What is Cognitive Bias Modification?

Cognitive bias modification (CBM) is a methodology used in psychology that aims to directly change biases in cognitive processes, such as biased attention and biased interpretation toward a stimuli of addiction or immediate gratification. 
The procedures are designed to modify information processing via cognitive tasks that use basic learning principles and repeated practice to encourage a healthier thinking style in line with the training contingency (wikipedia).


Why use CBM?

We persist in behaving in ways we know to be wasteful, counterproductive or even harmful (Keeney 2008). This is true for our personal development, career goals and general productivity and even more so, was found to be detrimental to our long term health. The World Health Organisation identified several persistent lifestyle behaviours which impact severely on health, accounting for 61% of worldwide cardiovascular deaths, including “alcohol use, tobacco use, high blood pressure, high body mass index, high cholesterol, high blood glucose, low fruit and vegetable intake, and physical inactivity” (WHO, 2009).

This is not new information for most of us. We are aware that we can improve our lives and decrease chances of suffering in the future by creating habits of 'good behaviors'. What these 'good behaviors' exactly entail will differ slightly per person, however, for most of us they will consist of unappealing, repetitive acts that rely heavily on our self-discipline. Think for example of going to the gym twice a week, limiting our time spent on social media or eating a piece of fruit daily. We know these behaviors would benefit us in the long run, yet we can't seem to make them stick as habits. 


The role of motivation and self-discipline

Most of us tend to be able to engage in their desired 'good behaviors' for a while. A clearly visualised long term goal can definitely help motivate us. Motivation can get us to subscribe to the local gym or start our bi-weekly jog, or perhaps we finally were able to stop sleeping in or we deleted instagram from our phone. Motivation and self discipline only get us halfway. It gets more difficult when this initial burst of motivation start to wear off. This could be as soon as one day in for some while it may last a week for others. This doesn't mean most of us would give up. With a clear goal in mind we tend to continue our good behaviors on sheer self-discipline. The levels of self-discipline we are able to muster differ from person to person and is thought to be a greater predictor of success in many domains than initial skill or talent.

But unfortunately, self-discipline in not infinite.


Habit forming

If we are able to keep up our good behaviors for long enough they will gradually turn into habits. In psychology habits are commonly defined as learned, automatic impulses to behave in a certain way, in response to stable contextual cues, and automatic goal pursuit as the activation and enactment of goal-related behaviour without conscious intent. Once a good behaviors has become a habit, it requires less self-discipline. Think for example of brushing your teeth. It is boring and repetitive, but serves an important long term goal. The reason we tend not to struggle with getting this done everyday, is that is has become a habit. Whereas for example flossing, which serves the same purpose and takes about the same time, simply seems to require too much self-discipline to get done daily. Again the key difference between brushing and flossing is that the former has become a habit and the latter has not.

But what makes a habit so powerful?
For this we need to understand how we really 'choose' our behaviors according to psychology's dual process theory.


Psychology on 'habits' and subconscious goal pursuit

  • Bargh & Chartrand defined four properties of automatic behaviour: it is unintentional, uncontrollable, performed without awareness, and efficient (1999).
  • Automatic behaviour comprises a broad spectrum of behaviour, from reflexes and compulsive behaviours to habits and goal-related automatic behaviours (Verplanken and Aarts, 1999). 
  • Habitual behaviour is learned behaviour that is “frequently repeated, has acquired a high degree of automaticity, and is cued in stable contexts” (Orbell and Verplanken, 2010).
  • Subconscious goal pursuit is the automatic activation and enactment of goal-directed behaviour (Hassin et al. 2009). Automaticity means such behaviours can be performed subconsciously, i.e. “enacted with little conscious awareness” (Orbell and Verplanken, 2010).
  • In contrast to common usage of the word habit, we define it as a context-response link driving the behaviour, rather than behaviour itself. The occurrence of the context triggers a response impulse. A habit is therefore a disposition to perform a given behaviour (Gardner 2015; Neal et al. 2006). Habitual behaviour is the behaviour that results from this impulse.
  • Although automatic behaviours are triggered subconsciously, people are not necessarily unaware of their actual behaviour. Instead, they tend to be unaware of the internal subconscious processes driving their behaviour (Stanovich, 2005), such as the context-response associations (Wood and Rünger, 2016). This inability to introspect underlying processes makes such behaviours difficult to change. "If the cause of an unwanted behaviour is not clear, then neither is the solution."

