We all do things we shouldn’t, like, eating foods we know are unhealthy. Well, scientists have now uncovered the psychological reasons behind some of our bad habits. But just being aware of our tendencies can help us get back on track. 

  • First: There’s “the exposure effect.” In other words, the more familiar something is, the more we like it, and the harder it is to give up. For example, say your doctor suggests eating oatmeal for breakfast to lower your cholesterol, but you can’t give up your favorite breakfast sandwich. The fix: Create a new habit. Research shows that if you can fight off an old habit just 3 times, it’ll become less powerful. So, force yourself to eat oatmeal 3 days in a row, then, the next week, make it 4 days, et cetera, until it becomes your default breakfast. 

  • Another self-destructive behavior: Not taking risks. The reason we back off from sticking our neck out has to do with “the spotlight effect.” Experts say we tend to overestimate how much attention other people pay us, we think we’re in the spotlight, being judged, when in reality we’re not. But when we think we’re being judged, we’re less likely to take a risk. For example, say you spot someone cute at the gym. You don’t say hello because you’re worried everyone within earshot will laugh. The fix: Realize that nobody cares. Cornell University researchers found that most people are too wrapped up in their own world to notice what we do. 

  • The final bad habit: Not doing what’s right. It’s the “bystander effect.” When we’re in a group, everyone thinks someone else is going to step up and do the right thing, whether it’s stop a bully, prevent a crime, or tip the server properly. And the more people who are around, the less responsibility everyone takes to do the right thing. We have a natural tendency to follow the herd. But just knowing that this happens can help you break out of that mentality and take responsibility for your own actions. So if your whole group is stiffing the server, ask for a separate check and tip them the way you know you should.