How Are Habits Formed? The Psychology of Behavioral Change

How are habits formed?In his essay Of Habit, the French philosopher Ravaisson (1838/2008) describes habits as familiar yet mysterious.

Actions that are repeated over time gradually became habits, with a curious life of their own.

Ravaisson was most fascinated by positive or adaptive habits, those we develop mindfully (Malabou, 2008).

Of course, not all habits are developed mindfully.

Some habits develop unconsciously, from internal or external stress. These tend to be negative or maladaptive habits.

Neuroscientists have also had much to say about habits, including how positive ones are formed and how negative ones can be broken (Yin & Knowlton, 2006).

We will look into opinions and research, and then answer the question of how habits are formed in this article.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.

How Are Habits Formed 101

The question of habit formation can be approached from a scientific perspective or a more subjective and experiential one.

 

The subjective experience of habit formation

Bergson was a French philosopher who took cues from Ravaisson’s prior discussion of habits and their formation.

Bergson (1911) wrote of both active and passive habits.

Passive habits arise from exposure to things we eventually get used to. High-altitude climbers gradually adapt their bodies to the lower levels of oxygen available as they climb above 7,000 feet.

Active habits are those we develop by repeated intention and effort, crystalizing as skills we perform with little or no thought. A gymnast practices walking, jumping, and flipping on a narrow beam until she can do all these maneuvers smoothly without falling.

Habits as skills can also be seen as a springboard to creativity. Based on what we can habitually do, we reach new heights, as when a jazz musician ingrains the playing of a basic melody, then improvises new and adventurous notes on top of the underlying theme.

The scientific perspective on habit formation is exemplified today by neuroscience research. This research has highlighted crucial brain pathways involved in forming habits.

 

The neuroscience of habit formation

When you first learn to tie your shoes, the attempts are quite conscious and effortful. As you practice this skill, it becomes a habit, something you can do easily and automatically, even while thinking of other things.

Neuroscience has asked how conscious and goal-directed actions are converted into a habit (Yin & Knowlton, 2006).

Clues to the mystery of habit formation can be found in an ancient area of the brain called the basal ganglia (Yin & Knowlton, 2006).

The basal ganglia are deep structures near the base of the brain that developed early in the evolution of our nervous system.

These structures play a major role in coordinating all kinds of voluntary movements, including the complex motions involved in walking, running, eating, talking, and grasping and manipulating with the hands, etc.

The basal ganglia, in conjunction with the brain’s frontal or “executive” lobe, also help perform the crucial task of rapidly selecting which type of movement should be made, out of the many options available in a given situation.

When faced with a tiger suddenly springing from the bushes, what should you do? Stand still, run to climb a tree, or make a dash for the river and hope the tiger can’t swim? The movement program chosen at this point might determine whether you get to pass your genes along to any offspring.

Since movements are most effective when well learned or habitual, the basal ganglia are also very involved in habit formation.

Certain habits appear to be formed through the interplay between two distinct basal ganglia pathways (Yin & Knowlton, 2006).

One of these pathways is associative. It consciously collects information needed for reaching goals such as staying warm, finding food, finding a mate, and expressing oneself artistically.

A second pathway is more automatic. This route takes those lessons learned from the first pathway and includes them in a repertoire of stored habits.

These habits are then available to be called upon, when cued by a given situation.

When I sit down on my stoop before going for a run, this triggers the habit of putting on my running shoes, in a sequence of actions that is well learned and often automatic.

Another key aspect to habit formation is positive reinforcement or reward. For an activity to become a habit, it helps if it’s not only repeated often, but also positively reinforced.

We can trigger positive reinforcement through an external reward, like money, food, or praise. Such experiences release dopamine, one of the brain’s favorite “feel good” neurochemicals. A rewarding dopamine release can also occur through internal triggers, like visualizing yourself reaching a cherished goal (Neuroscience News, 2015).

Dopamine release has been shown to depend on neurons within the limbic system, another ancient brain circuit that processes emotions and the experience of reward. The limbic system is deeply connected with the basal ganglia and can stamp our memories and habits with emotional and reward value (Trafton, 2012).

