Updated: Jul 11
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 to break certain habits than others because you're exposing yourself to different signals in your environment that are sometimes difficult for us to process. We don't always have control over our emotions and how they relate to cues in our environment.
Humans are also emotional creatures. We instantly associate emotions with a cue that signaled a specific feeling or sensory experience, making us more likely to behave the same way when re-encountering it. When a strong relationship is made, it's more manageable for our brains to learn and create habits.
Awareness of the reasons we're doing something and what emotion we typically feel during those moments can significantly help reduce cravings. Making it easier to resist giving in to temptation. Sort of like how listening to music during a particular mood can create those same emotions when repeatedly listening to the same song. Or eating a specific meal associated with a specific time in your life during that mood you were in to recreate the memory or feeling.
We also develop habits to avoid potentially harmful situations or undesired emotions. Things like locking the door when we leave a room to avoid being robbed or putting on our seatbelt to avoid getting into an accident.
Habits are connected to all five of your senses, food cravings being one of the most common. The cue triggers a pleasant (or very unpleasant) experience, leading to a habit, whether it's smell, taste, or even appearance. Inevitably because habits are so powerful, they find their way back into our lives if we aren't aware of how much influence they can have.
Habits are created based on experiences with external stimuli (what you see, hear, feel, etc.) and relationships with our behavior and internal motivations (emotions, thoughts, memories). When these two things are paired together, it creates a robust response that you're more likely to repeat. That's why we continue to do something like eating even when we're not hungry or say things even if we don't mean it. Visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory are all elements of our senses that can be paired with emotion or thoughts to create a powerful cue.
The more emotionally stimulating a cue is, the stronger the connection between your behavior and the habit becomes, making it harder to break. Creating conditions that produce positive emotions around new behaviors you'd like to continue will be doing your brain a favor by helping those behaviors stick. The same goes with your senses. Creating conditions that positively stimulate our senses and force us to use more than one of them makes us more likely to continue engaging in the behavior.
We all form relationships according to our experiences and repeat them without considering if it works for us. It's a natural behavioral process. While this is a beneficial trait that has allowed us to survive as a species, it can also create problems. Our behaviors have formed strong relationships with certain conditions that we have no recollection of. The connections formed in the first place because they maybe didn't pique our immediate interests, or our senses were overloaded at the time. We also do this when we respond to our immediate pressures when focusing on something else important to us. Without isolating how these habits are formed, we have a challenging time removing them from our lives.
Most of the cues that strengthen habitual behavior are more abstract. They can be based on emotional connections, memories, and experiences that we may or may not remember or be able to explicitly label. Sometimes it just takes a smell or a sound to put you back in the moment of an event that has since faded from your thoughts.
Habits can also form out of dumb luck. Superstitious behaviors are an example of this. If you are experiencing something uncomfortable or undesirable and then do something wild that makes it stop, a relationship will form. This can trick you into thinking it was due to your actions. Even pigeons and other animals have been shown to be superstitious. Much in the same ways we do. It’s not something mystical, it happens to all of us. It’s just due to a false connection made with our conditions. Think of someone that goes outside and kicks the air conditioner when it isn't working correctly. Even though those two events are entirely unrelated and may or may not happen again, the connection between the two events was still made. Maybe your team won a big game and you had to wear different socks that morning. Next game, you have those socks laid out – along with the rest of the outfit you had, however ridiculous you may look.
Habits don't start as habits; they begin as single instances of behavior. After doing them once or twice in the same conditions and it works for you, then you'll probably continue doing it in the future. Creating a habit. Habits are formed through connections between these single instances of behavior and our environment. Emotional reactions and sensory experiences can help strengthen or weaken these connections. We all have different backgrounds, which means we form relationships based on our own personal histories to things. This leads us to create hard-to-change behavior patterns, sometimes caused by associations between things we might not even realize happened to us.
Habits are a way of keeping ourselves sane in this chaotic world. Still, they can also lead us to do things that we wouldn't normally do, or maybe something that may be socially inappropriate. There are many ways you can change your habits, but it takes time and dedication. Understanding how these processes work will give you a better awareness of yourself and what strategies work best.
Jennifer Nguyen is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst in Orlando, FL.