First impressions and old habits are hard to overcome

October 14, 2004

First impressions and old habits are hard to overcome

ANN ARBOR—First impressions and old habits are ingrained in your memory and very difficult to overcome without constant work to change them, according to a new study by a University of Michigan psychology researcher.

Researchers found that the earliest lessons on a subject become automatic or default-setting memories the brain will return to again and again—even if taught to take an entirely different course later, said Cindy Lustig, psychology professor in the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

"This can explain why it’s so hard to break habits and why we’re likely to slip back to those initial things we learned, especially when we’re tired or stressed," Lustig said.

The findings are detailed in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Taking a new approach to the classic 1927 Pavlov’s dog test where a dog was trained to expect food every time a bell rang, Lustig’s experiments looked at how human memory works, asking subjects at the Washington University to learn one way to respond to a cue word such as saying "cup" when they hear the word "coffee."

On a follow-up test, they were taught to switch responses to instead say "mug" when hearing "coffee." Some people were later told to revert to the first response while others were told to say whatever came to the top of their heads.

Those who were asked to return to the first response were able to do so. But among those asked to say whatever came to their minds, half used each response the first day but a day later, the vast majority of had shifted to the earlier, initial response they were taught.

The significance of automatic versus controlled memories becomes especially important as people age and rely increasingly on automatic memories while it becomes harder to retain controlled memories, Lustig said.

Lustig and colleagues continue to explore such issues and how they will impact an aging society as older Americans deal with major issues such as Alzheimer’s disease. As researchers continue to learn more about how memory works, she is optimistic that ways will be developed to improve our memory skills.

For more on Lustig, visit: