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The Things We Do: Why Habits Stick and How to Fix Them

Roxanne Bauer's picture

"In the gap between intentions fading and habits forming, interventions fail.”
These are the wise— and scientific— words of Wendy Wood, a Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California, who presented her research on how habits guide behavior at a brown bag lunch at the World Bank.
Standard interventions are generally successful at increasing the motivation of people to change as they raise awareness and understanding around behaviors we'd like to change and new behaviors we'd like to form. However, they often fail to develop long-term habits for people.
According to Professor Wood, even if you can change behavior for a short period, old behaviors may be stickier and reappear after a while. The formation of new habits is often analogous to climbing a mountain and returning back down again: the new habit is performed at the start of an intervention but then falls off again as intentions are overcome by other factors.

The reasons for failure of habit formation are varied, but one of the most common reasons is that behaviors are prompted by environmental cues, of which individuals are often completely unaware.  
Every habit starts with a cue, or trigger, that signals to your brain to start a habit- usually in an automatic way. Breaking bad habits is difficult because even though our intention to change has shifted, environmental cues telling our brains to perform the old habit remain.
In one study, Professor Wood and her colleagues tested the amount of popcorn visitors to a cinema ate to determine how their habits impacted their consumption rates.  Prior to entering the theater, participants were asked to rate their current levels of hunger, time since last meal, and several other filler items. They were then randomly given a box of either fresh or stale popcorn and a bottle of water. Participants then entered the theater with their popcorn, watched a few movie trailers, and were released to the theater lobby. All popcorn boxes and water bottles were collected immediately after.  Participants who reported that they ate popcorn at the theater infrequently or even moderately ate significantly less when they were given stale popcorn versus fresh popcorn.  However, those with a strong habit to eat popcorn while at the theater ate the same amount of stale and fresh popcorn, demonstrating the strong environmental cue that the theater holds for some visitors. They ate automatically, regardless of freshness, because they had formed a habit triggered by their environment.
Nevertheless, despite the difficulty we all face in developing new habits, there are a few steps we can take to increase the likelihood of success.

  1. Leverage context and derail existing habits: This can be achieved by disrupting our cues, through restructuring our micro-environments, disrupting the automaticity of a response, or piggy backing a new habit onto an existing one.
  2. Intervention through doing: Repetition is the key to this step, and it’s based on the idea that we learn by doing.  The number of repetitions required to make the new habit stick varies from under 20 to more than 200, depending on the habit and the individual.
  3. Reward: Providing an incentive to do a habit can be a powerful tool, but only when done in intervals.  When rewards are provided after each iteration of a behavior, people tend to complete the behavior only to receive the reward, presenting problems when the reward is inevitably removed. However, if the reward is administered at intervals, it is not directly associated with the new habit but more so with performance.
  4. Enable the new habit: Create a supporting environment that provides stable context clues for the new habit.
Personal ownership of behavior change is useful in implementing any or all of these steps because it enables individuals to create interventions that make sense to them. While people may not always know what their cues are for a behavior, they will know if an intervention feels right or seems doable.

Photography by Steven Depolo via Flickr

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