We all have behaviors that we want to change – whether it’s the way we eat, how often we exercise, or a lingering smoking habit. Interestingly, new research shows that one strong predictor of whether or not we will be successful in getting rid of bad habits has to do with how engaged brain areas devoted to thinking about ourselves become when we contemplate behavioral change.

In a study published a few weeks ago in Nature Neuroscience, researcher Hannah Faye Chua and her colleagues at the University of Michigan presented would-be smoking quitters with messages designed to change their smoking behavior. Some messages were tailored to each individual smoker, identifying obstacles each person needed to overcome to quit successfully and how they might achieve their quitting goals. Other messages were more general, not tailored to the needs of each individual smoker.

While people listened to the smoking cessation information, their brains were scanned using fMRI. Everyone then completed a web-based smoking cessation program tailored to their individual needs. Four months later, the researchers followed up with the participants over the phone to determine who had been most successful at quitting smoking.

What the researchers found was that activation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex when people listened to the tailored smoking cessation messages – one of the major areas of the brain devoted to thinking about ourselves – predicted the odds of having quit smoking four months later.

In other words, the more people activated brain areas involved in self-awareness, the more likely they were to have successfully quit smoking. Moreover, these self-related brain areas were most active when people heard the quitting message that had been specifically tailored to their own needs (in contrast to the on-size-fits-all smoking messages).

For some time now researchers have known that public health messages tailored to an individual are better at curbing unhealthy behavior than more general information. But, they haven’t really known why these specific messages are most effective. This new work suggests that one of the reasons tailored messages work is that they prompt self-awareness areas of the brain to get involved. The engagement of these brain areas likely helps people integrate the health-change goals they are hearing about with their own feelings and thoughts about themselves. The end result? Behavioral change. Indeed, follow-up interviews  with the successful quitters revealed that these folks had considerably changed how they responded to stress and had made progress in avoiding the particular situations that often prompted them to smoke.

These results provide an exciting new leap in thinking about how to construct health intervention programs that are most likely to get people to alter their unwanted behaviors. As it happens, when we think about ourselves, a desired behavior is more likely to follow.

Please visit Sian’s blog to find out more about her book, Choke.

  1. Brittany says:

    This is a well-researched and insightful article.  It makes sense that a more personalized message and distinctly targeted motivation result in changed behavior.  With this research, it would appear that the entire marketing strategy of movements to try to stop alcohol abuse, drug abuse, or smoking habits is almost useless.  The general information and open-ended consequences promote little brain activity or “self-awareness” compared to a personalized, well-developed answer to why an individual should stop their destructive patterns.  This information has the potential to change the way countless organizations, including a movie production I am involved with, will strategically target change in the lives of addicts.  Thanks you for a great article.

  2. rick barkan says:

    I have an affirmation program you will love. I’ve tried calling you several times. Reach out when you get a chance please.
    847 686.8100

  3. First of all thank you Sian for the energy that you’ve put into sharing this information.  I’m up out the bed overwhelm with thoughts of positive change, so while I scanned the tweets [you and I are friends at twitter] I found yours.  Change definitely “is” within all of our grasp, as you suggest, by engaging our brains but also in understanding and acknowledging the power of our spirit 🙂

    Thank you once again Sian,

    Continue Blessed


  4. Deanna Figueroa says:

    I stopped smoking some time ago, but still wear patches and still experience cravings. I keep a pack of old cigarettes with a partially smoked one in a drawer to remind myself how hideous they smell to me now as a type of aversion therapy. I used patches, but no cessation program, but I’ve seen some over the years and nothing caught my attention.

    I quit before using Chantix and that worked very well for me. I was highly motivated and had no problems for a long time after. I went back to smoking during an extremely stressful family crisis.

    This article certainly makes a lot of sense.

    I have been using affirmations and a lot of prayer to keep from going back to smoking this time because keeping a roof over my head depends on not smoking, so I’m highly motivated, but of course for the wrong reasons, but every day is still a struggle.

    I would love to find a cessation program that would help.

  5. Rotem Cohen says:

    I’ve stopped smoking 8 months ago, after being a smoker for 15 years. I have no cravings and I don’t miss smoking AT ALL.

    I totally agree that Self Awareness is critical to self change.

    Several books and programs helped me stop smoking, but if I had to recommend only two, they would be:

    1. Allen Carr’s – “The Easy Way to Stop Smoking”. It convinced me that:

    – Smoking is NOT a habit, but a chemical drug addiction. Everything else is basically illusion.
    – Stopping smoking is much easier than what we believe it “should” be.

    I listened to the audio version about 10 times, but stopped smoking only a year later, after listening to:

    2. Lee Milteer’s “Habit Busting” program. It helped me develop self awareness, taught me how to talk to myself (nicely) and also helped me craft the specific plan that caused me to stop smoking, which involved a deadline and positive affirmations.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Tamara says:

    If you want to quit smoking get Alan carrs easyway to quit smoking, my mum brother me and many of friends quit from it. I told my doctor about it. It works. It’s the honeat truth. I  Am a proud non smoker for now and forever

  7. 2gnoME says:

    Great article! We completely agree. We would love your feedback on our site where we are helping people gain self-knowledge and awareness by letting them see how their self-perception vaires with the way their friends and peers actually see them. 

  8. lorna wright says:

    I would love to quit smoking .

  9. Robin says:

    Makes perfect sense that you would have better success when you are self aware.
    I quit after using the e-cigarette. It gave me the action of smoking and the nicotine, but none of the carcinogens. That too can become a habit, so I had to kick that habit as well. Both are difficult and although I was never a bit time smoker, I did so for approximately 23 years. Not good.
    I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life and feel so proud of myself! That too, helps perpetuate the quitting once you’re on a roll. Put it this way, I wouldn’t smoke a cigarette if someone paid me. Ick! 
    As a result of quitting, I’ve become more health conscience with my foods, as well as cleaning products and external products for my skin and make-up and exercise at least 4 days a week. Once you start thinking of yourself as a precious person with a precious body and precious life, you kind of fall in love with taking care of yourself. Best of luck to all who are trying to quit. I know you can do it! 😀

  10. weisseis says:

    Für mich ist es schlimmer meine Seele zu verlieren. Sie liegt tiefer als der Tabak.

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