I have a 4 year old, Paddy, who loves to fart. They are a daily commotion. After popping him to bed this evening he called me back in. Somehow in the space of four seconds he had managed to disrobe, assume an overturned triangle position and succeeded in blasting one out just as I pushed the door open. It sounded like a deflating balloon and seemed to go on for a full minute with a small pause and then he added on a small squeaker at the end. This just topped off his evening – delighted with himself he giggled off to sleep. Its only one of his bad habits. But Paddy is not alone, much of our daily lives is taken up by habits we have formed throughout our lives. Habits tend to be things we do without thought, they’re automatic and between forty and forty five percent of our day-to-day behaviour is habitual – the time you get up, mobile phone use, where we shop, our diets, choice of exercise and even our flatulence. Habits are at the core of how the human mind works and are behaviours that we repeat over and over again. They are usually triggered by a cue and result in some sort of a reward at the end (Neal et al., 2011). Doing things automatically “out of habit” is generally a good idea because it’s when we “think” that we generally make mistakes. So, habit forming is a mechanism for creating behaviour that requires minimal thinking, and this is why reliance on habits will always beat the resilience of willpower (Neal et al., 2013).
Sitting on the couch trying to will yourself out the door to go for a run on a wet January evening is hard, Netflix is far more appealing than the thought of pounding wet pathways with a cold wind blowing down your neck. We tell ourselves we will make ourselves do it, but our will power is a limited resource (Hagger et al., 2010), resisting repeated temptations can take its mental toll. Will power is like a muscle that can fatigue from overuse. Our brain creates habits in three – step loops, the cue or trigger is the brain to go into automatic pilot and chose the appropriate habit. Then there is the action – the run, the gym or even the flatulence and then ultimately the reward. Now the reward is very important because it tells your brain whether this behaviour is worth repeating ….. habit forming. Thereby using a cue repeatedly can generate a reaction without the brain having time to think and change your mind. Simply putting your runners on can trigger a routine response and before you know it you’re out the door and 10 minutes into a run, wondering how you ever doubted yourself. And the reward of the elusive runners high, the well-earned glass of Tempranillo or Friday night thai take-away cements the behaviour. But thankfully for Paddy habits aren’t destiny and the can be ignored, changed or replaced. But I’ll leave that to his mother because for me farts are always funny!
HAGGER, M. S. et al. Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull, v. 136, n. 4, p. 495-525, Jul 2010. ISSN 0033-2909.
NEAL, D. T.; WOOD, W.; DROLET, A. How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. J Pers Soc Psychol, v. 104, n. 6, p. 959-75, Jun 2013. ISSN 0022-3514.
NEAL, D. T. et al. The pull of the past: when do habits persist despite conflict with motives? Pers Soc Psychol Bull, v. 37, n. 11, p. 1428-37, Nov 2011. ISSN 0146-1672.