Behavior happens because it is something we have done over and over, i. e. it is a habit, OR it is something that we do because we have a reason for doing it. Changing behavior, therefore, requires different strategies for these different types of behavior. Researchers have studied intentional and habitual behavior and have some ideas about how we might make changes.
Behavior that is “new, untried and unlearned” happens as a result of intentions: a person means to do it for some reason. As the behavior is repeated, particularly if it takes place in the same context (at the same place, with the same people, etc.) the brain puts it into memory and the behavior becomes guided by habit, a state in which a person doesn’t have to think as much about it – it becomes automatic. These habitual behaviors become triggered by certain stimuli as they are repeated, and we may find ourselves doing something that we didn’t intend to do. The repeating of the action builds a memory that links the action with the context in which it takes place. As a result, well-developed habits may become stronger forces causing behavior than either attitudes or intentions.
Habits have been studied in a number of situations and seem to have four qualities that make them automatic: a lack of awareness of performing the behavior, difficulty in controlling the behavior, mental efficiency – being able to perform the behavior with little conscious thought, and performing the behavior without actually intending to do it.
Making New Year’s Resolutions work for you:
- Creating a new habit. If you want to add a positive behavior to your life, find a way to make it a habit. This will build it into your brain as an automatic function and increase the odds of your keeping it up during the new year. Repetition in a stable context (consistent in the way you do it, place in which it occurs, etc.) is important. Eventually you don’t have to give it much thought and the stress of the action is reduced. As you begin this strategy, your intentions take charge – you will need to keep thinking about what you are doing and why until you have repeated it enough times that it begins to move into your memory as a habit. Eventually it will become automatic and you will find yourself doing it often without thinking about it.
- Stopping unwanted behavior. Researchers suggest that stimulus control (changing the environment) is important for changing behavior that is a response to temptation. Because the context (or environment) in which the behavior takes place provides the cues that trigger the behavior, avoiding that environment (such as the people, the places, sights and sounds, etc.) is usually necessary. This strategy will help because you are not exposed to the temptation and reminded of the behavior. You are stopping it before it starts.
- Breaking strong habits. Because old habits have been put into your brain so firmly, they require conscious effort to stop. Just changing your intentions is not enough for most people to break a strong habit. It requires vigilant monitoring of your behavior and intervening after the automatic response has been triggered – stopping it after it starts. This strategy will require more awareness of what you are doing: you will have to be on high alert for a while. Each time the habit is triggered you will have to take action to stop it. You will have to pay attention to break the automatic response. If you can put into action a new behavior when you realize that you are doing the old unwanted one, a new habit can eventually replace the old one.
Quinn, J. M., Pascoe, A., Wood, W. & Neal, D. T. (2010). Can’t control yourself? Monitor those bad habits. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36, 499-511.
Verplanken, B. (2006). Beyond frequency: Habit as mental construct. British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 639-656.
Wood, W., Tam, L. & Witt, M. G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88, 918-933.