Learning Lab

Getting into the habit

The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way.

– William James, Psychology: Briefer Course

Think for a moment of what you did when you woke up this morning. Did you jump in the shower, make a cup of coffee and then grab a quick breakfast on your way out to work? When you got dressed, did you button your shirt up or down? (That’s a trick question; apparently we all button our shirts down.) Did you put in your left or right contact lens first? And, how many of these actions do you perform daily? Do you specifically remember carrying them out, or are they just a matter of routine?

Last time I discussed possible neuropsychological underpinnings of how we process information. We saw how this processing could broadly be divided into two systems: one, informally termed the ‘cool’ network, is deliberate, rational and rule-based; the other, the ‘hot’ network, is faster, emotive and heuristic. In this series of discussions I hope to look at how knowing something of these networks can help us to develop strategies for changing our own and other people’s behaviour, and to train your brain. As you may have gathered from the introduction, I want to begin the series by looking at habits.

American researchers Neal, Wood and Quinn found that up to 45% of our behaviours are performed in the same location daily. Most of these behaviours are what we would call ‘habits’ — showering, brushing teeth, eating, drinking coffee, driving to work. So, how do we develop habits and, perhaps more importantly, why?

From a purely experiential point of view, habitual behaviours feel more automatic and they don’t require much thought. It makes logical sense that we would disengage our brain from activities that don’t require much thought, so as to allow us to focus on more important tasks. Analogous to a computer’s hard drive, this is simply an optimisation of information processing: with the multitude of sensory information we continuously receive, we don’t have the cognitive resources to mindfully process all of it. For sheer practicality we need some way of prioritising that information, so that we direct our attention only to what is important, thus reducing our cognitive load.

Another aspect of habits is that they seem to be triggered only in specific contexts. So, you are probably far more likely to have a habitual glass of wine with your evening meal rather than at any other time, for example. (In a curious illustration of the importance of setting, Charles Duhigg, in the book The Power of Habit, describes how the presence of food vendors at demonstrations in Iraq led to habitual crowd violence.)

Ouellete and Wood (1998) combine these factors to define habits as ‘tendencies to repeat responses given a stable supporting event’. By repeating these responses in a certain setting, the cognitive processing that controls them becomes automatic and can be performed with minimal attention and simultaneously with other actions. From a dual processing perspective then, it would seem that habit formation involves a transition from the explicit cognitive processing of information to a more automatic and implicit system i.e. from cool to hot. There is neurological evidence to support this assertion. You may remember that I mentioned previously that the hot network is associated with a set of ‘inner’ brain structures called the basal ganglia, and the cold network with ‘outer’ brain structures, particularly the prefrontal cortex. Yin and Knowlton (2006) found that the basal ganglia appear to be involved in habit formation. Tricomi and others (2009) found that training a habitual response leads to an increase in brain activity in an area of the basal ganglia called the putamen. Researchers Everitt and Robbins (2005) found that recreational drug users demonstrate neural shifts in control from prefrontal cortical to striatal areas (part of the basal ganglia) as they transition from voluntary to compulsive drug use. Habits, it seems, take their hold through the formation of neural pathways in the hot network.

As the last study illustrates, not all our habits are ‘good’ for us. We can also engage in regular behaviours for which the long-term benefits are dubious — substance abuse, self-harm and bad eating are a few examples. Now that we know a little more about how habits are formed, how do we explain ‘bad’ habits and how can we correct them? Well, changing behaviour is obviously at the core of what we do at the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change, and in the next instalment we will look at some key techniques that we use to change our own and other people’s behaviour and how we encourage the development of good habits.

How are your habits serving you?

– the Neuropsyguy –


Duhigg, C. (2013). The power of habit: why we do what we do and how to change.

Everitt, B. J., & Robbins, T. W. (2005). Neural systems of reinforcement for drug addiction: from actions to habits to compulsion. Nature Neuroscience, 8(11), 1481–1489.

James, W. (1984). Psychology, briefer course (Vol. 14). Harvard University Press.

Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198–202.

Ouellette, J. A., & Wood, W. (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: the multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 54.

Tricomi, E., Balleine, B. W., & O’Doherty, J. P. (2009). A specific role for posterior dorsolateral striatum in human habit learning. European Journal of Neuroscience, 29(11), 2225–2232.

Yin, H. H., & Knowlton, B. J. (2006). The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7(6), 464–476.

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