Psychology of habit
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Psychology of habit


People often repeat the same actions in familiar situations, showcasing a tendency toward habitual behaviour. Habit, as a concept, has been explored in vast detail in the history of psychology. This article explores the concept of habit with a detailed review. We first look at the history of habit in the context of psychological inquiry and then delve into what habit means, how it is formed, how is it linked to addiction and how reinforcement plays a role in habit formation.

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A Brief History

The study of human behaviour and character has roots in ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle, for example, contemplated habituation, highlighting the significance of repeated actions in moulding character. Similarly, the Stoics pondered the essence of habits and their influence on virtue.

William James (1890) emphasized the significance of habit in life but urged a clear definition of its limits. In response, psychologists delved into this concept, with behaviourist traditions like Thorndike’s (1898) law of effect, Hull’s (1943) drive theory, and Skinner’s (1938) operant conditioning offering specific meanings to habits. However, reinforcement-based models gave way to purposive and cognitive perspectives. Tolman (1948) viewed repeated behaviours as learning internal representations, while Miller et al. (1960) suggested replacing habits with information-processing mechanisms for goal pursuit.

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Procedural memory distinguished habits as cognitively represented from other implicit and explicit memories (Squire & Zola-Morgan 1991). Reinforcement learning (RL) research identified behavioural criteria for detecting habits, such as insensitivity to changes in rewarding outcomes (Dickinson 1985). Neuroscience pinpointed brain regions involved in habitual behaviour (Graybiel 1998). Social-cognitive approaches explored how habits interface with goals (Verplanken & Aarts 1999, Ouellette & Wood 1998). High levels of repetition in daily activities provided empirical support for studying habits (Khare & Inman 2006, Wood et al. 2002). Public interest in understanding personal habits further fueled these developments (e.g., Duhig 2012, Rubin 2015).

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The psychology of habit has a rich history, evolving from ancient philosophical musings to advanced neuroscientific studies. This progression has yielded valuable insights into human behaviour, opening doors for practical applications in self-improvement, mental health, and interventions for behaviour change.

Habit Formation

Everyday habits form as people pursue life goals, making habit formation closely linked with goal pursuit. However, a consequence of the context-response mechanism in habits is that behaviour becomes less responsive to current goals and planning as habit associations strengthen. Habits develop through instrumental learning, where rewarded responses are repeated (Thorndike 1898). For instance, when consistently working toward a goal, like making coffee, people associate context cues (e.g., coffee filter) and actions (e.g., measuring grounds) with goal attainment.

In daily life, about 43% of actions, as noted in experience sampling research, are performed almost daily and typically in the same context (Wood et al. 2002; Khare & Inman 2006). Specific actions, like eating certain foods, also occur in particular physical locations. The learning of context-response associations often unintentionally results from this repetition. Indicative of this automaticity, participants in Wood et al.’s (2002) study often mentioned not thinking about repeated behaviours during performance. Neuroscience has revealed that habits are etched into the brain through synaptic plasticity. As we repeat behaviour in response to a specific cue and receive a reward, our brain forms neural connections that make the behaviour more automatic and less reliant on conscious decision-making.

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The Role of Rewards and Association with Habit Learning

Habits grow stronger through associative and reward-based learning, capturing the gradual nature of habit formation. With each repetition, subtle changes occur in the cognitive and neural mechanisms linked to procedural memory. Through Hebbian learning, cognitive connections between context cues and a response strengthen gradually, enabling people to repeat the performance when reencountering those context cues. Reinforcement plays a crucial role in habit formation. Positive or negative, reinforcement affects the likelihood of a habit enduring. Positive reinforcement, like the satisfaction from completing a task, reinforces habits, while negative reinforcement, such as relieving discomfort through a habit, also contributes to the process.

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Neural Dynamics of Habit Formation

On a neural level, midbrain dopamine systems support the reinforcement process that leads to habit formation. Specifically, the dopaminergic signal, triggered by an unexpected change in reward magnitude, retroactively strengthens associations between active memory traces of the response and cues in the performance context (Wise 2004). Dopamine signals facilitate habit learning as people initially repeat responses to a reward, but these signals become less active with repetition as the reward recurs.

The formation of bad habits is a multifaceted process influenced by psychological, neurological, and environmental factors. Central to this process is the cue-response-reward loop, where a cue triggers a behaviour, leading to a reward that reinforces the habit over time. Neural plasticity, the brain’s adaptability, plays a role, making habitual behaviours more automatic.

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Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, reinforces habits by linking behaviours to positive outcomes. Emotional factors, especially stress, contribute as individuals adopt habits for coping. Social and environmental cues, observational learning, and repetition also shape habits, making them resistant to change. Unconscious formation is common, with individuals often unaware of the cues and rewards driving their habits. Genetic and biological factors, as well as positive reinforcement, further influence habit development. Understanding these mechanisms is crucial for developing effective strategies to break free from undesirable habits and promote positive behaviour change.

Habit and Addiction

From a habit perspective, the journey to drug addiction involves a shift from intentional drug-seeking to habitual consumption. Initially, seeking drugs is voluntary and driven by the pleasure they provide. Through learning mechanisms, environmental cues become strongly linked to drug use, fostering cravings. The addict, despite losing the enjoyment of the drug, continues to use it compulsively.

Learning Mechanisms and the Role of Environmental Cues in Drug Cravings

Repeated drug use impairs goal-directed control, as seen in studies where participants habitually chose chocolate even after eating multiple bars. Chronic addicts, whether obese, obsessive-compulsive, or dependent on substances, exhibit compromised goal-directed learning and a reliance on habits, linked to specific neural markers. Even cues associated with drug exposure, when present, can disrupt goal-directed responding.

Drug use not only impairs goal-directed control but also sensitizes individuals to the rewarding properties of drugs, promoting rapid engagement of habit-forming processes. Stimulants, in particular, speed up the development of drug use habits, accelerating the transition from the occasional user to the addict. In summary, drug exposure influences the habit learning system, favouring context-driven behaviour over evaluating outcomes. This continuous pressure toward habitual actions results in compulsive drug seeking and use.

Habit has been thoroughly explored in the field of psychology. Understanding the dynamic nature of the concept, and its history and going into depth about habit formation can help us in the long run. It not only allows us to learn what we can do to formulate beneficial habits but also how we can try and give up bad habits.

References +
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