Kevin Ochsner, Ph.D. is one of the founding fathers of the social neuroscience field and Head of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Columbia University. As reported on the original article which also offers the recording of his presentation, Kevin offered a session with Phil Dixon on “the formation of habit” at the end of Day 1 at the 2010 NeuroLeadership Summit.

The session explored current models of feedback and their effectiveness in improving performance. An analysis on current feedback models revealed that they resulted in improved performance 30% of the time; no change 30% and made matters worse 40% of the time.

Psychology and neuroscience research has identified different types of mental processes and brain systems that give rise to our behavior and that make feedback more or less effective. The first mental processes are those driven by habit and second are those driven by thought. A conservative estimate is that humans are guided by habits 70-90% of the time and guided by deliberate planful thought only 10-30% of the time.

Unfortunately, most feedback is designed exclusively for the thought system. Feedback is often very general and high order, abstract and not specific, and delayed in time. As our habit systems are responsible for guiding our behavior most of the time, if you want to implement behavior change you have to speak to the habit system. This system changes slowly but responds to immediate feedback, and to be effective the feedback needs to be specific, not ambiguous, and positive so as not to elicit counter productive defensive habits.

So how do we change behavior? Firstly, change will only happen if the person has a desire to change. To implement behavior change there needs to be ownership of the behavior, commitment to a goal to change, and the identification and employment of strategies to enact the top down thought system to train and control the habitual impulses at play so as to develop a different way of responding. These are technically known as ‘implementation intentions’, or ‘If-then’ frameworks.

As we operate in habit mode most of the time, mindfulness and self reflection are useful techniques to monitor the impulses that come up and help us to notice when we need to change our behavior. When we recognize these moments pre-formulated intention strategies can reduce the burden on the thought system and make it easier for us to implement them when the time comes to regulate.

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