Want to stop biting your nails? Forget that you learned how.
New research published in Psychological Science shows that purposefully wiping your memory of learning a new habit can help undo it. Participants who got in the habit of responding to certain words by striking a key with their right or left hand were able to forget those associations when told that the computer had crashed and instructed to forget what they’d learned. Half the participants weren’t told of the crash, and didn’t forget.
On a followup task, the participants were told to categorize the same words by their German gender. Those who had been told to forget the previous associations whizzed through the exercise, while the others struggled.
A second experiment, however, showed that it’s much harder to forget rules that aren’t arbitrary. This time, participants were asked to classify numbers in space in an intuitive way. Still, those who were told to forget were able to do so more than those who weren’t.
“Directed forgetting,” as the researchers call it, could be used to help people break unwanted habits. It’s not clear, however, how much impact it would have on long-ingrained habits. If you started biting your nails this morning, though — forget it!