• Our brain, to some extent, dictates how we might respond to certain situations and stimuli

  • Dr Helena Boschi explores how uncertainty, neurological laziness, and our outcome expectations explain our resistance to change

We naturally resist change because change represents uncertainty – and uncertainty is threatening and painful for a brain that wants to keep us safe and alive. Although many of today’s threats are no longer life-or-death situations, our brain still protects us as if they were just that.

When we feel uncertain or anxious, our fight or flight mechanisms are mobilised. Resources are diverted from the frontal lobe area, which we use for higher-level intellectual functioning, and become focused instead on survival.

Our capacity for rational thought is thus diminished, and even when the change is a good idea, we still resist it.

Our response to change may be summarised as follows:

  • Change (uncertainty) 
  • Threat response (fight or flight) 
  • Increased anxiety and fear
  • Reduced ability to focus and think clearly
  • Impaired performance and increased emotion

Why do our brains love routine and habits?

Our routine activities use an area of the brain with a group of neurons in the temporal lobe called the basal ganglia, which plays a significant role in the formation of long-standing habits. The basal ganglia are activated by familiar and repetitive activity to which we no longer have to pay attention.

This area of the brain requires much less energy than our working memory (which is what we use to pay attention to new information) because it uses brain circuits that have already been shaped and defined by experience.

All activities that are repeated eventually become orchestrated by the basal ganglia, thereby freeing up the prefrontal cortex to focus on fresh inputs.

Practice and routine therefore become hardwired into our brain and any habit, good or bad, is hard for our brain to override. Although bad habits often linger in the brain, it is possible to replace them over time with good habits that are more powerful.

We are all lazy

Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion is the law of inertia: a body at rest tends to remain at rest; a body in motion tends to stay in motion.

As humans, we suffer from natural inertia: we are inherently lazy. Studies prove that when we physically move, we find the most energy efficient way to do it and burn as few calories as possible. Our autonomic nervous system continually monitors how much energy we use and ensures that our muscles work in an optimal way, even when we decide to go for a run.

In the past, this may have served as an important energy-conserving purpose, but today, when such inactivity is no longer beneficial to our survival, it seems that our brain is predisposed to being sedentary and even undermines our best intentions to be more active.

On a psychological level, this laziness underlies why we find it difficult to change and this is known as cognitive inertia.

Cognitive inertia is the reason we find it easier to stick with the status quo. We stick to what we know: we eat the same food, we wear the same clothes and we have the same friends. On a positive level, cognitive inertia prevents us from suffering from decision fatigue and it frees up our brain to take on other matters.

But there are times when we need to break this inertia, when what we are doing no longer has any use or relevance. This requires applying a force to jolt us into a new direction. Sometimes a small push can generate its own momentum.

And, as Newton’s Law also states, once something is in motion, it can take a great effort to halt it.

Experience and expectation are interlinked

Because we are constantly using previously stored knowledge to help us deal with new information, our expectations will therefore generally drive our experiences.

This is particularly true of pain and pain relief, which is why the placebo effect is so powerful. This effect, whereby an inactive substance like sugar or distilled water can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the patient expects to benefit, has been shown to have the ability to improve our breathing, heal ulcers and reduce blood pressure.

However, the reverse of this is more negative. When it comes to pain itself, we often experience more pain when we expect in advance that something will be painful. This is called the nocebo effect. The suggestion of pain is enough to stimulate the experience of pain.

Our expectation of a new change initiative is often coloured by a bad or difficult experience of previous change. Our sensitivity to the pain of the change is intensified accordingly. Similarly, if we expect a change programme to be positive, we will actually increase its likelihood of success.

So when we repeatedly focus on something being either painful or pain-free, our neural circuits will strengthen in either direction. We can increase or decrease our own discomfort, depending on where we choose to direct our thoughts.

How does the brain make and change decisions?

Decision-making can happen rapidly in the brain. When we make a decision and are faced with different choices our brain considers the difference in value between them. The larger the difference in value, the faster we make the decision. But when the options are similar in value, it can take much longer.

But what happens when we want to reverse a decision?

It is difficult for the brain to change its plans. Even if we change our mind, it does not necessarily mean that we can change our behaviour.

Changing a behaviour involves complex neural coordination among multiple brain areas, but if we do not do it quickly it is often too late. The longer a decision stays in the brain, the harder it is to change it.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) researchers have found that reversing a decision involves rapid coordination between two specific zones, the prefrontal cortex and the frontal eye field (FEF). The FEF is a region situated just behind the prefrontal cortex that is involved in controlling eye movements and visual awareness. We can only successfully reverse our decision when we change our mind within 100 milliseconds of making it. If we wait any longer, it is less likely that we will be able to change.

As we get older, the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the frontal eye field slows down and it becomes even more difficult to change our mind at the last minute. Scientists are now exploring ways of improving our ability to change a decision quickly, so that we can exert more control over our choices.

This is an edited extract from Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Our Brain to Get the Best Out of Ourselves and Others, by Dr. Helena Boschi:

Further reading

The neuroscience of emotions

The secret of long-lasting change

How we make new memories

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

The neuroscience of fear: what's happening in the brain?


1. Selinger, J.C. et al. (2015). ‘Humans can continuously optimize energetic cost during walking’, Current Biology, September, 2452–56. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.016

2. Tajima, S. et al. (2019). ‘Optimal policy for multi-alternative decisions’, Nature Neuroscience, September. doi: 10.1038/s41593-019-0453-9.

3. Xu, K.Z. et al. (2017). ‘Neural basis of cognitive control over movement inhibition: Human fMRI and primate electrophysiology evidence’, Neurondoi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.11.010