 

The Psychology Behind Habits: 3 Theories

Psychology of habitsThe American philosopher William James made early contributions to habit theory that still resonate today.

James (1914) thought of habit as the result of repeating the same action over and over, in similar circumstances, until it is ingrained in our brain circuitry.

He also believed that ingrained habits would automatically arise in the face of strong cues associated with their formation. When walking into your darkened room, the room and darkness cue the automatic habit of reaching for the light switch.

Behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner would expand on James’s insights into habit, with animal studies that emphasized how habit formation is fueled by rewards.

Skinner (1953) created cages for pigeons with buttons that dropped a food pellet when pushed. In exploring the cage, the hungry pigeons would eventually peck the button on the wall. They soon came to realize that pecking the button would produce a food pellet.

This experimental scenario included what for Skinner were the primary factors in producing a habit:

  1. Stimulus, like the button to be pecked
  2. Behavior, like pecking the button
  3. Reward, like the food pellet

Skinner (1953) believed that behaviors repeatedly engaged in for the sake of a reward will become habits. This hypothesis was borne out by his pigeons repeatedly pressing the button, even when that action was no longer followed by a food pellet.

Other theories sought to go beyond behaviorism’s focus on observed behavior alone, to include a mental or cognitive component in habit. Edward Tolman (1948, 1954) believed that repeated or habitual responses involved the use of internal ideas, or “maps,” as cognitive components that helped navigate mazes, etc.

Neuroscience has further explored certain questions about habit, with the help of nerve conduction and brain scan studies.

 

Habits and the Brain: 5 Fascinating Studies

Dr. Wendy Wood, a psychologist at the University of Southern California’s Habit Lab, found that an estimated 43% of the activities engaged in each day by her study participants were done habitually, while they were thinking of something else (Wood, Quinn, & Kashy, 2002).

How do we know when to start and stop such habitual activities if they are not done consciously?

Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that when practicing a habitual routine such as brushing one’s teeth, certain neurons in the basal ganglia will activate or “fire” at the beginning of the routine. Then, they lay quiet while the routine proceeds. Finally, they fire again when the routine is completed (Martiros, Burgess, & Graybiel, 2018).

This means that even if you are thinking about something else, you can automatically start and then finish a habitual routine, because these specialized neurons will tell you to do so.

Another common question about habits is: How long does it take to form new ones?

One often-cited study (Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle, 2010) indicated an average of 66 days to establish a new pro-health habit, such as exercising for at least 30 minutes per day.

Research suggests the following tips for breaking negative habits and forming new and more positive ones.

Find ways to lower your stress level.

Many negative habits such as smoking, overeating, and oversleeping have developed as a response to stress (Schwabe & Wolf, 2009).

If you lower your stress level, you should be less inclined to take that cigarette break, eat that snack you don’t really need, or flop down on the couch in the middle of the day.

Simple measures can reduce stress like taking a walk or practicing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

Become aware of your negative habits.

Since they are largely automatic, we are often unaware of our habits and their associated experiences. Being mindful of our negative habits and what they involve can make them easier to break (Brewer, 2019).

For example, when asked to become mindful of what cigarette smoking tastes and smells like, some smokers realize that the actual sensations of smoking are not pleasant for them. Reflecting on the sensory experience of smoking can make the habit easier to break (Brewer, 2019).

Avoid cues that were associated with developing the negative habit in the first place.

Most habits can be triggered by the cues or contexts in which they developed (Dickinson & Balleine, 1994).

Negative habits can therefore be left dormant if their associated cues or contexts are avoided. For example, in trying to weaken the habit of snacking between meals, I should avoid leaving out easily accessible snacks.

Replace the old habit with a new one that opposes it.

This can be done by explicitly planning a different course and repeating what it prescribes.

This technique was used successfully in a study on breaking old and random recycling habits in the workplace and replacing them with a clear strategy for consistent recycling (Holland, Aarts, & Langendam, 2006).

 

5 Habits That Will Improve Your Life

Healthy HabitsRobert Kanaat is an entrepreneur who, under the pen name R. L. Adams, has written extensively on discipline, positive behavioral change, and habit (Adams, 2013, 2014).

