Outsourcing control

Contexts are important for the maintenance of habits. If I attend the same supermarket on the same day each week and my trolley is usually full of the same produce, this continual pattern of behaviour will become encoded into my long-term procedural memory. Eventually, my weekly shopping trip might become so habitual that I barely have to think about it at all, with my response being triggered the moment I set foot in the building. This is both useful and problematic. It's useful because I don't have to expend too much cognitive effort to do the shopping, problematic because I might want to divert from my usual plan, perhaps by avoiding the biscuit aisle.

Supermarkets understand this all too well, often designing spaces to take into account our habitual responses. In the same way, students might enter your classroom in the manner in which they always enter it, perhaps even instinctively abiding by individual rules set by specific teachers, for example, lining up outside in the corridor and waiting in silence. Indeed, these habitual responses can just as easily be triggered by a specific person as they can a place. When, for example, a teacher has rearranged the furniture, these responses are disrupted and it's often a little more difficult to settle the class or get them to carry out the tasks they usually do without thinking.

Psychologists describe this process of unconscious habits as the outsourcing of behavioural control. The outsourcing in question is to the contextual cues, that is, the person or the place. Automaticity spares up much needed cognitive resources and sets us on autopilot. This context cueing can arise in two forms, direct and motivated. In the former, the habit is activated due to the association between the cue and the response; the latter is activated because the habit has been triggered by a reward that has been tagged onto it. The pleasure of consuming the double-chocolate muffin would, therefore, act as reward, reinforcing the habit or, in a classroom setting, the habit leads to positive learning outcomes such as a higher grades on a test or praise from the teacher. Direct initiation of a habit is what we normally mean when we describe our behaviour as just a habit, with little awareness of why we carry it out.

Eliminating maladaptive habits

We can think of many habits as being bad or maladaptive, that is, they either serve no positive or useful purpose or they actively lead us away from our intended goals. Take, for example, a student who completes his or her homework every evening after dinner on the computer. The goal is to complete the homework to a high standard and the habit is cued by the time (after dinner) and the environment (in front of the computer). But there is an added maladaptive habit lurking beneath that is triggered by the computer: the checking of social media accounts, emails or checking YouTube for that band someone mentioned at school today. The goal hasn't changed, but environmental cues have diverted goal pursuit; the student has become distracted. I've used the example of a student here, but if we are all being totally honest, we can see these habits in ourselves as well.

The bad news is that there is no sure-fire way of eliminating bad habits. Try as hard as we might, we still find ourselves putting the chocolate biscuits into the shopping trolley because it feels as if we have little control over our actions. We could avoid the biscuit aisle, but those sneaky supermarkets put the caramel digestives on the end, and how do you avoid that?

Habits and the pursuit of goals

Because behaviour can be viewed as goal-directed, habits can become the residue of past goal pursuit. This is just a rather overly technical way of saying that even once our goal has been achieved, the habit continues. For example, we might decide to take up cycling in order to reach a target weight. Once that target weight is met, however, we might continue cycling because it has become a habit and not doing it might even cause negative emotions such as guilt. Similarly, a student might develop habitual adaptive study habits in order to pass a test or some other kind of assessment, but once the test has been completed or the assessment handed in, these study habits continue. Obviously, this is the stage we need to reach, where good study habits become automatic or habitual. These study habits more often than not incorporate practical strategies that might be quite general (getting more organised) or more specific (using the principles of spacing, interleaving or retrieval practice).

How do we, therefore, consciously form a new habit? Let's say I wish to learn a new language. In order to do this I need to allocate time. The habit I wish to develop, therefore, is time allocation to learn a new language. I first need to consider three elements, all beginning with the letter C (there seems to be distinct C-bias running through this book).

Commitment: I need to commit to the goal I wish to pursue.

Consistency: I need to be consistent in working towards this goal at the allotted time.

Cues: I need something that will allow me to repeat this behaviour in the future: a trigger or a nudge.

The habit loop

Figure 5.1 The habit loop

I can choose to commit one hour each day in the pursuit of my goal. Furthermore, I will allocate the one hour between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and I will set an alarm to remind me. I'm also going to add a situational cue, at least during the habit-formation stage. I will, therefore, always sit or stand at my desk when engaged in the activity. This preparation will then set in motion a habit loop (Figure 5.1) that when acted upon each day should lead to eventual automaticity.

How long the habit takes to become automatic very much depends on the kind of habit we are attempting to form but there is no precise answer. We can't, therefore, say that a habit will be learned after 7, 10 or even 100 repetitions because habit formation simply doesn't appear to work like this.

Phillippa Lally and her co-researchers found that automaticity takes from 18 to 254 days, but the longer duration was mainly due to consistency issues (Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts & Wardle, 2010). They also found that repetition increased automaticity but followed what is called an asymptotic curve, that is, there comes a point at which further repetition makes little difference to the automaticity of the behaviour. The average time to plateau is around 66 days. The type of task can also impact time. Pleasurable habits form quicker than less pleasurable ones, so the length of time needed to form a habit to learn a new language will greatly depend on how much I like learning the language.

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