New article: the brain on automatic pilot

Strategic if-then planning, also known as ‘implementation intentions’ have been proposed to support behavior change by accelerating the shift from goal-directed control towards reliance on efficient habits. It has even been argued that these plans lead to ‘instant habits’.  To investigate this notion, we studied brain activity during a computerized task that assessed instrumental learning and the balance between goal-directed towards habitual control.

During the learning phase of the task, we found evidence that implementation intentions initially decreased activity in the caudate, which may reflect stronger reliance on efficient S-R associations from the outset of training, as this striatal brain region has previously been implicated in goal-directed control. In contrast, when the flexibility of behavior was assessed in the test phase, we no longer found any effect on brain activity nor on behavioral performance.

Therefore, this study provides partial support for the instant habit hypothesis. It suggests that implementation intentions share with learned habits the beneficial effect on efficiency, but not the detrimental effect of rigidity.

Reference: Van Timmeren, T., O’Doherty, J.P., Dzinalija, N., & de Wit, S. (2023). Can the Brain Strategically Go on Automatic Pilot? A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study Investigating the Effect of If–Then Planning on Behavioral Flexibility, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1-19

Grant awarded: addressing knowledge gaps in oral health interventions

Through the Theme-based Collaboration program, the University of Amsterdam aims to innovate research and education through collaboration, both between disciplines within the UvA and with external partners. The theme ‘Healthy Future’ involves mental and physical health in relation to cultural factors, behaviour, participation in society and the realisation of equal opportunities. Within this theme, we were awarded a Seed Grant to collaborate with the Faculty of Dentistry (ACTA).

The ORAHabit-study: Addressing Knowledge Gaps in Oral Health Interventions

The ORAHabit-study is a collaboration between Dr. Sanne de Wit (Psychology, UvA) and Dr. Catherine Volgenant (ACTA: Academic Center Dentistry Amsterdam). We will translate insights from health psychology on behaviour change and habits to the domain of oral health. The ultimate aim is to improve oral hygiene intervention programs. The seed grant will fund an intervention study to investigate incorporation of a new oral hygiene routine and the role of automatic processes. In follow-up studies, the research can be broadened to studying the effectiveness of a multi-faceted habit-based intervention in different socioeconomic groups.

New article: the brains of creatures of habit

Why are some people rely on habits more ‘creatures of habit’ than others?

In this study, which will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, we investigated what determines why some people automate a desired routine more quickly than others. In this case we studied the routine of taking a (placebo) pill daily for 3 weeks. Pill intake was measured in young, healthy adults using electronic pill boxes, and subjects reported daily how automatically they did this. We found that conscientiousness plays a role as a personality trait; but also how structured someone’s life is. If you have more structure, you form a new (desired) habit faster.

Importantly, we also determined whether differences in (white matter) brain connectivity have predictive value for who is more (or less) a ‘creature of habit’. In summary, our findings suggest that striatal connections to cortical regions involved in goal-directed and cognitive control are a negative predictor of automatizing daily pill intake. In other words, people with strong connections to cognitive control areas reported more automatic pill taking. This fits well with the idea that habits have both advantages and disadvantages, namely: efficient and smooth execution of routine behavior versus a loss of flexible control.

Reference: Van de Vijver, I., Verhoeven, A.A.C., & de Wit, S. (2023). Individual Differences in Corticostriatal White-Matter Tracts Predict Successful Daily-Life Routine Formation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 35(4), 571-575

New article on strategic automaticity

Strategic if-then plans, also known as ‘implementation intentions’ have been shown to support the formation of habits, for instance in the domains of a healthy diet and exercise. In the present study we investigated whether this efficiency comes at the expense of behavioral flexibility. Learned habits that have been stamped in through repetition are rigid, but is the same true for planned habits? Our findings suggest that indeed there may be a loss of flexibility. This may apply especially to situations in which the contingencies between behavior and outcomes are complex, with implementation intentions shifting the attention to simple stimulus-response associations.

Reference: Van Timmeren, T., & de Wit, S. (2022). Instant habits versus flexible tenacity: Do implementation intentions accelerate habit formation? Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 

Coming up: Tim will present his digital detox findings at the International Conference on Behavioral Addictions

Tim will present his research into the effects of a digital detox on social media use, habits and wellbeing.

Authors: Tim van Timmeren, Suhaavi Kochhar, Mariek vanden Abeele & Sanne de Wit
Abstract: Many people spend 3 or more hours daily on social media and almost half of users indicate they want to reduce their usage. An increasingly popular intervention to regain control is a period of abstinence or ‘digital detox’. However, evidence for the effectiveness of detox-interventions is limited, and the underlying mechanisms are largely unknown. In this study, we investigated the effects of a digital detox on social media use, mental wellbeing, and experienced automaticity and craving. A total of 120 young adults motivated to reduce usage were randomly assigned to either an experimental or waiting-list condition. After a one-week baseline measurement, participants in the experimental group removed all social media apps for one week (i.e. detox), followed by three weeks of follow-up measurements. Using a combination of ecological momentary assessment, smartphone usage logging data and weekly questionnaires, we found that the detox significantly reduced social media use, automaticity and craving up to three weeks post-detox, while improving mental wellbeing, sleep quality and experienced social media use problems. Our findings suggest that social media is driven by both automatic habits and craving, and that detoxing is an effective way to reduce social media habits for those who want to cut back.

Sanne presents at SfN conference

Sanne gave a talk at the (virtual) Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting 2021 (8th -11th of Nov ’21), entitled ‘Habits in humans: in search of a better experimental measure’. This was part of a mini-symposium organized by Youna Vandaele ‘Alternative Conceptions of Habits and Their Underlying Neural Circuits’:

The study of habitual behavior and its underlying circuits is impeded by its operationalization as an absence of goal-directed behavior. This minisymposium will focus on new approaches to characterize habit and its neural mechanisms. This transdisciplinary topic will catalyze insightful discussions about the concept of habit that will be addressed under multiple complementary perspectives, from computational and animal modeling to translation in human research on decision making and psychopathologies.

Preprint available: Investigating habits in human with a symmetrical outcome-revaluation task

A PsyArXiv Preprint of the following article can be found here:
Investigating habits in human with a symmetrical outcome-revaluation task.
Watson, P., Verhoeven, A.A.C.,  Gladwin, T. & de Wit, S.

In this paper, we present the novel ‘symmetrical outcome-revaluation paradigm’ that can be used to study the balance between goal-directed and habitual control in humans.

New paper: Competing influences on healthy food choices: Mindsetting versus contextual food cues.

A new paper on the effects of mindset (triggers) and food-associated cues on healthy food choices by Sabine-Frank-Podlech and colleagues appeared in Appetite. In this study, we showed that food choices could be influenced by a (hedonic or health) mindset manipulation, but a more reliable effect was that mindset-associated cues biased food choices. Finally, we replicated previous demonstrations that external Pavlovian cues robustly bias food choice towards the signaled (healthy or unhealthy) food, in this case regardless of mindset.

Reference: Frank-Podlech, S., Watson, P., Verhoeven, A.A.C., Stegmaier, S., Preissl, H., de Wit, S. (2021). Competing influences on healthy food choices: Mindsetting versus contextual food cues. Appetite, 166.

Link to paper

New paper: Can Habits Impede Creativity by Inducing Fixation?

A new paper on the fixating effect of habits on creativity – by Paula Ibáñez de Aldecoa, Sanne de Wit and Sabine Tebbich – was published in Frontiers of Psychology.

Reference: Ibáñez de Aldecoa, P.,  de Wit, S., & Tebbich, S. (2021). Can Habits Impede Creativity by Inducing Fixation? Frontiers in Psychology.

Link to paper

Tim gives a presentation about the effects of a digital detox at the opening of ‘de Brug’ (UvA)

After being fully renovated and decorated with life-size artwork by Lennard Kok, ‘De Brug’ was officially reopened on the 12th of October 2021. To celebrate this, Tim was invited to give a 10-minute ‘TED-talk’ on the effects of a digital detox, together with three other FMG-scientists building bridges between other disciplines and to society: Willem Boterman (GPIO), Thijs Bol (Sociology) and Saar Mollen (Cw).

Neuropsycholoog Tim van Timmeren onderzoekt het effect van een digitale detox tegen een social media-overdosis
Dat jongeren veel tijd besteden aan social media, is bekend. Maar hoe erg is dat? Neuropsycholoog Tim van Timmeren onderzoekt hoe mensen de controle over social media gebruik kunnen terug winnen. Is de zogeheten ‘digitale detox’, oftewel tijdelijk geen social media meer gebruiken, een effectieve manier om gebruik te verminderen? En welk effect heeft zo’n detox op welzijn en slaap? Neuropsycholoog Tim van Timmeren doet er onderzoek naar.

ABC’s networking event 2021 is coming up!

