This post is excerpted and adapted from a talk delivered at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon. Go here for the full video.

Rabbi Ruhi Rubenstein: Our speaker tonight, Professor Elliot Berkman, studies habit formation, and this certainly isn’t his terminology, but his work made me think: why is Teshuva so difficult? Maybe there is something in our lives that we want to change, and we even intend to change it, and yet so often we still end up on Yom Kippur having done the same things that we said we were going to stop doing last Yom Kippur, to put it simply. So I thought, “this is certainly a question that has quite a lot of Jewish tradition.” It appears over and over again, as you will see.

So our first, earliest text is from the Mishnah, from the oral compendium of law circa 225 C.E. And there’s this very pithy phrase that our Talmud Torah students sing at music time, “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah.” One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one transgression leads to another transgression.” And then this is interesting: “the reward, the payoff of a mitzvah, is the opportunity to do more mitzvot.” And maybe once you get a reputation for doing mitzvot, people will send more mitzvot your way. Conversely, the reward of a transgression is another transgression, or the opportunity to transgress further. I think there are lot of potential meanings of “the payoff of a transgression is another transgression.” Maybe one transgression is a paving stone in the path towards another transgression. That is definitely one perspective, one that we’ll see in the next texts. But maybe we’ll keep our minds open to other possibilities.

This [next] comment, from around 550 CE, shows up in the context of talking about someone who has transgressed a particular principle. In this case, it is the principle of not borrowing or lending at usury. And it is actually a mitzvah not to take out a usurious loan at interest (not a mitzvah that most anybody who has a mortgage nowadays is following). The Talmud gets into the midst of this discussion about how if you start out taking one loan, and then you can’t repay it, you’re going to take out more loans and more loans, until you’ve mortgaged everything, you functionally have to sell yourself into slavery. (When the Talmud talks about slavery, it’s not chattel slavery as we construe it, rather, it’s being a bondsman to someone until you can pay off your debts).

Anyway, this is just the context. But they then say this is in accordance with the opinion of Rav Huna, who said: “Once a man has committed a transgression and repeated it, it is […] permitted to him.” 

And then the Talmudic editorial voice responds: What does that mean, “permitted to him?” That can’t be. There’s no such thing as a transgression becoming permitted just because you’ve done it. Say, rather, that it becomes in that person’s own mind it as if it is permitted to him.

And then Rashi, who was sort of our most comprehensive authority and commentator on the Talmud, further explicates “becomes as if permitted” from the transgressor’s perspective. At first, when someone has only transgressed once, the text states that they feel the pain of what they were doing, which implies that they have internalized that they were transgressing, but did not recoil from the transgression, and nonetheless have done it.  But the second time, the text states, they have “no opportunity” – that is, no opportunity to think twice, no opportunity to repent, because it doesn’t even register internally as a sin. 

So once we get used to doing something, even if we know intellectually that it’s wrong, there is some aspect of our internal self-checking mechanisms that break down, according to Talmudic view, and make it really difficult for us to stop.

And I think the Talmud is not just talking about addictions specifically, but about any sort of habit that we might get into, and the ways that we justify ourselves to ourselves and to those around us. And I’m very curious to see how Professor Elliot Berkman’s studies in psychology will converge and diverge from the Talmudic positions.

Elliot Berkman, PhD: The work in my lab specifically focuses on this area. We study goals, motivation and behavior change. So how is it that we set goals for ourselves? How do we motivate ourselves to pursue those goals? And ultimately, how do we change our behavior?

The first question is: what is this concept of self-control? Meaning, how do you direct your behavior towards your better self? If you have some delicious treats that you want on an impulsive level, but you’ve got some long term goal – you want to eat less sugar, to exercise more – how do we sort of promote those kinds of better self? There are many ways of approaching that. From my perspective, what I want to impress on you is that the psychology and the neuroscience of this show that our brains are designed to form habits. I think habits generally get a bad rap, or a bad rap. We think of “good habits” and “bad habits” by default, but in general they’re neither, just adaptive.

fMRIs show that when people are seriously planning to engage in something, you see this activation in this gray region, which is what we might call the superior ganglia – the superior part of the basal ganglia. This region is very phylogenetically old. It’s one of the brain systems that’s been preserved across evolution. And what you see is that as people learn to do something, the reward system shifts in terms of which parts of the basal ganglia are controlling the behavior.

And the reward kind of reinforces this, so neurotransmitters such as dopamine are quite involved in this pathway. It’s sort of the gluing together, in memory, of a behavior and a reward. And that’s one of the core functions of this circuit: I do something, it’s rewarded, I remember the context where engaging in behavior caused a reward. And from an evolutionary perspective, that’s incredibly adaptive. If I know that I took a certain path to find an apple tree, and I know there were good apples there, I’m going to want to remember that, right. And my brain has a mechanism to do that. And over time, what’s clever but insidious about this system is that eventually, the control passes between these two subregions of the striatum – it goes from the anterior to the posterior. And then over time you don’t necessarily need the reward to be present every time.

