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← How to break away from habit and follow through on your goals | Sabine Doebel | TEDxMileHigh

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Showing Revision 27 created 04/24/2019 by Peter van de Ven.

  1. So, I have a confession to make.
  2. I only recently learned how to drive.
  3. And it was really hard.

  4. Now, this wasn't an older brain thing.
  5. Do you remember what it was like
    when you first learned how to drive,
  6. when every decision you made
    was so conscious and deliberate?
  7. I'd come home from my lessons
    completely wiped out mentally.
  8. Now, as a cognitive scientist,
  9. I know that this is
    because I was using a lot
  10. of something called "executive function."
  11. Executive function is our amazing ability
  12. to consciously control
    our thoughts, emotions and actions
  13. in order to achieve goals,
  14. like learning how to drive.
  15. It’s what we use
  16. when we need to break away from habit,
    inhibit our impulses and plan ahead.
  17. But we can see it most clearly
    when things go wrong.
  18. Like, have you ever accidentally
    poured orange juice on your cereal?
  19. (Laughter)
  20. Or ever start scrolling on Facebook
  21. and suddenly realise
    you’ve missed a meeting?
  22. Or maybe this one is more familiar:
  23. Ever planned to stop at the store
    on the way home from work
  24. and then drive all the way
    home instead, on autopilot?
  25. (Laughter)
  26. These things happen to everyone.
  27. And we usually call it "absentmindedness."
  28. But what's really happening
  29. is we're experiencing
    a lapse in executive function.
  30. So we use executive function every day
    in all aspects of our lives.
  31. And over the past 30 years,
  32. researchers have found that it predicts
    all kinds of good things,
  33. in childhood and beyond,
  34. like social skills, academic achievement,
    mental and physical health,
  35. making money, saving money
    and even staying out of jail.
  36. Sounds great, doesn't it?
  37. So it's no surprise
    that researchers like me
  38. are so interested in understanding it
    and figuring out ways to improve it.
  39. But lately, executive function has become
    a huge self-improvement buzz word.

  40. People think you can improve it
  41. through brain-training iPhone apps
    and computer games
  42. or by practicing it in a specific way,
    like playing chess.
  43. And researchers are trying
    to train it in the lab
  44. in hopes of improving it
  45. and other things related to it,
    like intelligence.
  46. Well, I'm here to tell you
  47. that this way of thinking
    about executive function is all wrong.
  48. Brain training won't improve
    executive function in a broad sense
  49. because it involves
    exercising it in a narrow way,
  50. outside of the real-world context
    in which we actually use it.
  51. So you can master that
    executive-function app on your phone,
  52. but that's not going to help you
    stop pouring OJ on your Cheerios
  53. twice a week.
  54. (Laughter)
  55. If you really want to improve
    your executive function
  56. in a way that matters for your life,
  57. you have to understand
    how it's influenced by context.
  58. Let me show you what I mean.
  59. There is a great task
    that we use in the lab
  60. to measure executive function
    in young children,
  61. called the dimensional change card sort.
  62. In this task, kids have to sort cards
    in one way, like by shape,
  63. over and over,
  64. until they build up a habit.
  65. And then they're asked to switch
    and sort the same cards in another way,
  66. like by color.
  67. Now, really young kids struggle with this.
  68. Three- and four-year-olds will usually
    keep sorting the cards in the old way
  69. no matter how many times you remind them
    of what they should be doing.
  70. (Video) Instructor: If it's blue,
    put it here. If it's red, put it here.
  71. Here's a blue one.
  72. Okay, so now we're going to play
    a different game.
  73. We're not going to play
    the color game anymore.
  74. Now we're going to play the shape game.
  75. In the shape game,
  76. all the stars go here,
    and all the trucks go here.
  77. Okay?
  78. Stars go here. Trucks go here.
  79. Where do the stars go?
  80. And where do the trucks go?
  81. Excellent. Okay.
  82. Stars go here. Trucks go here.
  83. Here's a truck.
  84. Stars go here. Trucks go here.
  85. Here's a star.
  86. (Laughter)
  87. So it's really compelling,
  88. and it's really obvious when she fails
    to use her executive function.
  89. But here's the thing:
  90. we could train her on this task
    and others like it,
  91. and eventually she'd improve.
  92. But does that mean she'd have improved
    her executive function outside of the lab?
  93. No, because in the real world,
    she'll need to use executive function
  94. to do a lot more than switching
    between shape and color.
  95. She'll need to switch
    from adding to multiplying,
  96. or from playing to tidying up,
  97. or from thinking about her own feelings
    to thinking about her friend.
  98. And success in real-world situations
  99. depends on things
    like how motivated you are
  100. and what your peers are doing.
  101. And it also depends
    on the strategies that you execute
  102. when you're using executive function
    in a particular situation.
  103. So what I'm saying
    is that context really matters.
  104. Now let me give you an example
    from my research.
  105. I recently brought in a bunch of kids
    to do the classic marshmallow test,
  106. which is a measure
    of delay of gratification
  107. that also likely requires
    a lot of executive function.
  108. So you may have heard about this test,
  109. but basically, kids are given a choice:
  110. they can have one marshmallow right away,
  111. or if they can wait for me
  112. to go to the other room
    and get more marshmallows,
  113. they can have two instead.
  114. Now, most kids really want
    that second marshmallow.
  115. But the key question is,
  116. How long can they wait?
  117. (Laughter)
  118. Now, I added a twist
    to look at the effects of context.
  119. I told each kid that they
    were in a group, like the green group,
  120. and I even gave them
    a green t-shirt to wear.
  121. And I said,
  122. "Your group waited for two marshmallows.
  123. and this other group,
    the orange group, did not."
  124. Or I said the opposite:
  125. "Your group didn't wait
    for two marshmallows,
  126. and this other group did."
  127. And then I left the kid alone in the room,
  128. and I watched on a webcam
    to see how long they waited.
  129. (Laughter)
  130. So what I found was
  131. that kids who believed that their group
    waited for two marshmallows
  132. were themselves more likely to wait.
  133. So they were influenced by a peer group
    that they'd never even met.
  134. Pretty cool, isn't it?
  135. Well, so with this result,
  136. I still didn't know if they
    were just copying their group
  137. or if it was something deeper than that.
  138. So I brought in some more kids.
  139. And after the marshmallow test,
  140. I showed them pictures of pairs of kids,
  141. and I told them one of these kids
    likes to have things right away,
  142. like cookies and stickers,
  143. and the other kid likes to wait
  144. so that they can have
    more of these things.
  145. And then I asked them,
  146. "Which one of these two kids
    do you like more?
  147. Who would you want to play with?"
  148. And what I found was that kids
    who believed that their group waited
  149. tended to prefer other kids
    who liked to wait for things.
  150. So learning what their group did
    made them value waiting more.
  151. And not only that,
  152. these kids likely use executive function
  153. to generate strategies
    to help themselves wait,
  154. like sitting on their hands
    or turning away from the marshmallow
  155. or singing a song to distract themselves.
  156. (Laughter)
  157. So what this all shows
    is just how much context matters.
  158. It's not that these kids
    had good executive function or bad;
  159. it's that the context
    helped them use it better.
  160. So what does this mean
    for you and for your kids?
  161. Well, let's say that you want
    to learn Spanish.
  162. You could try changing your context
  163. and surrounding yourself
    with other people who also want to learn.
  164. And even better, if these are people
    that you really like,
  165. that way you will be more motivated
    to use executive function.
  166. Or let's say that you want to help
    your child do better on her math homework.
  167. You could teach her strategies

  168. to use executive function
    in that particular context,
  169. like putting her phone away
    before she starts studying
  170. or planning to reward herself
    after studying for an hour.
  171. Now, I don't want to make it sound
    like context is everything.

  172. Executive function is really complex,
    and it's shaped by numerous factors.
  173. But what I want you to remember
  174. is if you want to improve
    your executive function
  175. in some aspect of your life,
  176. don't look for quick fixes.
  177. Think about the context in how you can
    make your goals matter more to you,
  178. and how you can use strategies to help
    yourself in that particular situation.
  179. I think the ancient Greeks
    said it best when they said,
  180. "Know thyself."
  181. And a key part of this is knowing
    how context shapes your behaviour
  182. and how you can use that knowledge
    to change for the better.
  183. Thank you.
  184. (Applause)