Creating good habits

Do you like popcorn? For the sake of argument let's assume that you do. Not only do you like popcorn, you are also an avid cinema goer and like nothing more than a large tub of popcorn to enhance the experience. This is a routine that operates like clockwork and largely without full conscious awareness; you enter the cinema, buy your ticket and then immediately join the queue for the popcorn. You then take your seat and devour the entire lot while you watch the film. This routine constitutes a regular pattern of behaviour developed over time; in other words, it's a habit.

Do you think you would still eat all the popcorn if it were stale? Stale popcorn isn't exactly the most enticing cinema snack - it tastes slightly odd and has a weird squishy texture. This is the question Duke University psychologist David Neal and his colleagues asked, designing a rather entertaining study by which to answer it (Neal, Wood, Wu & Kurlander, 2011). People entering a cinema were given either fresh or stale popcorn and asked to rate the taste when they came out. Not surprisingly, people rated the stale popcorn less favourably, but this wasn't just a study about the taste of the popcorn. What the researchers were really interested in was whether or not the taste would have an impact of how much popcorn the filmgoers ate. It turned out the people with a strong popcorn eating habit ate the same amount of the snack even when it was stale, while those who only ate popcorn infrequently ate much less if it wasn't fresh.

It would appear that the simple act of going to the cinema is prompting already established habits to eat popcorn and it doesn't matter what the popcorn tastes like. But perhaps it has nothing to do with the cinema at all and the participants just had a really strong popcorn habit? Well, Neal and his colleagues had already thought of that. In a parallel study, they gave fresh and stale popcorn to people on their way to a meeting. When they arrived at the meeting they were shown some music videos. The purpose of this was to alter the environment and eliminate the 'going to the cinema' cue by creating a context where one wouldn't normally eat popcorn. As predicted, participants ate less stale popcorn than those in the cinema condition, implying that it was the cinema that activated the popcorneating behaviour.

Some habits, therefore, can derail our attempts to change our behaviour. If, like me, you tend to settle down in front of the television in the evening with a few biscuits or some other snack, eliminating this habit feels impossible. I turn on the television, make myself a cup of tea and instinctively grab a snack, and it matters little if I've skipped my evening meal or just consumed a huge bowl of pasta. Simply sitting down on the settee with a hot drink activates the urge to go for the chocolate Hobnobs. Perhaps the worst culprits of the modern era are mobile phones and social media. Since beginning this chapter I've already become acutely aware of the urge to check my inbox and Twitter feed; however, this awareness is also helping me to resist these habits, with varying degrees of success.

What about your students? Do you ever pick up on their habits? Perhaps it's the pupil who sharpens their pencil on arrival to your classroom each lesson or lines up felt tip pens on the desk. Or is it the one who insists on making a dramatic entrance or the one who can't help but shout out the answer to a question? Not doing these things is difficult so it would make sense for us to encourage the habits that are useful and attempt to discard those that are preventing us from reaching our goals.

Habit and goals

In the next chapter we're going to look at goal setting but before that we need to look at how habits and goals interact (and sometimes don't). In understanding how we can encourage buoyancy in young people, it's necessary to first investigate how the original 5Cs can develop into habitual forms of behaviour and how these habits can, in turn, inform our goals. Furthermore, in order to do this we also need to include a number of mediating factors related to personality and self-concept so that we can identify the factors that help to make these habits and goals work for, rather than against, us. First of all, we need to understand what habits are, how they are formed and what the relationship is with wider psychological processes.

Habits are curious things, so much so that sometimes we aren't even aware of them and often we have to rely on other people to point them out. Even if we have had them pointed out to us, and even if those habits appear strange and totally without purpose, we'll probably continue with them anyway. Which brings me to another curious thing about habits; they are incredibly difficult to break.

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