A short history of habits

The study of habits has its roots in behavioural psychology (although they were discussed in a more informal way long before the advent of what we now call psychology). The behaviourists, who dominated the psychological landscape during the first half of the twentieth century, linked habits with associative learning and what was known as stimulus-response associations. Inspired by the early work of Ivan Pavlov and his famous salivating dogs, behavioural psychology posited that all human and non-human action was learned from the environment through repetition. A pigeon, therefore, learned to associate the pressing of a lever with the delivery of food; the more the bird pecked at the lever the more often the food would be released, encouraging the pigeon to continue pecking. More interestingly, perhaps, if the food is released when the pigeon flaps its wings, it will associate wing flapping with the release of food, assuming perhaps that it is capable of making food appear through this behaviour. The pioneering behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner used the term learned superstition or pigeon superstition to describe this phenomenon (in his aptly entitled work Superstition in the Pigeon). We can see this phenomenon today, particularly with athletes who perform certain rituals prior to an important event.

But habits are much more than these simple associations, a fact recognised by those who succeeded the behaviourists - the cognitivists (and, more recently, behavioural economists). Cognitive psychology views habits as involving deeper thought processes, habits as tools for future intentions, or the pursuit of goals. During the past decade or so, however, there has been a greater degree of interest in socio-cognitive models of habit formation that accept some aspects of the behavioural approach to habits, particularly the link to events in the wider world and in the past. Habits are therefore linked to cues in the environment but are also automatic expressions of our goals. They also involve wider dispositions that can both help and hinder, such as personality and self-concept, discussed later. The interaction between habits and goals is complex but, from what is known, we can build a fairly robust explanation of how habits help us achieve our goals.

The good and the bad

Habits can both trigger, maintain and disrupt goal pursuit, mainly because not all habits are good habits - in fact, many are not, but also because some habits are left over from older goals that have now become redundant.

Many will have experienced the difficulty faced when attempting to pursue a positive life goal but being sabotaged by those annoying habits. Perhaps we've decided to set a goal to eat a more healthy, balanced diet, yet we still reach for the double-chocolate muffin when we break for our morning coffee. We might well have started to eat more healthy food and have developed the habit of replacing the surgery cereal in the morning with porridge but the problem is that when we get to work, the environment in which we find ourselves triggers a cue that shouts muffin instead of banana. These are what we call environmentally cued habits; there is something about the specific place that activates the habit, like fastening the seatbelt when we get in the car or locking the front door when we leave the house. Technology has amplified many of these habits. Some surveys suggest that people in the UK check their phones on average 28 times a day, and I suspect this number is set to rise. Emails and social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all those other networks we use to keep in touch with people, counting our 'likes' and checking our notifications) have led to the formation of these regularly triggered patterns of behaviour. Often, the mere sight of our phone (or a stranger using theirs) can flick the switch and result in us absently reaching for our own.

This is not to imply that all habits are bad. Many aspects of our lives are guided by these automatic responses: looking both ways before we cross a road or checking the rear-view mirror before we reverse out of our driveway; checking to see if that cyclist has squeezed in beside us as we prepare to turn left. Students have hopefully also developed good habits: remaining silent when the teacher is addressing the class, removing their books and equipment from their bags when they arrive. The most noticeable habit in a school environment is the response to ringing bells (for those schools who still use them). So habitual is this response that confusion often arises when the bell sounds at an unusual time.

Habits can, therefore, be both good and bad; they can also help and hinder goal pursuit or be activated in error. When patterns of behaviour become habitual they can sometimes be triggered at the wrong time. William James, one of the founders of psychology, once described entering his bedroom with the intention of changing for dinner (this was in the 1800s, when people did such things) only to find himself putting on his pyjamas and getting into bed. These errors are more common than people might think and I have often found myself taking my normal route to work or some other destination when I was intending to go a different way. These examples go to show how changing a habit, once formed, is so difficult.

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