Habit theory

A habit has been defined as a learned disposition to repeat past responses (Wood & Neal, 2007). This definition is based on the premise that daily actions tend to be patterned into sequences that are repeated at particular times in specific situations or locations, that is, habits are often triggered by cues in the environment. When we get into the car, one of the first things we do is fasten our seatbelt; it's a habitual response, something we do without consciously thinking about it (what we technically call a cold cognitive association). If we don't fasten our seatbelt it's often because something has disrupted our normal routine and the habitual response has failed; perhaps we got into the car and the neighbour spoke to us or we realised it was bin day and had to exit the car to wheel the bin down the driveway. Driving is a good example when discussing habits, because it involves a pre-set sequence of events punctuated by actions that are unique to that particular journey. Indeed, driving to a familiar place (such as the morning journey to work) becomes so habitual that we often arrive at our destination having little memory of the journey itself.

If we consider the act of riding a bike, we can see how habits are not only necessary, but also quite difficult to break. Most of us are used to the act of riding a bicycle and the repetitive actions required to stay upright, balanced and heading in the right direction. When we need to stop (perhaps because the traffic lights have turned red) the cyclist instinctively takes their dominant foot off the pedal and places it on the ground to steady themselves. This is a simple habitual task and requires very little thought, especially when the pedals are the simple flat type. Now consider the use of so-called clipless pedals. These type of pedals act in conjunction with special shoes that have cleats attached to the bottom. The cyclist clips the shoe into the pedal where it remains attached until it its undipped. Novice clipless cyclists then have to develop the habit of twisting their foot and ankle in order to release their foot. The problem is that our habitual response is to simply lift the foot off, rather than release it, sometimes resulting in the cyclist coming to a stop at traffic lights, instinctively lifting their foot, finding that it's attached to the pedal, and toppling over, often to the bemusement of onlookers. The old habit overrides the new one and we have to consciously replace one with another.

These habituated and repetitive behaviours occupy a substantial chunk of our daily lives, with some estimates suggesting that 45 per cent of all behaviours are repeated in the same location almost every day. Back in 1978 Phil Schoggen recorded children's everyday activities in a small US town, noting the high degree of repetition in their daily activities, with the repetitive activities linked to specific environments (see Wood & Neal, 2007). Others have used a technique known as Experience Sampling (ESM) to gather information about habits on a daily, and even hourly, basis. If we think about our own daily activities; driving to work, preparing meals, attending meetings and so on, it's likely we, too, will discover that a large proportion of the day is spent engaged in the behaviours that we did yesterday and the day before and the day before that.

School life is no different; in fact, these routine behaviours are even more pronounced due to the structured nature of the school day. In many environments these behaviours are, to an extent, dictated; lunchtimes and working hours are imposed upon us rather than being something we have control over. This is why nurturing positive habits in the classroom is so useful; they may take a little time to 'stick' but once they have, these habitual responses mean that less cognitive effort is used for them and can, instead, be redirected towards learning.

But habits are also about motivation and choice and often we have little of either when the habit kicks in. Take, for example, the following:

2 + 2 =

Did the number 4 miraculously pop into your head without even having to think about it? Chances are it did because the equation triggers a cold cognitive association. We can't help but automatically solve it. However, what about the following:

37x8 =

Depending on how skilled you are at mathematics, it's highly unlikely that the answer will have popped into your head in the same way the number 4 did. This equation requires us to be suitably motivated enough to choose to tackle it. This may involve some mental arithmetic, jotting your workings down on a sheet of paper or reaching for the calculator. Whatever we choose to do, we have to think about it. This is one of the many advantages of memorising times tables - automating the process spares up much-needed cognitive resources to concentrate on other things.

 
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