I want to emphasize that the reason that our brains have done this for such a long time is because habits aren’t necessarily bad as such. They’re quite powerful because they’re efficient.  This part of the brain can trigger behavior even in the absence of reward, and that’s kind of the essence of how the habit learning system works. It’s rewarded, it’s passed off, and then it becomes habitual. Which I think is just exactly what Rabbi Ruhi just said earlier in kind of neuroscientific terms. This is why any kind of behavior, to the extent that it gets rewarded, is going to become likely over time. If I commit a mitzvah and it feels good, then it’s rewarding to do a mitzvah.  Likewise, if I do something bad, we can construe all different kinds of bad things that will be rewarding too, and will, just the same, become self-reinforcing.

What’s nice about behavior being rewarded and reinforced is that over time, it becomes what we would call automatic; this behavior is something that we can engage in without really thinking – mindlessly. And that’s pretty adaptive for humans, a species that has a pretty exquisite ability to focus and to think really complex, abstract thoughts. 

But that ability is really kind of feeble. The fact is that we can only really focus on, at best, one thing at a time  And it’s interesting why that is. Maybe it’s a property of our visual system; literally, there’s a part of our retina, the fovea, that can focus with high detail, and the rest of our vision is blurry. And our mind kind of works like that too. When you attend to something, you can give it your full attention, but everything else fades into the background. 

As a property of that, our minds, our ability to focus on things in a really careful deliberate way, operate in a serial manner, meaning we have to do one thing at a time. Humans in general can do amazing things. We can read, we can do Torah study, but when you’re doing those things, you really can’t be doing other things at the same time. You can’t operate in parallel, only in serial. And so the idea of habits is that they’re kind of evolution’s trick, it’s evolution’s way of enabling us to do more than one thing at a time. Once we learn something, once the behavior becomes habitual, then it no longer needs to occupy that precious foveal space, and it no longer needs to occupy our very limited attention. 

Humans are social creatures, and our habits are formed through social relationships and learning, but they can just as easily be formed through self-concept. The famous psychologist Leon Festinger identified the experience of what he called cognitive dissonance. Maybe you’ve heard of this, but one of the things that triggers cognitive dissonance is essentially hypocrisy – noticing when your behavior doesn’t line up with your expectations of yourself, or your internal standards. If I think of myself as a healthy person, and I catch myself ordering donuts, then I become aware of hypocrisy, that inconsistency. That’s very positive, since I’m going to be motivated to change my behaviors. 

One way of countering this is to “pre-load” plans. If I’m trying to quit smoking and a friend offers me a cigarette after dinner – putting me on the spot by offering me something that I really want – it’s going to be really hard to figure out a way out of that, unless I have something already in mind that I can easily call up, a plan for how I’m going to handle that situation. For example, if I walk by Blue Star, my favorite donut place in Portland, then I’ll plan to get a big cup of coffee instead.

These are known as implementation intentions, and they’re a good little trick. The limitation that some people have pointed to with implementation intentions is that they are still very focused at the level of the individual person. When we’re talking about something like goal-setting or goal striving, it sometimes actually makes sense to broaden out and consider the unit of analysis being a dyad, a partner couple, a parent-child couple, a romantic couple, or a family or a community. We learn from each other, and when there’s an expectation of behavior in a certain context, it becomes hard to buck that trend.

We can see this, in terms of social norms, in little nudge-based manipulations. If you stay in a hotel, you might see a little card on the bed that says “if you want, you can choose to conserve water by hanging up your towels.” But one of the most powerful ways to encourage people to change their behavior would be to present them with a simple social norm, such as “Most of our guests prefer to hang their towels on the hook to save water.”  This is setting a social norm, and making that salient. What the nudge is telling you that well, if you don’t do this, you’re not really fitting in, you’re different, and you’re going to be different from other people.

It’s also kind of an interesting example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the early studies of this were before people really started caring about conserving water as a society, and so objectively, the norm of most people hanging up the towels was false. So if you say “most of our guests prefer to do this,” at first, it was not true, but as people started to believe it, other people wanted to do it, then they started doing it. And so at some point, then it became true. And that’s sort of the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But behavior itself, even within the life of the person, isn’t disconnected from the rest of the person’s life. The fact that, say, I want to change my eating – I’m going to eat less red meat and eat less sugar, right, and eat more green leafy vegetables. if you really think about it this in terms of social psychology, such goals are sort of embedded in your broader self-concept. 

It’s not a stretch, I think, to say that for some people, behavior change doesn’t just require changing that particular behavior. It involves changing your entire self-concept, and changing completely the way you think of yourself as a person. And so we can develop interventions where, instead of money or the food or something like that, the reward becomes more about you living up to your ideal self. That can be pretty powerfully rewarding. In this way, we are continuing to learn how we can generate behavior change.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science).