New article on habit-based interventions!

Gardner, Rebar, de Wit & Lally (in press,). What is habit and how can it be used to change real-world behaviour? Narrowing the theory-reality gap. Social and Personality Psychology Compass

Grant awarded for PhD project on exercise interventions to promote mental health of Dutch students

Together with Dr. Joram Mul of the Fit Brain Lab at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences at UvA, we were awarded a PhD grant by the Centre for Urban Mental Health. In our STRIDE project, we will study determinants of mental health and exercise adherence in Dutch students, and design and implement evidence-based interventions. We will work closely together with our colleague Sascha Struijs, project leader of Caring Universities, colleagues at our respective departments, and directors of student sports centers. We look forward to starting this exciting project soon!

Joining the CAREFREE project to make operating theatres greener

I look forward to being involved in the CAREFREE project: Creating A healthieR Environment for FutuRE patiEnts

This project is coordinated by Maastricht University/MUMC and funded by NWO through the Knowledge and Innovation Covenant’s ‘Collaboration in mission-driven innovation’ (NWO-KIC). I will join the team of Frenk van Harreveld (co-applicant), Jonas Dalege, Monique Chambon (postdoc), Carys Batcup (PhD student). 

Dutch healthcare accounts for 7-8% of the total national greenhouse gas emissions. In hospitals, at least 20% of this is related to the operating theatre. This includes waste, inhalation gases for anesthesia, energy for air refreshment, and medicine residues in wastewater. To change the behavior of all stakeholders, this project assembled a very diverse team to make the operating theatre greener by gaining insight into the biggest polluters.

The CAREFREE (Creating A healthieR Environment for FutuRE patiEnts) project aims to fill knowledge gaps but also to provide tools that enhance trust, acceptance, and a change in behavior for the myriad of stakeholders.

Please find further information here.

New article on age differences in routine formation

Medication adherence can be vital for one’s health, especially in older adults. However, previous research has demonstrated that medication adherence is negatively affected by age-related cognitive decline. In the current study we investigated whether older adults are able to compensate for this decline by relying more on the formation of efficient, automatized routines. To this end, we directly compared daily (placebo) medication adherence in a healthy sample of 68 younger (18–29  years) and 63 older adults (65–86  years) over a period of 4  weeks. We show that despite an age-related decline in cognitive functions (i.e., poorer working memory, prospective memory, task switching, and goal-directed control), older adults adhered better to a daily pill intake routine than younger adults did and, in line with our hypothesis about increased routine formation, reported higher subjective automaticity of pill intake. Across age groups, automatization of pill intake was related to intake regularity and conscientiousness, but not to individual differences in habit tendency as measured in the lab nor to explicit strategic planning. Crucially, the age-related increase in pill intake adherence was mediated by experienced automatization as well as motivation. These findings demonstrate that intact habitual processes and high motivation aid older adults in successfully forming daily routines.

New article on Improving Goal Striving and Resilience in Older Adults

Improving Goal Striving and Resilience in Older Adults Through a Personalized Metacognitive Self-Help Intervention: A Protocol Paper

Abstract: Successful aging is often linked to individual’s ability to demonstrate resilience: the maintenance or quick recovery of functional ability, well-being, and quality of life despite losses or adversity. A crucial element of resilience is behavioral adaptability, which refers to the adaptive changes in behavior in accordance with internal or external demands. Age-related degradation of executive functions can, however, lead to volition problems that compromise flexible adjustment of behavior. In contrast, the reliance on habitual control has been shown to remain relatively intact in later life and may therefore provide an expedient route to goal attainment among older adults. In the current study, we examine whether a metacognitive self-help intervention (MCSI), aimed at facilitating goal striving through the gradual automatization of efficient routines, could effectively support behavioral adaptability in favor of resilience among older adults with and without (sub-clinical) mental health problems. Methods. This metacognitive strategy draws on principles from health and social psychology, as well as clinical psychology, and incorporates elements of established behavioral change and activation techniques from both fields. Additionally, the intervention will be tailored to personal needs and challenges, recognizing the significant diversity that exist among aging individuals. Discussion. Despite some challenges that may limit the generalizability of the results, our MCSI program offers a promising means to empower older adults with tools and strategies to take control of their goals and challenges. This can promote autonomy and independent functioning, and thereby contribute to adaptability and resilience in later life.

Full reference: Brinkhof, L.P., Ridderinkhof, K.R., Murre, J.M.J., Krugers, H.J., & de Wit, S. (in press in BMC Psychology). Improving Goal Striving and Resilience in Older Adults Through a Personalized Metacognitive Self-Help Intervention: A Protocol Paper


New article on habit-predisposing factors and wellbeing

Habit-predisposing factors that are positively associated with mental wellbeing and quality of life

The present study set out to examine how individual differences in quality of life (QoL) and mental well-being (MWB) in older adults (N = 1116, 55 – 92 years old) relate to the inclination to engage in strategic planning and lifestyle regularity. Importantly, the beneficial effects of these two habit-predisposing factors on MWB and QoL were found to be mediated by conscientiousness, a personality trait characterized by a tendency to be goal-oriented, organized, responsible and disciplined, and to plan for the future

Brinkhof, L.P., Ridderinkhof, K.R., Bieleke, M., Murre, J.M.J., Krugers, H.J., & de Wit, S. Are Older Individuals Predisposed to Habitual Control More Resilient? Current Psychology

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: