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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott

Creating New Behaviours pt 1

As a Recovery Coach, I talk a lot about deeply entrenched behaviours that keep us mired in our Eating Disorders, and the importance of rewriting our brain map through our thoughts, actions and repeating new, positive behaviours. So in this post, I thought I would explore whether neuroscience had given any insight into effective ways to actively help create these new behaviours we need to adopt in order to help move us forward on our recovery journey.


Since Freud, most people are comfortable with the idea of the unconscious, a shadowy part of ourselves ticking away and influencing us with thoughts, impulses and drives of which we're not actively aware. Similarly, there are two types of human psychological and behavioural processes, known as Controlled and Automatic Processes.

Some of our behaviour and thinking is directly under our conscious control: We can intentionally do and think a vast range of behaviours and thoughts, and it's these controlled processes that we use to consciously to shape our lives. Examples of controlled processes are the carrying out of plans to accomplish some task— planning and booking a holiday, for instance, or cooking our dinner. We think about what is needed, gather the required ingredients, prepare the food, intentionally operate the hob and the oven, and come up with a meal.

The other type, Automatic Processes, involve behaviours, thoughts and emotions which occur without our conscious intention. These are comparable to 'habits': the behaviours, thought patterns and feelings that occur in response to situations, automatically, without any need for implementation by our conscious mind.

An example of automatic processes that most people reading this will have experienced is that of driving a car. When you first learned to drive, you had to think about so many things to ensure that the car moved in the direction you intended, at the speed you wanted, and that you stayed aware of potential hazards in all directions; You had to think about how to engage the clutch, you had to worry about how to staying in the right lane and reading signs, etc. However, once you had enough practice, these behaviours will have become automatic to the point where you no longer need to think about each and every one when you drive, you just do them.

These behaviours and thoughts have become what is called "functionally autonomous ", i.e they unfold in the correct way whenever we are in the relevant situation without our having to attend to each and every detail. In fact, behaviours like locking our front door and driving can become so functionally autonomous that we can engage in them without even being aware of doing so.

So what does all this Controlled and Automatic processes stuff have to do with creating new, more positive, behaviours?


When people first begin trying to change a highly automatic behaviour, they need to expend significant attention and concentration on not only identifying the situations in which control is required but then on actively implementing that control. Renowned social psychologist Roy Baumeister found in his research at Florida State University, that this process requires significant mental energy; in fact this exercise of active self-control actually depletes the level of glucose, the primary brain fuel. Baumeister goes on to liken willpower and self-control effects to muscles that can tire and become weaker.

Then how are you supposed to introduce new behaviours, such as not purging when you faced with a particular stressor, when the very act of trying not to do it leaves you feeling exhausted?

One way round this is a metacognitive self-regulatory strategy of goal pursuit; despite this rather wordy definition, it's a simple, yet highly effective process to help people automatise the implementation of new behaviours. It's known as Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions or MCII .

Researchers have found MCII to be very effective in relation to many areas and situations with challenging, deeply entrenched belief systems and behaviours (such as addiction); and research by Gollwitzer, Oettingen and Frankl (1959/ 1984) has shown that when people engage in the process of MCII with respect to even difficult behaviour change goals , the likelihood of achieving change is dramatically increased.


The first step of MCII is to first picture your goal.

i) Write down or think about several positive aspects associated with completing your goal. For example, if you’re trying to nutritionally rehabilitate, those positive aspects could be: improved health, not being tied to rituals, more mental freedom, less conflict with your loved ones etc

ii) Hone in on the most positive aspects. This could be one especially large benefit, or a few smaller ones. Then take a few moments to visualise those benefits. The longer and the more specific the detail, the better.

The second step of MCII (the 'contrasting' part)

(iii) Systematically think about barriers you might encounter to actually being able to achieve your goal : the who, what, where, when of where barriers will occur. i.e, who/ what are the people, the places, the things, that will get in the way of reaching your goal.

(iv) Is to look at these barriers to your goal/s and develop very specific Implementation Intentions. These are very specific statements of the form " If such and such happens, then I will do a specific behaviour" .

So the Implementation Intention supports the goal intention by setting out in advance when/ where and how you will achieve the goal

And that's it. It sounds simple, and it really is.

Many of the studies in which mental contrasting was tested, participants were instructed to use the technique just once – taking just a few minutes. Afterwards, changes in behaviour were observed for up to several weeks.


The subconscious mind has a short time-horizon – it acts based on emotion, habit, and desire. The reason generating motivation for our long-term goals can be so difficult isn’t because the subconscious doesn’t care – it wants you to be healthy, it wants you to recover. The problem is that it doesn’t understand.

This is not a technique which should be used to bolster confidence by the way. Instead, this technique translates cerebral thoughts of success into concrete emotions of motivation.For example, in one study, those in the mental contrasting condition who had low expectations of success did three times as worse as those in the control condition. There is one caveat: If you're uncertain, or lacking in confidence that change is possible, the technique of Mental Contrasting can actually be detrimental * and you can internalise that lack of confidence on a deeper level.

You understand why it’s good to you need to change your behaviour to change your goals. But your subconscious can see behaviour change in a negative way, like as a pointless waste of energy,

Mental contrasting helps your subconscious understand. It ties together the promise of future reward with obstacles which must be overcome in the present (e.g. do x,y, and z,, and you will receive your reward- ). You, the conscious, already understands. Your subconscious speaks in images, which is why your thoughts of grandeur and accomplishment fail to help it understand.

But visualisation in the form of mental contrasting? That works.This idea has been reduced to certain concrete changes in the brain – mental contrasting when combined with high expectations of success leads to increased neuronal connection between obstacle and future reward and will help to automatise the behaviour you've specified in the II part. So this makes the new behaviour a little more automatic, thus reducing the impact of the self-control 'muscle fatigue' Baumeister talked about.

MCII is clearly not a panacea and doesn't help everyone in every situation. It can be a powerful process while you're trying to implement and maintain difficult and challenging behaviour changes associated with recovery.

* Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Sevincer, A. T., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H. J., & Hagenah, M. (2009). Mental contrasting and goal commitment: The mediating role of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(5), 608-622.

* Oettingen, G., Stephens, E. J., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010). Mental contrasting and the self-regulation of helping relations. Social Cognition, 28(4), 490-508.

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