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The Importance of Habit Formation in Behaviour Change

posted Jun 13, 2016, 1:22 PM by Ben Jane   [ updated Jun 15, 2017, 2:21 AM ]

How much control over our actions do we really have?

We like to think that we’re fully in control of our actions but we don’t have to look too far to see that the model of rational choice making is quite limited. Put a new kitchen in your long-term house and three months down the line you can still find yourself absent-mindedly reaching for the old cutlery drawer. Get in the car to go somewhere and you might, on occasion, find yourself driving to work rather than your intended destination (much to my wife's annoyance in my case!). 

These actions are habits, patterns of behaviour that occur automatically when in particular situations and faced with specific cues or triggers. 

Trying to make sustained lifestyle changes for the benefit your health can require the disruption of old, unwanted habits and the creation of newer, more desirable routines (Danner et al, 2008, Marteau et al, 2012) and the amount of willpower needed, or strength of intention to change might not be quite as important as how well we can create new habits. 

We need to create shortcuts in our thinking just to get by.

A reliance on goals or intentions alone requires a more reasoned, controlled approach to decision making which can be cognitively demanding, difficult to sustain in the long term, and easily disrupted if stressed or having to make many other lifestyle decisions (Baumeister et al, 1998; Verplanken et al, 2006). Thinking can be hard and so to be more efficient, we need to chunk together blocks of cognitive processing to increase efficiency in our thinking and decision making. If we aren’t able to create these short cuts in our thought processes then the act of continually making conscious healthy decisions will be something that just proves too difficult to keep up over long periods. We may have the best of intentions but without the automaticity of strong habits to support these intentions we won’t be able to sustain a healthy behaviour. 

How are habits formed?

Habits are formed through a combination of sequencing and regularity. Sequencing can be aided by the consideration of “if-then” plans where one stimulus or cue leads to a particular behaviour with as little thought or consideration as possible (Hagger and Luszczynska, 2014). For example, when trying to encourage low back pain patients to complete abdominal bracing exercises, the rehab specialist might encourage them to do their exercises when they are brushing their teeth in the morning or evening. Regularity is encouraged by focussing on the process initially rather than the outcome, trying to reinforce the sequencing pattern and encourage repetition even in the face of limited positive change.

We need to create habits to have sustainable behaviour change

Any intervention designed to support health related behaviour change therefore needs to consider how these new changes can become habits rather than conscious decisions that will always need to be made as the more thinking that's involved, the less likely these behaviours will continue.

References and Further Reading

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252.

Danner, U. N., Aarts, H., & Vries, N. K. (2008). Habit vs. intention in the prediction of futurebehaviour: The role of frequency, context stability and mental accessibility of past behaviour. British Journal of Social Psychology,47(2), 245-265.

Fjeldsoe, B., Neuhaus, M., Winkler, E., & Eakin, E. (2011). Systematic review of maintenance of behavior change following physical activity and dietary interventions. Health Psychology, 30(1), 99.

Gardner, B. (2015). A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 277-295.

Hagger, M. S., & Luszczynska, A. (2014). Implementation intention and action planning interventions in health contexts: State of the research and proposals for the way forward. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being,6(1), 1-47.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Kwasnicka, D., Dombrowski, S. U., White, M., & Sniehotta, F. (2016). Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: a systematic review of behaviour theories. Health Psychology Review, 1-20.

Marteau, T. M., Hollands, G. J., & Fletcher, P. C. (2012). Changing human behavior to prevent disease: the importance of targeting automatic processes. Science, 337(6101), 1492-1495.

Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Drolet, A. (2013). How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(6), 959.

Orbell, S., & Verplanken, B. (2015). The strength of habit. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 311-317.

Roberto, C. A., & Kawachi, I. (Eds.). (2015). Behavioral Economics and Public Health. Oxford University Press.

Rothman, A. J., Gollwitzer, P. M., Grant, A. M., Neal, D. T., Sheeran, P., & Wood, W. (2015). Hale and Hearty Policies How Psychological Science Can Create and Maintain Healthy Habits. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(6), 701-705.

Verplanken, B. (2006). Beyond frequency: Habit as mental construct. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45(3), 639-656.

Verplanken, B., & Melkevik, O. (2008). Predicting habit: The case of physical exercise. Psychology of sport and exercise, 9(1), 15-26.

Wansink, B. (2015). Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. William Morrow & Company: New York.

Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 249.

Wood, W., & Rünger, D. (2016). Psychology of habit. Annual Review of Psychology, 67, 289-314.