Tim is on the committee to organize this year’s ABC Networking Event to Reconnect Researchers!

After more than a year of little opportunity to connect with your co-workers and fellow ABC members, please join to meet and connect with other ABC members and other brain and cognition researchers in Amsterdam on the virtual grounds of Gathertown!

Presentatie SSS Pharmacology: First year symposium Groningen Universiteit about the question whether behavioral addictions exist

Tim gave a talk at the first-year symposium for all ‘Pharmacy’ students at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen: “Habit or secret addiction? – the brain’s reward system”. Other speakers of the symposium were dr. Dorien Treur (UvA), emeritus prof. Wim van den Brink (Amsterdam UMC – AMC) and Prof. Scheurink (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen). In his talk, Tim presented gambling disorder as a prototypical behavioral addiction, and discussed possible other potential behavioral addictions.

Bent u 55+ en wilt u bijdragen aan (online) wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar gezonde veroudering? Schrijf u dan in!

Hoewel er in het verleden al veel onderzoek is gedaan naar de factoren die kunnen bijdragen aan gezond ouder worden en het versterken van veerkracht, is nog lang niet alles bekend. Vooral als het gaat om het samenspel van verschillende factoren, is nog veel te ontdekken. Deze online studie is dan ook bedoeld om unieke, onverwachte dynamieken bloot te leggen tussen leefstijlgewoontes, demografische, sociale, omgevings-, psychologische, psychosociale en cognitieve factoren die bijdragen aan succesvolle veroudering en veerkracht.

U kunt zich inschrijven (en meer informatie vinden) op deze website:

Sociale Vraagstukken: “Investeer in publieke ruimte die fysieke afstand vergemakkelijkt”

Anderhalve meter afstand houden vinden we steeds moeilijker worden. Vooral jongeren lijken er minder toe bereid. Investeer daarom nationaal in een alternatieve aanpak, betogen vier wetenschappers: nudging, waarmee het gedrag van mensen wordt beïnvloed door aanpassingen in hun omgeving.

Door Sanne de Wit, Nynke van der Laan, Frenk van Harreveld, Bart Engelen

Stadszaken: Waarom afstand houden lastig is (en 6 andere inzichten over physical distancing)

Het houden van anderhalve meter afstand ging de afgelopen periode vaak goed, maar soms ook mis, met afgelopen weekend enkele incidenten op stranden en een demonstratie op de Dam als voorbeeld. Waarom vinden we afstand houden toch zo moeilijk, ook al weten we waarom het belangrijk is? vroeg het aan gedragswetenschapper Sanne de Wit:

ABC Talent grant awarded to Tim and Sanne: the promises and perils of a digital detox

Tim van Timmeren was awarded the ABC Talent Grant in the April ’20 round of the Amsterdam Brain & Cognition Centre, UvA (PI: Sanne de Wit).  The project is entitled: The promises and perils of a ‘digital detox’: An integrated investigation of the role of craving, habits and corticostriatal pathways.

Many young adults spend 3-5 hours daily on social media and some indicate that they feel ‘addicted’, pointing to an emerging public health problem. The idea of a “digital detox” to regain control over social media use has become increasingly popular. However, the effectiveness of detox-interventions remains controversial. The promise of a detox is that it helps to break the habit, but the peril is that it could ultimately lead to intensified use as a consequence of “incubation of craving”. In this ABC Talent project, we aim to elucidate the effects of a digital detox on social media use, and the underlying mechanisms of habit and craving. During and following a detox intervention, we will apply Ecological Momentary Assessment of self-reported craving and automaticity and relate this to duration and frequency of social media use. Additionally, we will conduct an fMRI investigation of the mechanisms underlying a digital detox.

NWO Replication grant awarded: 66 days to form a habit?

Sanne obtained a replication grant from NWO to replicate the research by Lally et al. from 2010 into the time it takes for habits to form. The study by Lally et al. has been very influential, in science and in the media. The finding of median 66 days it took to form a new habit is often cited. The study will be replicated in four locations with a team of researchers (Jaap Murre, Lotte Brinkhof, Annette Horstmann, Paul Fletcher, Maik Bieleke, and Julia Schüler), on a larger sample, and the researchers hope to gain insight into how habits are formed.

By funding replication NWO wants to contribute to increasing the transparency of research and the quality of how results are reported. The funding instrument aims at cornerstone research that in the past formed the basis for follow-up research or have assumed an important place in education, policy-making or the public debate.