The following are five habits highlighted by Kanaat for improving health, financial status, career, and psychological wellbeing (adapted from Wanderlust Worker).

 

A key health habit: 10,000 Steps per day

Kanaat describes this as a “keystone habit,” one that lends support to other positive health habits such as drinking enough water, being conscious of what we eat, and leaving sufficient time for exercise.

This basic habit can be supported by using a pedometer or smartphone health app to track one’s steps toward the daily goal of 10,000.

 

A positive financial habit: Expense journaling

According to Kanaat, this keystone financial habit supports financial awareness, financial planning, and positive spending habits.

He cites the example of John D. Rockefeller, whose mother instilled in him the habit of writing down every penny he spent from an early age. She also encouraged him early in the habits of saving and wisely investing his money. Rockefeller credited his mother and the habits she instilled as keys to his financial success (Rockefeller, 2019).

 

A critical success habit: Active goal setting

Kanaat distinguishes active from passive goal setting. In the latter, we set goals that are usually longer term, then tend to forget about them. Active goal setting involves tracking your progress toward each goal every day. He also advocates for “SMART” goal setting: making sure goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

 

A crucial career habit: Time management

Kanaat recommends using the “quadrant” system for time management, first developed by Dwight D. Eisenhower and later included in the bestselling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey, 2020).

In this system, each activity we do can be categorized as involving some combination of urgency and importance. We naturally tend to focus on short-term, quadrant-1 objectives, which are both urgent and important.

We need to be even more mindful of long-term quadrant-2 objectives, which, while not urgent, are very important.

The remaining third and fourth quadrant activities are distractions and time-wasters, and should be avoided and strictly limited, respectively.

 

An important wellness habit: Daily gratitude.

If we focus on what we lack, we will see and experience what is missing.

On the other hand, if we focus on and are grateful for what we have now, we will see and experience gratitude and fullness.

Kanaat recommends practicing daily gratitude for 15 minutes each morning, by writing down everything for which we are grateful. He further recommends doing this every day for 90 days to set the habit. He adds that this can bring a positive transformation in mindset, from thinking only of lack to being mindful of and grateful for all we have.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources

The following resources can help you or your clients break negative habits and form new and positive ones.

  • Habit Tracker
    This tool is designed to help you track daily progress in developing those positive habits you want to cultivate, concerning health, finances, relationships, and wellbeing.

  • Goal Setting
    Our article on goal setting with templates and worksheets includes various tips and resources for the important habit of active goal setting.

  • Energy Management Audit
    This tool can help you become aware of and make adjustments to your habits around using and restoring personal energy through healthy eating, sleeping, exercising, etc.

  • Daily Gratitude Check-in
    A tool to help cultivate daily gratitude and the various benefits that come with it. It is meant to be completed daily with fresh content, citing things that have happened over the past 24 hours for which you are grateful.

 

A Take-Home Message

Habits are a force in each of our lives, often with positive, but sometimes with negative, results.

Although negative habits can be stubborn things, research has shown they can be broken and replaced with more positive ones.

Awareness of our habits can help distinguish between those that align with our goals and those that stand in our way.

Positive habits that we consciously form retain elements of the mindful intention that initiated them. At their best, such habits assure mastery. They can also become a springboard to creativity, as when an experienced mountaineer picks just the right route up a new and challenging face.

Certain positive habits can also be “keystones” for others, as when the daily habit of taking at least 10,000 steps helps reinforce other habits like healthy eating and spending some time outside each day.

We hope the tools and techniques offered in this article for strengthening positive habits and breaking negative ones will be useful for you or your clients.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.

If you’d like to help others succeed in life, our Motivation & Goal Achievement Masterclass© is a comprehensive training template for practitioners that contains everything you need to help your clients reach their goals and master motivation-enhancing techniques.

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About the Author

Dr. Jeffrey Gaines earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from SUNY/Stony Brook in 1992, and a further Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Pennsylvania State University in 2001. He sees clinical psychology as a practical extension of philosophy and specializes in neuropsychology – having been board-certified in 2011. Jeffrey is currently Clinical Director at Metrowest Neuropsychology in Westborough, MA.

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