Actions and habits: Part II

Last time I described differences between ACTIONS and HABITS. Actions are intentional which means we consciously identify a goal and then decide how we’re going to get it. These goals may change as our motivation changes (we shift from chips to cake part way through a three-course meal; we put a jumper on and then take it off as the temperature changes; we stop phoning a colleague when we’re told they are in a meeting; and we’re able to resist the large doughnut even though we’re hungry). In this sense actions are dynamic and adapt to the situation. That’s why they are good for us and why we need them. However, they also take effort and can be tiring to maintain – if the intentional system gets too fatigued then it ‘fails’ and the habit system wins out.

By contrast, habits are a bit stupid. They are inflexible and do not change when the situation changes. In fact, our intentions and goals might change but our habits are reluctant to do so. However, what they are good at is triggering a behaviour quickly, automatically and with little effort. So they keep us alive, they allow us to learn complex skills, engage in sport, and do all of these things whilst learning ever more habits. But if the habit focuses on something we enjoy, but is perhaps maladaptive in the long run, then it can cause us trouble.

So we need both really. But the challenge is in knowing when to engage one versus the other. Neuroscience work has begun to uncover the separate brain mechanisms that control these two processes and this deeper understanding may well help us to behave more appropriately in our modern social world. So for example, Balleine and O’Doherty (2010) describe a series of experiments using fMRI in humans to show that two neural ‘loops’ exist in the brain that code for actions and habits and that these loops either compete or coordinate to determine behaviour depending on whether the intention and the habit agree or not. Dopamine appears to play an important role, and current research is exploring how these two circuits actually talk to each other and resolve their disputes. For those interested in neuroanatomy, the Action system includes the medial parts of the prefrontal cortex and the caudate region of the basal ganglia. Next door, the premotor cortex projects to the putamen (also in the basal ganglia) and this circuit appears to contribute to habitual responses. In fact, damage to one system can result in behaviour being totally controlled by the other i.e. all behaviour being habitual or all behaviour being intentional (reviewed in Balleine and O’Doherty, 2010).

Interestingly, in a different series of studies, work by Baumeister and his colleagues (e.g. Masicampo and Baumeister 2008) has shown how to shift the balance between the two systems. This works suggests that blood sugar levels may drive the strength of will power. So the lower the level the more likely that will power will fail. This idea is controversial, though Baumesiter has carried out several studies where individuals are ‘fatigued’ by having to do lots of effortful cognitive tasks. They then get tested for the strength of their will power – they tend to fail. However, individuals that are given a drink of sugary lemonade after the fatiguing tasks tend to have stronger will power and do not fail so much.

Not everyone agrees with this. Carol Dweck, famous for her work on ‘mindsets’ has suggested that it isn’t the sugar that helps but our mindset. In other words, if we believe that sugar will help our will power, then it probably will! Here’s a summary of some work she’s done to show this:

If this is true, then will power is not so much about what we do, but how we think, and how we approach a situation. In other words, much more under our control. So If we are confident in our ability to resist temptation then we will probably discover that we are able to resist temptation! In fact, Baumeister himself has produced results consistent with this. He has shown that mood affects will power – If we are put into a good mood, then we get stronger willed.

So what am I trying to say here? We started off with the neural basis of actions and habits and we are now talking about sugar, happiness, mindsets and will power! Essentially, the message is this:

(1)    we have habits that help us behave automatically and efficiently;

(2)    we also have intentions but these are sometimes overridden by our habits;

(3)    our ability to rein in our habits appears to be ‘all in the mind’ and may be helped by good mood and sweets! (Did I mention dopamine earlier?)

So get out there – be intentional, identify goals and strive for them. Engage habits to help your behaviour become routine where appropriate. If things start to go wrong, tell yourself you have control and be confident in suppressing your maladaptive habits. Feel the points shift in your brain as the habit loop gives way to the intentional loop. If you are struggling then have a sip of lemonade, suck on a lollipop, or watch a funny cat video. All will be well.

– Dr John –


Bernard W Balleine and John P O’Doherty (2010) Human and Rodent Homologies in Action Control: Corticostriatal Determinants of Goal-Directed and Habitual Action. Neuropsychopharmacology. vol 35, 48–69

Dickinson, A (1985) Actions and Habits: The Development of Behavioural Autonomy. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 13 February 1985vol. 308 no. 1135 67-78

E.J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister (2008) Toward a Physiology of Dual-Process Reasoning and Judgment: Lemonade, Willpower, and Expensive Rule-Based Analysis. Psychological Science. vol. 19 no. 3 255-260

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