Posted inHealth and Wellbeing

The force of habits

John is the kind of person who you might consider to have a healthy lifestyle. Every day he gets up at 6am for his 10km morning jog before commencing a productive day of studying. By teatime, he’s finished all his essays and has time to treat his flatmates to a delicious homemade meal.

Look at him. Look at his sickening levels of organisation, then look at yourself. All you’ve done is lie in bed, snacking on pringles and watching cute cat videos. Everyone has a person like John in their life, who they are constantly in awe of. How do they get up at 6am when the warmth of their bed is so appealing? How do they work so hard when we know they’d rather be binge watching Call the Midwife?

You may think it’s simply down to their greater self-control, but I would beg to differ. For people who incorporate these activities into their day, it isn’t a matter of willpower. Rather, it’s a matter of developing these actions into habits: things which we do on a regular basis without giving it much thought. During your day-to-day life, you perform many actions which could be classed as ‘habits’, from brushing your teeth before bed to eating waffles for breakfast each morning.

How are habits made? Well, it’s all about the establishment of neural pathways in your brain. Let’s take the example of eating waffles for breakfast: those waffles are full of glucose. From an evolutionary perspective, your brain loves glucose because it provides the energy needed to function. So when you eat these glucose-filled waffles, your brain rewards you by releasing a chemical called dopamine, which is what makes you feel all warm and happy! The dopamine rush encourages you to have waffles for breakfast the next day and the next day and the next. Eventually, your brain will associate those two things so closely: breakfast and waffles, that when you sit down for breakfast, you will almost automatically reach for the waffles (even if by that point you’re getting a bit bored of them). Habits like these form quickly since they are easy and fun.

Habits are such powerful driving forces that these actions eventually become automatic . This has been shown by various studies, including one performed by the University of Southern California. Scientists invited 98 moviegoers to a cinema and gave each person a box of popcorn. Some were given a box of stale, week old popcorn, whereas others were given a box of fresh popcorn. Unsurprisingly, all the participants said that the fresh popcorn tasted better, and those who did not usually eat popcorn at the cinema ate far more of it. Yet, those who habitually ate popcorn at the cinema consumed roughly equal amounts of the stale and fresh popcorn, despite disliking the stale popcorn.1

Why? The answer lies in these neural pathways where our habits form. The brain looks at its surroundings: the dimmed cinema lighting, the huge screen, the popcorn box. It thinks “Aha, I’ve been here before! What did I do last time? I ate popcorn. What will I do this time? Eat popcorn!”.

This example shows that you don’t really put much thought into your habitual actions – a fact exploited by governments and businesses in a process known as ‘nudging’: the introduction of a change which in turn encourages certain choices. Nudging can make it more difficult for you to carry out bad habits, thereby discouraging you from doing them, as was the case with smoking. In 1964, the Surgeon General published a report  highlighting the dangers of smoking, to educate people about the risks. Data from the Massachusetts Medical Society found that although many more people became aware of the correlation between smoking and lung cancer, few took action to reduce their cigarette consumption. Consequently, there was a surprisingly small decrease in the per capita cigarette consumption.2 It was not until nudging measures, such as graphic warnings on cigarette packaging, were introduced in the 1970s, that more and more Americans quit smoking.3 Simply put, it was not until the bad habit became more difficult to do, that it started to fade.

Nudging can also help us to develop healthier habits by making them easier to do. Let’s take eating fruit: almost everyone in the UK knows the importance of eating your ‘five a day’, yet ‘Health Survey for England’ say that fewer than a third of people do so. It is difficult to change something as central as our eating habits, even with the promotion of campaigns like Change4Life. But, nudging can help: in 2016, Tesco began offering free fruit to children whilst their parents were shopping. Three years later, Tesco’s chief customer officer announced that the supermarket chain had given out 100 million pieces of free fruit to children.4 The reason for their success? The fruit was laid out on stands where it was easily accessed, and as, I discussed earlier, habits form more quickly when they are easy and fun. It may seem like a small act: this one extra piece of fruit during the weekly shop, but it encourages parents to buy more fruit to keep at home where children can get into the habit of eating it regularly.

So on a personal level, we can consider how we build good habits. We can, much like Tesco’s free fruit scheme, ensure that the snacks we keep in our cupboards are a bit more nutritious, or keep a book beside our bed rather than our phone. We can also use the idea of rewards to make activities more fun and thereby more likely to result in the formation of  habits. The problem is that our brains want to be rewarded now, rather than getting an intangible reward that will be granted to us a few months down the line. To give you an example, I have a foot massager that I use whilst studying and only whilst studying – it suddenly makes learning the names of all the bones in the body a lot more fun! Or maybe when exercising you could blast out your favourite tunes? Whatever works for you.

The year has only just started, so get creative. Try out different nudging techniques of your own and see what you can do to make good habits that last. You’ll find that though you may have to use some self-control to begin with, maintaining good habits will become easier with time. After all, we humans really are creatures of habit.

For more information on the topics described in this article, give “A Creature of Habit” on the Hidden Brain podcast channel a listen.

Cover photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

[1] David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, Mengu, Wu, David Kurlander, “The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict with Motives?”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2011) pp1428-37

[2] Elmo Roper & associates, “A Study of Reactions to the Surgeon General’s Report on Cigarette Smoking” (1964)

[3] Ryan Courtney, “The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General.”, Drug and Alcohol Review, vol 34.6 (2015)