The polar bear

The polar bear

Stopping behavior that we are accustomed to is really hard.

If we like the behavior we want to stop it is even harder.

The problem with habits and routines is that they are really integrated into our everyday life. To take the easy example of smoking or sugar craving: there are many moments of the day where the routine of smoking or eating exists. Every time such a moment comes by, we will be reminded of our so loved behavior.

Habits and routines are hard to stop because we already know that way and it is really easy to slip back into this behavior. It is all autopilot.

Struggling with the bear

In the novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky one brother asks the other to not think of a white bear. The brother is perplexed by this request.

Experimental psychology used this beautiful example in their labs and asked participants to not think of white bears for five minutes. Every time they did think about a white bear they were asked to ring a bell.

Other participants were told to think of anything they wanted (no prohibitions). If they came across the thought of a white bear they also had to ring the bell.

The prohibition to think about white bears caused an obsession to the subject to many participants. They had to ring the bell much more often than their college-participants whom could think about white bears as often as they wanted.

Back to sugar and cigarettes

Even though the study was about only five minutes, it is evident that people are giving themselves a hard time when they try to not think about something. The problem with this formulation is that the ‘thing’ we are not supposed to think about is already included in the thought ‘don’t think about it’.

If we have to check if we are not thinking about a white bear, we automatically are thinking about this white bear. And the same goes for smoking, sugar craving, caffeine drinking, overeating…

Positive framing

To avoid this kind of counteracting of your own brain it is useful to think about other ways of framing your goals. Think about starting a new habit of routine on the place of the old one you want to get rid of.

By focusing on a positive behavior you are avoiding the negative loop I just talked about.




Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1880. I have the Dutch version (De broers Karamazov) from the Russische Bibliotheek, uitgeverij G.A. Van Oorschot, Amsterdam.

Daniel M. Wegner, “Ironic Processes of Mental Control”, PsychologicalReview, 1994, 101.

Image courtesy of Hal Brindley/



Innovation and Research Officer at Sugar Habits
Judith studied behavioral change (applied social psychology) and is currently finishing her masters in philosophy with special attention for philosophy of action and intentionality. She works for SugarHabits a social media platform that helps people unlock more of their potential through learning new habits.

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2 Responses to “The polar bear”

  1. Matt Beswick says:

    Interesting post. Currently reading about behavioural flexibility in Ben Fletcher and Karen Pine’s book. Potentially another useful tool for breaking old habits.

    • Hi Matt, thanks for your reply! Your message went to spam for some reason, sorry for the late reply.

      Are you talking about the ‘no diet diet’? And is the approach really different? Then it might be interesting for me to read about (or read a blog from you about it?)