now the participants were asked to sort the words by gender, hitting a key on the right for masculine words and a key on the left for feminine words. That meant about half the words required a different keystroke than what they’d previously learned. One group went through this task normally, and their reaction time for those words was slower. Research Digest explains the rest:

The other half of the participants, once they'd completed the initial training, were confronted with an apparent computer crash and an apologetic experimenter told them to forget all about what they'd done so far. [When the experiment resumed] [t]his group weren't held back by habits on the later task: in fact, interference from the earlier training was totally eliminated.

It gets tricky any time you try to apply the results of some laboratory experiment into the messy real world, and it’s true that these were brand-new habits. But this paper does suggest that it might be possible to wipe your memory of an unwanted habit — perhaps especially one that you recently formed. Other recent research has shown the importance of resets like the one used in this paper, so go ahead and wait until Monday morning to give this a try. No computer crash required.