Meet The Apps Using Psychology To Break Bad Habits



One Monday night recently, during the usual dinner-shower-bedtime debacle that occurs in every household with young children across Australia between the hours of 6 and 7pm, my 10 year old was more frazzled than normal. She was In A Tizz, as my grandmother might have put it.  “It’s my Garmin,” she said. “I didn’t wear it today, and I was up to a 25-day streak, and now I won’t get it because I didn’t meet my step count.”

Reader: I could have cared less. But it was important to her, and so we ensured that in the middle of teeth-brushing and pyjama-putting-on she completed her (admittedly, very low) goal of 1000 steps (not a typo; that number is not missing a zero). Her streak continued. The bedtime ritual went on. Using apps to track and change our habits is not new, or rocket science (see above, re: 10 year old). And sure, while I raised an eyebrow at my daughter’s insistence she complete her streak, there was a part of me that got it. 

She had done the work. She wanted to be rewarded, even if she knew (I hope she knows) that the shallow validation of a gadget strapped to her wrist is ultimately meaningless. The only value placed on this is one she has assigned herself – but that, of course, is the point. What my daughter felt – that complex alchemy of striving and validation – is the exact feeling that a raft of new apps is hoping to replicate. From Noom to Reframe, these apps incorporate psychological tactics to change behaviour. Pick something you want to change about yourself – drinking less, exercising more, meditating, cutting down on social media use – and there is an app for it.

But, as anyone who has considered shelling out hundreds of dollars for one of these apps wants to know, do they actually work? And why are they suddenly so popular?

If you’ve spent any time on social media over the new year period, I will wager you’ve seen an ad for Noom, a calorie-counting app that claims it is “different” and “not a diet.” Instead of creating meal plans or prescriptive routines, Noom is about changing habits – adding salad to your plate, walking more – that sort of thing. There is evidence that its gently-gently, knowledge-building approach works – in a 2015 survey study, the University of Sydney ranked it number one of 800 weight loss apps. But I’d like to see for myself.

“For someone who is driven by data, it can be very appealing to see tasks ticked off or numbers on a graph. And that can make people accountable.”

– Sarah di Lorenzo, nutritionist

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Meet The Apps Using Psychology To Break Bad Habits

Meet The Apps Using Psychology To Break Bad Habits