BREAK BAD HABITS

January 26th, 2023

The great Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), whose range of talents and career highlights remain as dazzling now as when he lived, was a man of exceptional character. At the age of 20 he aspired to moral perfection, and prepared a list of thirteen virtues he felt would make him an ideal man.

Throughout his long life, Franklin worked on perfecting these virtues, with varying degrees of success, later acknowledging that he was “incorrigible” and that “it is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.”

The harsh reality is that bad habits are an inescapable part of the human condition. For as long as human intellect has been concerned with calculated self-improvement, the hurdle of identifying and conquering bad habits has been high on the agenda. We are all acutely aware of the phenomenon – and whether we are comfortable admitting to our bad habits or not, we all know what they are, and would love to see them off, one way or another.

Over the past 150 years, with the introduction of a range of social science disciplines dealing with human behavior, and a proliferation of carefully vetted social psychology experiments, our understanding of bad habits and how to address them has vastly improved.

But in a field where hundreds of studies have furnished us with valuable information, there is one particular “discovery” vis-à-vis bad habits that stands out above them all – although, remarkably, it was not until many decades had passed that this incredible revelation was accepted by mainstream social science professionals.

In May 1971, Republican congressman Robert Steele and Democrat congressman Morgan Murphy, both freshman members of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Vietnam for an official visit. They came back with some very disturbing news: at least 15 percent of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam were hopelessly addicted to heroin.

President Nixon was prompted into action and announced the creation of a special agency to fight drug abuse that would be run under his personal authority: The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention.

The troubled life of this short-lived agency – it was quietly closed in June 1975 after Nixon had stepped down in disgrace – is vastly overshadowed by one relatively unknown aspect of its activities, the repercussions of which continued to reverberate long after its demise.

Nixon had been so shocked by the number of drug-addicted serviceman, that he ordered the new agency to conduct research into the progress of addicted servicemen once they returned home. Jerome Jaffe, a clinical psychiatrist, was appointed by Nixon to run the SAODAP office, and he, in turn, recruited a leading professor of sociology and psychiatry, Lee Robins, to help conduct the study, promising her unprecedented and unfettered access to the servicemen, in order to facilitate her work.

Robins immediately set up a system in which addicted servicemen were made to stay in Vietnam until they were fully weaned off heroin, after which they could return home. Back in the U.S., Robins kept tabs on them, collecting data at regular intervals. Incredibly, her research showed that the number of soldiers who became readdicted to heroin once they got back to the U.S. was 1 in 20, a startlingly low statistic.

Addiction professionals in the 1970s through the turn of the millennium simply refused to accept Robins’ data; their experience showed that addicts treated in the U.S. who then went home relapsed at a rate of around 90 percent.

Robins was accused of lying, of being politically motivated, of being unprofessional – and her results were dismissed as irrelevant and phony. Fast forward half a century, and today Robins’ study results are broadly accepted and the data she produced has been utterly vindicated.

The key to understanding this 180-degree change is the one critical element that differentiated the Vietnam addicts from U.S.-based addicts – the fact that almost none of the servicemen who took drugs in Vietnam had ever taken drugs in America.

David Neal, a psychologist specializing in behavior change and human decision-making, explains that when a behavior is frequently repeated, especially if the person does it in the same setting, one can change what that person wants to do, but their behavior is unlikely to follow their intentions. That’s because physical environments are often what shape human behavior.

“When [people] perform a behavior a lot — especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting — they outsource the control of the behavior to the environment,” Neal explains. But if they cease their bad habit in the place where that bad habit occurred, and then they relocate to a place where the bad habit has never previously occurred, the chances of a relapse are reduced exponentially.

Robins insisted that the soldiers serving in Vietnam – who had become addicted to heroin while serving there – had to be drug-free in Vietnam, and only then would they be allowed to return home. And once they were home, all the location triggers that had prompted their drug-taking in Vietnam were absent, and recidivism became a non-issue.

It is this phenomenon that underscores a cryptic reference in Parshat Bo, that you might easily miss even if you know about it. As part of the instructions to the Israelites in anticipation of redemption from Egypt, Moses tells them (Ex. 12:21) מִשְׁכוּ וּקְחוּ לָכֶם צֹאן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶם וְשַׁחֲטוּ הַפֶּסַח – “Go, choose lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering.”

Rashi comments that the first word, “mishchu”, appears superfluous, but it isn’t – it is there as an instruction for the Israelites to “draw themselves away from idolatry” before they “choose lambs” to be used in the service of God. The Israelite addiction to paganism had to tackled and conquered in Egypt, in the very location where it had overwhelmed them, so that it would not affect them once they had relocated elsewhere.

According to Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah (1913-1995), this Rashi reveals just how hard it is to overcome bad habits and resist temptation. Even as the Jewish nation prepared for the Exodus, after months of open miracles and exhilarating expectation, they still had to deal with the possibility that they would relapse into paganism if they didn’t address this “bad habit” before they left.

People are often defined more by their bad habits than by their good ones. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”

Avoiding triggers that result in bad habits coming to the fore is a key tool to ensure that they never define us, and that our life experience is as free from temptation as it can be. After all, “it is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.”

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