Creatures of Habit
Updated: Feb 22
We like to tell ourselves that we're in control of our own behavior. But it's not always true.
Jennifer Nguyen, M.S., BCBA
Humans are creatures of habit. It's in our nature to seek out patterns and avoid change. Even the most unpredictable people have habits. They aren't necessarily bad but can be problematic when they negatively affect your health and relationships with those around you. While your habits may seem unique or weird, they all form under similar conditions as everyone else's. The old saying, "know thyself," holds true in every aspect of life, and with habits, it can be challenging to recognize why we do what we do. Understanding your own behaviors and those around you can help you accept and support others or make you feel better about your own weird habits. Let's explore why habitual behaviors are so hard to break.
Creatures of Habit
Habitual behavior is repeatedly following the same pattern of thought or action - ranging from how we get dressed in the morning to the type of food we order. Habits can be harmless, deadly, indistinguishable, or take over our lives. The primary reason it's so difficult to change these behaviors is they allow us to accomplish tasks more efficiently. We don't have to constantly relearn the same skills to complete daily tasks.
They provide a perceived path to least resistance to carry on with other parts of our lives, for better or worse. Through repetition, these typical behavior patterns become so ingrained they can feel as though they're a necessary part of our identity.
For those with habitual behavior, tasks are easier to accomplish because they can focus on the task at hand without worrying about thoughts that may be unrelated. A study has shown a difference in thought patterns between people who perform an everyday task versus a one-off job.
When you engage in an everyday routine like brushing your teeth, for example, there's no real need for creative thought. Instead, you might be more likely to zone out while reflecting inwardly and really not focusing on your actions. Conversely, suppose someone is trying something totally new. Their brains will push to find new and different ways of mastering this skill by finding efficient solutions. Whether through trial-and-error during daydreaming sessions or waking hours, acting this way is a given, because figuring things out feels good. It's also a standard process for humans and brains to start connecting different environmental cues in unfamiliar situations to function more efficiently in the task.
Once habits develop, our brain doesn't register the behavior anymore; the activities become more automatic and require less effort. It's like you're on autopilot, but not in a wrong way. Your focus shifts to what's next or other things around you, and it starts to feel irregular to do things differently. Your brain and body crave this process. Think of the feeling you get when you're cruising on the highway going 90 miles per hour. In reality, you're driving a machine at a speed that can cause serious harm should you lose focus, but you're so used to it that it feels great. It's one of the reasons why it can be so hard to "break" bad ones and "form" good ones.
Habits just aren't built into our nature. Humans actively form relationships between cues in our environment and how we behave towards them, sort of like what people would usually call associations. Habits are a by-product of the strength of these relationships.
A habit's strength is determined by the number of times you're exposed to a specific environmental cue and the quality of your experience with a behavior. A habit formed around a positive emotional experience will be stronger than one created out of boredom or avoidance. The repetitive nature of some relationships, like bed-time & sleep habits, can give us more opportunities to form strong relationships. Alternatively, our actions can enable us to escape something bad or bring us additional benefits. In that case, we can increase the probability strong habits will form around the conditions that produced the beneficial situation.
Once you understand how the strength of habits works, it becomes easier to figure out why certain ones are harder than others to break. A signal's effectiveness in creating an emotional response will determine the strength of your behavioral relationship with the cue. Making for harder to break habits. It can be harder t