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Old Habits Die Hard: What Happens When The Thinking Stops?

Have you ever found yourself checking your phone every few minutes for no particular reason? When was the last time you purchased a gallon of milk or a box of eggs only to find out that you have already purchased them previously? These are just simple instances whereby you can relate the extent to which habits govern our daily lives. Almost 43 percent of what we do every day is habitual, meaning that we do not even think whilst conducting roughly half of our daily activities. We continue to follow our habits even when not doing so would make us considerably better off. Yet, in stable contexts, our mind, as if it were programmed by some invisible force, prompts us to behave the way as we are used to behave. In many instances, we are not even cognizant of the fact that we are being guided by this inconspicuous, yet compelling, force. 


Habits, as they are the residue of past goal pursuit, reflect our past experiences and the strategies we have devised to reach certain rewarding end-states. However, as our habits become more and more deeply-seated, our behaviour for given situations become automatic, and it persists even in the cases which we incur costs from doing so. Let’s have a look at what exactly happens when the thinkings stops.


The Popcorn Experiment


A recent experiment conducted by Neal et al. (2011) sheds light on how persistent habits are, even when the outcome from performing a given activity is detrimental for the decision-maker. In the experiment, participants were placed in a cinema and were given a free drink together with a popcorn. However, they were not told that the popcorn was either fresh or 7 days old and decidedly stale. There were distinct differences (shown below) in the amount of popcorn consumed among people grouped by the strength of their habit.


The figure demonstrates that participants who occasionally ate popcorn liked the stale popcorn less than the fresh and ate less of it. However, participants who habitually ate popcorn showed a significantly different type of behaviour: their consumption did not change between stale and fresh popcorn scenarios, and it slightly decreased for the fresh scenario. What is even more interesting is that they demonstrated this type of behaviour only within the cinema context, and they reacted the same way as non-habitual eaters when the experiment was conducted in a meeting room showing music videos. 


The popcorn experiment captures the fundamental component of habitual behaviour: context-dependency. In other words, as people devise strategies to attain desired end states in particular contexts, the context, by itself, regardless of the presence of a positive or negative feedback from acting so, can directly trigger the response. Accordingly, when the experiment was replicated in a meeting room, the cognitive link between cinema and eating popcorn of habitual popcorn eaters was not activated, and therefore, they were able to change their behaviour. 


Do we trick ourselves?


Habits when viewed through the lens of the popcorn experiment might appear to have limited potential in assisting us to meet our goals and acting upon our preferences. However, they reflect our past wisdom, meaning that our brain forms the links between stable contexts and certain actions on purpose. These neurological cravings, i.e. habitual links, are the coping mechanisms that allow us to meet everyday demands and divert our limited attention to things that matter the most in our daily routine. Imagine how time consuming it would be to re-think the route to your office every time you are commuting. Alternatively, imagine that you need to re-experiment every time eating nuts with a beer while watching a football match is a rewarding experience for you. Accordingly, we do not necessarily trick ourselves; instead, by utilizing associative learning we form habits and reach our desired end states in a fast and relatively effortless manner.


However, these come at a cost. The habitual shortcuts may initially serve to attain a particular goal; yet, once the mind enters into ‘automatic’ state, it loses the sight of the importance of goals, and instead focuses on performing the action assuming that the goal will ensue as a result. Alas, if the link between the desired end-state and the actions to achieve it is too strong, our mind can disregard the negative feedback we receive from performing an activity, and implicitly force us to continue what we are doing, which was exactly the case for habitual popcorn eaters. 


Another interesting question related to habits is about the ways they govern our purchase behaviour, which is of particular interest to businesses. The implications can range from resistance to innovation to obtaining a behavioural lock-in. We will address the importance of considering habits in business decisions in one of our upcoming blogs. 



Illustration by Amrita Marino


References and Further Readings


Graybiel, A. M. (2008). Habits, rituals, and the evaluative brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience 31(1), pp. 359-387.


Neal, T. D., Wood, W., Wu, M. and Kurlander, D. (2011). The Pull of the Past: When do habits persist despite conflicting with motives?. Personality and Psychology Bulletin 37(11), pp. 1428-1437.


Wathieu, L. (1997). Habits and the anomalies in intertemporal choice. Management Science 43(11), pp. 1552-1563.


Wenzlaff, R. M. and Wegner, D. M. (2000). Thought suppression. Annual Review of Psychology 51(1), pp. 59-91.

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