Learning Lab

Habitual Offenders

Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words.

Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior.

Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits.

Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values.

Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.

— Mahatma Gandhi

In this series of articles I have been exploring how the neuropsychological theory of dual processing may belie some our most fundamental ways of being in the world. The way in which we process information has implications for all sorts of psychological functions, including memory, learning, attention, problem solving and social cognition. Most recently I discussed the involvement of the hot and cool networks in the formation of habits, which are essentially great cognitive ‘shortcuts’ that automate certain behaviours in order to free up valuable brain processing power for more important tasks. Do you think about brushing your teeth? Or breathing? (Mindfulness proponents would argue that in fact we should refocus our attention on such routine behaviours – more on that in a later article in the series!)

But what happens when a habit no longer serves you? Say you realise you have picked up an undue affinity for a daily chocolate bar. Or that your obsession for running is preventing you from recovering from an injury. In other instances it may be that a habit becomes obsolete, perhaps you move house and the route you previously took to get home is no longer of use. How do we change a habit? Is there merit in Gandhi’s advice, that changing our thoughts will change our habits?

Being able to alter habits is important to us as individuals, but also to employers, therapists, coaches and any others who are trying to encourage target behaviours. Here at the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change this is basically what we’re all about – developing innovative ways of adjusting people’s behaviour in the short term (‘nudging’), or in the long-term for health and wellbeing benefits and work-based safety, for example. Habit formation would obviously fall into the latter.

Now it almost goes without saying that there has to be some kind of ‘drive’ to enable a change in habit. Very simplistically, in good old-fashioned behaviourism, it is possible to condition a certain behaviour by rewarding that behaviour when it is exhibited. Giving a dog a treat when it brings you your Sunday paper is likely to make the dog repeat that behaviour. (And before you think that we humans are immune to such Pavlovian conditioning, just think of how many people repeat their shopping behaviour with a specific supermarket because of the ‘rewards’ that they offer.) So, the next question may be ‘What drives us?’

This naturally leads to a discussion of motivation and goals. A vast topic in psychology, and of vital importance to so many people – sports psychologists, motivational speakers, coaches, behaviourists, managers alike – it is difficult to do justice to it in just one article. According to Freud, human motivation derives from the need to satisfy the primitive urges of self-preservation, aggression, the need for love and the impulse to attain pleasure and avoid pain. Because this framework failed to adequately account for more positive and creative human endeavours, Maslow developed a more refined ‘hierarchy of needs’ in 1943, ranking motivating factors from basic physiological needs to those that enable self-actualisation. Harlow’s controversial work with baby rhesus monkeys in the 50s, stock content of most undergraduate psychology texts, further debunked the priority of our primal physiological motivations. He showed that terry-towel covered substitute mothers were preferred refuge for the baby monkeys to wireframe mothers that provided food, suggesting that comfort was more important even than food. Most recently, Ryan and Deci suggest that our motivation is geared to meeting only three core needs: competence, relatedness and autonomy. We develop strategies at an early age to ensure that these needs are met and we don’t necessarily give equal value to each of them – we each develop a unique ‘profile of needs’. Suppose I am particularly strongly motivated by competence, and I feel rewarded by demonstrating superior skill in a certain activity. I may choose to attain a certain goal as a measure of that competence. Goal-setting is often put forward as a means by which behaviour may be changed. But why do we often fail to achieve such goals? Why do people’s behaviour and intentions often differ so widely? This discrepancy is known as the ‘value–action gap’.

Once again we can look to dual process theory. McClelland and colleagues propose that motivation and goals correspond with the characteristics of the hot and cool networks of the brain. They suggest that motives exhibit all of the characteristics of the emotional implicit system: they are based on emotional learning, develop early in life and are aroused by salient environmental cues. Goals, on the other hand, are explicit representations of the future and cognitive plans constructed to achieve them. McClelland also considers the relationship between the two systems, finding that discrepancies between the two systems correlate with a drop in psychological well being. This is not surprising, as we have probably all experienced how it feels to have goals and motivation that are not aligned – perhaps wanting to lose weight but lacking motivation to do so, or thinking what a nice idea it would be to return to studying the piano only to find that we don’t make enough time to practise.

How can we apply these ideas to changing our habits? If we are to effectively change a habit, the new habit has to first satisfy our desire for competence, relatedness or autonomy. Since every individual has a different motivational profile, it is important to appeal to the right desire. Second, the motives need to mesh with our goals. This congruence is essential for our psychological wellbeing. For example, an ambitious parent may impose the goal of violin virtuoso on their child, but if the child does not have the required motivation to achieve this goal then they are likely to suffer psychological harm as a result. Likewise, motivation with discrepant goals can be just as dangerous. For example, if someone who is highly motivated by a need for relatedness joins a software development team, she may not succeed as a colleague if the team’s goal is to win a particular contract at all costs.

One last point: if our psychological wellbeing is optimised when our motivations and goals are aligned, perhaps this is true for the hot and cool systems in general. Is this fundamental to what we mean by a ‘flow state’? What do you think?

– the Neuropsyguy –


Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13(12), 673.

McClelland, D. C., Koestner, R., & Weinberger, J. (1989). How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ? Psychological Review, 96(4), 690.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68.

Schultheiss, O. C., & Brunstein, J. C. (1999). Goal imagery: Bridging the gap between implicit motives and explicit goals. Journal of Personality, 67(1), 1–38.

You May Also Like…

How Do Habits Work?

How Do Habits Work?

Creatures of Habit Did you make a new year's resolution this year? Or more importantly, did you manage to stick with...