June 18th, 2010

Habit Making and Breaking, Part 1: What is a Habit?

By Kyle Morich

The press is quick to throw around the word ‘habit’ these days, without much pause for what a habit really is.  Habit is used as a pejorative lament about our inability to change our health or financial actions, like with smoking, eating junk food, or using credit cards.  At the same time, it’s also used as a brilliant panacea for those very same problems.  These same articles disparaging or extolling the influence of habits in our lives tend to omit any strategies for breaking or building these habitual behaviors beyond general mantras of “avoid it” or “do it a lot for three weeks.”

So what is a habit?  By colloquial usage, a habit is something you do automatically, without thinking consciously.  But scientifically, it is much more specific than that.  A habit is an unconscious behavior that has four key elements:  a context, repetition, reinforcement, and cues.

All habits occur in a context.  A context is a situation-specific setting that frames a behavior.  Think about certain habits you may have – your morning Starbucks coffee, checking Facebook, texting while driving.  These habits do not occur sporadically.  They are always framed by a context.  The Starbucks stop is always on the route to work.  Facebook is checked during lunches taken at your desk. Texting occurs in the car ride home from work.  Habits depend on contexts for their existence.

The next habit element, repetition, is perhaps the best known.  A habit forms as a behavior is performed repeatedly in a specific and stable context.  We often see wildly specific prescriptions for habit formation, such as “a daily running habit can be established by performing it each morning for 21 straight days.”  The truth is that it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the number of repetitions necessary to form a habit.  It has been shown that the more complex a behavior is, the more repetitions needed to create a habit.  So it is possible that 21 days of repeating a running behavior will create a running habit, but that also depends on a stable context (e.g., same time of day and place), the complexity, and the third element of habits: reinforcement.

Habits cannot exist without reinforcement. Reinforcement is feedback interpreted by the brain that makes a future behavior more likely to be repeated. We eat junk food because it tastes good.  We browse the Internet at work because it delays the tedium of the task at hand.  An exercise behavior is very hard to repeat until habitual because, as anyone new to running can attest, it is mostly punishing until the body can adapt to the new stress of the exercise and interpret the hard work as rewarding.  There is not a single habitual behavior, bad or good, which did not at some point result in a reinforcing experience.

Finally, habits occur in response to context-based cues.  In every context, there are stimuli that, through repetition, become cues for a behavior. As you repeat a behavior in a context, the unconscious mind begins pairing various stimuli with a behavior. A cue can be internal or external.  External cues can be objects, sounds, smells, locations, people, or even other behaviors.  Internal cues can be thoughts, feelings, or other personal states.  Think about training a dog to sit.  The dog cannot understand words, but has learned that upon hearing the command “Sit!” it should, in fact, sit.  Humans are the very same.  We unconsciously respond to cues everyday, such as reaching for the telephone when it rings or buying a box of cereal at the grocery store with a yellow sale sticker on it.  Because habits occur unconsciously, cues essentially become proxy decision-makers for our mind.  If the unconscious mind perceives an associated cue within a context, it will perform the behavior.

Understanding the true definition of a habit is the first step to creating strategies to make new habits or get rid of old ones.  In the future posts in this series, we will discuss ways to make and break habits, and delve into ways marketers and non-marketers alike can use habits to their advantage.

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