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Mental & Emotional Health

How We Form & Change Habits

Much of our daily lives are taken up by habits that we’ve formed over our lifetime. An important characteristic of a habit is that it’s automatic– we don’t always recognize habits in our own behavior. Studies show that about 40 percent of people’s daily activities are performed each day in almost the same situations. Habits emerge through associative learning. “We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals. We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response,” Wendy Wood explained in her session at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention in July 2014 in Washington D.C.

What are habits?

A release from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology notes that Wood calls attention to the neurology of habits, and how they have a recognizable neural signature. When you are learning a response you engage your associative basal ganglia, which involves the prefrontal cortex and supports working memory so you can make decisions. As you repeat the behavior in the same context, the information is reorganized in your brain. It shifts to the sensory motor loop that supports representations of cue response associations, and no longer retains information on the goal or outcome. This shift from goal directed to context cue response helps to explain why our habits are rigid behaviors.

There is a dual mind at play, Wood explains. When our intentional mind is engaged, we act in ways that meet an outcome we desire and typically we’re aware of our intentions. Intentions can change quickly because we can make conscious decisions about what we want to do in the future that may be different from the past. However, when the habitual mind is engaged, our habits function largely outside of awareness. We can’t easily articulate how we do our habits or why we do them, and they change slowly through repeated experience. “Our minds don’t always integrate in the best way possible. Even when you know the right answer, you can’t make yourself change the habitual behavior,” Wood says.

Participants in a study were asked to taste popcorn, and as expected, fresh popcorn was preferable to stale. But when participants were given popcorn in a movie theater, people who have a habit of eating popcorn at the movies ate just as much stale popcorn as participants in the fresh popcorn group. “The thoughtful intentional mind is easily derailed and people tend to fall back on habitual behaviors. Forty percent of the time we’re not thinking about what we’re doing,” Wood interjects. “Habits allow us to focus on other things…Willpower is a limited resource, and when it runs out you fall back on habits.”

How can we change our habits?

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