Manipulation, Habituation and Change

By Andrew Rader, LAc, MS

Since my last article generated such interest, I am going to drill down on the subject of old patterns, particularly unhealthy habits. There is something unique about our time and place in human history that makes this subject so much more critical than ever before. With unprecedented amounts of fake foods, drugs, low-quality calories, cigarettes, sedentary lifestyles and a host of other modern traps that look and feel good but aren't, we've gotten fooled.

Let's take cigarettes for example. Ancient people did have access to tobacco, but the similarities end there. Traditional cultures used it in a ritualized and controlled way. It was kept in the realm of conscious, purposeful use. Modern cigarette smoking is not a conscious act. Quite early on, tobacco companies had a purposeful agenda to sell as much of their product as possible. They accomplished this goal by hiring the pioneers of modern advertising and mass marketing.

In the 1920s, Edward Bernays (the nephew of Sigmund Freud), considered to be the father of public relations, was hired by the American Tobacco Company, which made Lucky Strike cigarettes. He concocted a publicity stunt to bring women into the tobacco market.1 He hired a number of beautiful young women to march in a parade as "suffragettes." At a given moment, they all lit their Lucky Strikes. He had alerted the press that these women would light up "torches of freedom." This event was published in the New York Times under the caption, "Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom." The images went around the world.

Bernays was also the first to use the idea of product placement in the movies. He would hire movie stars, dress them in designer clothing (the designers were also his clients) and have them smoke during interviews. The subtext was that smoking was glamorous. The smoking message later expanded to associations of sex, youth and freedom. In an article published in Tobacco Control, the details of deals between tobacco companies and top movie stars of the '30s and '40s were revealed.2 Millions of dollars in today's money was paid to A-list stars to endorse particular brands.

In another article, a study from Dartmouth looked at teenagers and their view of particular movie stars. They found that the more a favorite star smoked on screen, the chances of the teenager becoming a smoker were greatly increased. No surprises there. Positive associations taken in unconsciously are what drive future habits.3

The story with the food industry is not much different. In a recent Federal Trade Commission report it was revealed that the food industry spent $1.6 billion in 2006 on advertising to children primarily for soft drinks, fast food and cereal. The companies that are spending these vast sums of money are doing so because without it people would not naturally eat these foods nor drink these beverages. Water used to be the drink of choice. Real food used to be what we ate. We have become habituated to buying and eating things that we associate with feeling good. These feelings were associated with particular products through very sophisticated psychological methods, which have become more and more so since the days of Edward Bernays. What Bernays and his colleagues knew was that the unconscious mind made all the important decisions. It is where habits reside. Habits are unconscious automatic repeated behaviors. Cigarette smokers usually do not decide when to smoke their next cigarette. They just find themselves doing it, to the point of near perfection in terms of smoking practically the same amount of cigarettes each day.

Most of us eat in an equally unconscious way. We tend to eat the same types of foods, over and over again. Perhaps we are not willing to be creative enough to try and make new meals consistently or maybe it is deeper than that. Perhaps it is natural, useful and even a necessary evolutionary step to become habituated to certain functions so that we free ourselves to take on other challenges. Perhaps we are creatures of habit because those animals in the wild that we preyed upon were also fairly predictable. The plants we consumed also had predictable patterns to their life cycles. Maybe we developed repeatable behaviors that were in harmony with the patterns of the edible plants and animals around us so that we could effectively consume them. If we kept trying new ways of hunting the same animal or continue to find new animals to hunt, the amount of time spent in trial and error would lead to being hungry more often than not.

Maybe it is beneficial to habituate to a successful strategy. What had worked for generations now has to be reconfigured on an almost daily basis. There are new consumable products introduced to us every day. How do we know what is good? How do we choose what is worth becoming habituated to? Have we ever had to do this before as a species? Is our parents' and ancestors' knowledge helpful, or is it "so last year"?

We now have to start over-riding our reptilian brain functions with conscious decision-making. A sweet taste used to mean good food. Mother's milk, ripe fruit and whole grains are all sweet. However, by today's standards they are all bland in comparison to sodas, fruit juices, sweetened yogurts, etc. We must now contend with a fundamental gravitation towards modern sweet foods. Our frontal lobe must intervene and spoil the party. We must now parent our own natural tendencies. It's not fun and it's not easy, but it is our only way to outsmart the folks on Madison Avenue who are manipulating us.

We now have to decide whether or not something is good to eat. Never before in human history was this necessary. We must read labels and remember what a particular magazine article said about such and such ingredient. This is not what we, as a species, have ever had to do. Food was food. If it wasn't spoiled, it was good enough to eat.

Our physical pursuit of acquiring food was our exercise. We didn't need to make appointments to move our bodies. We did it in the natural course of our daily lives. Today, we must actually become aware of what we are doing in order to determine whether or not it is in our best interest. The farther away from our ancestral ways we drift, the more likely we have chosen an unhealthy path.

We must now evolve to a point where our conscious choices determine whether or not we survive. This is not only for the benefit of ourselves as individuals but also for the benefit of all other life on this planet. In the context of evolution, we are at a critical juncture. This is not simply self-help by learning how to overcome our own bad habits. It is paradigm shift. Once we have the power to overcome early unconscious programming, we then have the power to transcend the bad habits of our modern society that are destroying the planet.

As practitioners, we walk a very fine line when we broach the topic of any entrenched unhealthy habit with a patient. It doesn't help that many of these habits are reinforced by society at large. We often find ourselves sounding like weird hippy freaks when we mention something like "most commercial toothpaste contain toxins" or "your sunscreen may actually be creating a higher risk for melanoma." My own teenage daughters hold such an opinion of their father.

We cannot convince, cajole or make someone change. They must come to this themselves. We can assist them when they decide that they want to change. They then must make a commitment. We can again assist but they control their own outcome.

Finally, these words are the ramblings of a tired middle-age acupuncturist who has been given the opportunity to put something into print. Please take them with a pinch of natural sea salt.


  1. Stauber JC. Smoke and Mirrors: How Tobacco and PR Grew Up Together.
  2. Lum KL, Polansky JR, Jackler RK, Glantz SA. Signed, sealed and delivered: "big tobacco" in Hollywood, 1927-1951. Tob Control. 2008 Oct;17(5):313-23.
  3. Tickle JJ, Sargent JD, Dalton MA, et al. Favourite movie stars, their tobacco use in contemporary movies, and its association with adolescent smoking. Tob Control. 2001 Mar;10(1):16-22.

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