LILA ~ Learning Innovations Laboratory at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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Habits in Everyday Life

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Wendy Wood from USC joined LILA to share the research she does on habits — what they are, how they can be aligned/misaligned with intentions, and how habits often override intentions (for better of worse). She set the table by suggested that habits are part our multiple selves, specifically part of our automatic self.  That is the self that is guided by cation cues (like seeing a pot of coffee).  This self is less conscious, not easily verbalize what we are doing, and changes slowly with experience.  The automatic or “habitual self” is different from the “intentional self”, which is guided by attitudes, goals, values.  This self is more conscious, can verbalize, and can change quickly with decisions.  Daniel: This seems similar to concepts such as tacit/explicit knowledge.  It makes me wonder about connections between Nonaka’s learning concepts and her work, seems like there might be synergies? 

The habitual self can be much more powerful than the intentional self — you might know that you need to change your golf swing, or your tennis grip, or your skiing but your well entrenched habits can be impervious to those intentions. She shared her “stale popcorn” study in which habitual popcorn eaters ate stale popcorn even when they didn’t like it (see the briefing that discusses this more).   Habits are context-cued behaviors that are repeated until the outcome is no longer salient. Daniel: Hmmm, is it that the outcome is not longer important or does the outcome change, that is, there is a different “reward” that keeps it in place (e.g. identity)? 

Another study that suggests that context is more powerful goals:  when runners are presented with images of where they run they recognize words about running faster than just thinking about goals of running. If you don’t have habits then goal-based interventions may be very motivating.  But if you do have habits, deeply automatic behaviors might be activated accessed through context-based interventions than goal-based intervention. How often is the habitual self in change?  Her studies suggest that about 50% of what we do everyday is habitual — same behaviors, in same contexts, done with little awareness.

Habits are good because they are quick, easy, efficient, and are important cognitive structures that allow us to function in our world.  Good habits and bad habits function very similarly.  The important difference is that bad habits are not aligned with your goals.  In terms of mechanisms, when people are tired or when their willpower is deplete, they fall back on habits whether they good or bad.

The challenge is how to get your habits more aligned with your intentions?  She’ll talk more about how change habits in her next talk.

Harvard Graduate School of Education