The Dual Process Theory of behavior

Dual Process Theory suggests that behavioural decisions arise from two distinct sets of processes:

  • System I  -   'automatic' (e.g. habits)
  • System II  -  'conscious' (e.g. deliberate behavior).

'System I' processes are subconscious cue-driven, impulsive,  automatic, parallel processes that operate at speed. System II processes are conscious goal- directed, slower, rational, serial processes (Evans 2011; Evans and Frankish 2009).


'System I'

Automatic, subconscious and fast. Plays a crucial role in habits.

'System II'

Deliberate, 'though-through' action. Consciously chosen behaviors.

Though there are different versions of the dual process theory, these basic principle are shared by the 'CEOS model' (Borland 2013), the 'Reflective-Impulsive model' (Strack and Deutsch 2014) and the most famous 'System 1-System 2' theory popularized in Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' (Kahneman 2011).


Has our focus been wrong?

Our subconscious biases, our 'System I' process, is most important in successfully creating habits and in succeeding in our long term goals.
So have we been doing this self-discipline struggle wrong? 

Partly, yes.

We are trying to get our deliberate intentions, our 'system II' process, to overrule our subconscious system I by means of  sheer self-discipline. 
Changing our subconscious tendencies (our 'system I' process) takes time a lot of self-discipline and extensive repetition.
If only there was a smarter, more efficient way to target this 'system I' directly?



Target your subconscious 'system I' process directly with Betterbias


CBM in the Betterbias app

CBM and AATr are methodologies designed, tested and proven on addictions such as gambling, smoking and alcoholism. Betterbias™ has adapted these methodologies to help people who want to align their subconscious towards more long-term goals. Lowering the required self-discipline to study instead of instagramming/TikTok, to go to the gym instead of binge watching Netflix or eating healthy instead of another deliveroo junkfood order.


Happy users


Try CBM in our app for free!




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EVANS, J.S.B. 2011. Dual-process theories of reasoning: Contemporary issues and developmental applications. Developmental Review 31, 2, 86–102.

EVANS, J. AND FRANKISH, K. 2009. In two minds: Dual processes and beyond. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

BORLAND, R. 2013. Understanding hard to maintain behaviour change: a dual process approach. John Wiley & Sons.

BORLAND, R. 2016. CEOS Theory: A Comprehensive Approach to Understanding Hard to Maintain Behaviour Change. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.

KAHNEMAN, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.

KAHNEMAN, D. 2003. A perspective on judgment and choice: mapping bounded rationality. American psychologist 58, 9, 697.

VERPLANKEN, B. AND AARTS, H. 1999. Habit, Attitude, and Planned Behaviour: Is Habit an Empty Construct or an Interesting Case of Goal-directed Automaticity? European Review of Social Psychology 10, 1, 101–134.

HASSIN, R.R., BARGH, J.A., AND ZIMERMAN, S. 2009. Automatic and flexible: The case of nonconscious goal pursuit. Social cognition 27, 1, 20–36.

ORBELL, S. AND VERPLANKEN, B. 2010. The automatic component of habit in health behavior: habit as cue-contingent automaticity. Health Psychology 29, 4, 374–83.

BARGH, J.A. AND CHARTRAND, T.L. 1999. The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist 54, 7, 462.

STRACK, F. AND DEUTSCH, R. 2014. The reflective–impulsive model. In: J.W. Sherman, B. Gawronski and Y. Trope, eds., Dual-process theories of the social mind. The Guilford Press, New York, NY, USA, 92–104.

GARDNER, B. 2015. A review and analysis of the use of “habit” in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour. Health Psychology Review 9, 3, 277–295.

NEAL, D.T., WOOD, W., AND QUINN, J.M. 2006. Habits—A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science 15, 4, 198–202.

STANOVICH, K.E. 2005. The robot’s rebellion: Finding meaning in the age of Darwin. University of Chicago Press.

WOOD, W. AND RÜNGER, D. 2016. Psychology of Habit. Annual Review of Psychology 67, 1, 289–314.