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Updated on February 9, 2011

The term habit is used in psychology to refer to a product of learning. In this sense it is usually put in opposition to terms such as reflex and instinct that refer to unlearned behavioral tendencies. Actually, the distinction is more difficult to make sharply than this opposition implies. It is hard to tell whether many kinds of behavior are instinctive or "extremely habitual".

The term habit is popularly used to refer to behavior that is frequently repeated and may seem involuntary. Such regular behavior may be harmless and seemingly unintentional, as when a man "habitually" scratches his ear. Habits may be consciously strengthened, as when a boy practices the patterns involved in playing a guitar. On the other hand, habit can refer to unwanted patterns of behavior- "the drug habit," for example.

It is important to recognize that habit is a concept and not a thing. Like the concept of magnetism in physics, it is known through its manifestations, not directly. It is also important to understand that although the learning of habits no doubt has some physiological basis, the nature of this foundation is largely a mystery.

A further distinction must be made between habit and performance. A given habit can be revealed through a wide variety of performances.

For example. the man who habitually takes a certain route in walking home from work may walk slowly or rapidly or run. Obviously, the details of the performance expressing a habit depend upon variables such as motivation that are not a part of habit itself.

William James once referred to habit as "the great fly wheel of society", expressing in this metaphor the idea that habitual ways of behaving provide dependability and stability in the social world. As might be expected, a mechanism of such importance reveals itself in many aspects of behavior. Verbal and motor habits are familiar to everyone. We also know that our motivational and emotional lives are also largely the products of habit. What appeals to us and what we fear, whom we love and whom we hate, our taste in food and dress, our prejudices and appetites all these are learned, and therefore, they are all habitual.

Habit Formation

The common-sense view that habit formation is a gradual process is accepted by many psychologists, perhaps the majority. There is, however, an alternative point of view according to which, in the most basic sense, learning takes place in just one trial or experience.

In order to account for the fact that learning usually proceeds slowly, this theory argues that most learning involves not just one habit but a large collection of small habits. The gradual nature of learning is then accounted for by the fact that the elementary habits are not acquired at the same rate and that the acquisition of all of them takes a considerable amount of time.

Beyond this, complex habits appear to develop in a "stagewise" manner. To take a familiar example, learning to typewrite involves first the acquisition of what might be called a "letter habit"- that is, the skill of hitting individual letters. Later, these letter habits may be combined to form word habits, and still later, word habits may enter into the fonnalion of phrase habits.

Whatever view a psycholo gist takes with respect to the speed of the process, it is clear that at least some practice is necessary for habit formation. A second necessary condition is "reinforcement", a term that refers to rewards, punishments, avoidance of punishment, knowledge of results-in general, to any of the array of aftereffects of practice that seem to be implicated in habit formation.

Depending upon the conditions of reinforcement and the amount of practice involved in habit formation, habits may vary in certain quantitative ways. Strong habits reveal themselves in their greater accuracy, their greater persistence in the face of frustration, the quickness with which the appropriate response occurs, and the magnitude of the response itself.

Understanding that habits can vary in strength leads to the recognition of another important fact. In many situations the learner has more than one habit available. For example, the person who has learned to drive an automobile may steer with both hands, with his left hand, or with his right hand. Obviously, however, the driver is not equally likely to perform in each of these ways. The two-hand habit is usually strongest; the right-hand habit and the left-hand habit are weaker and probably not equal to each other in strength. In other words, and technically, these habits form a "habit-family-hierarchy."

As habits strengthen with practice the quantitative changes just described take place, and certain qualitative changes also occur. Habits improve in their smoothness and flow; at the same time, highly practiced habits seem to become automatic. Such habits proceed without our paying conscious attention to them. In this sense of automaticity, highly practiced habits are very much like instincts. For this reason, the distinction between habit and instinct is not always a very clear one. In the case of highly overlearned performances, it is as if the individual manufactures his own instincts.

It seems clear that the development of automatic activities mediated by very strong habits is a matter of biological importance. The individual with habits of this type is able to perform routine activities and at the same time devote his attention to other matters. For example, one can travel the familiar route from home to work and at the same time think about problems that have to be dealt with during the day.

A related point is that as habits develop great strength they seem to become ends in themselves, which may not always be beneficial. For example, the miser who has overdeveloped the habit of saving finds himself eventually in a state in which saving has become an end in itself. Even though he has become wealthy, he maintains his habit of hoarding money as a goal in its own right.

The Elicitation of Habits

One of the most important questions in psychology concerns the nature of the process by which habits are made manifest in behavior. Nearly all psychologists assume that such performance is caused. To think otherwise would rule psychology out of the realm of science. Clearly, however, it is no explanation to say that performance occurs because one has such and such a habit. We need, in addition, to say something about the circumstances that activate habits.

Nearly all psychologists agree that these circumstances are stimuli. Habits that are called into action by clearly identifiable environmental objects occasion no particular problem. One of the most difficult unsolved problems in psychology, however, centers on the cases in which behavior occurs in the absence of clearly identifiable stimuli. The reference here is to acts that we refer to as "voluntary." What are the stimuli responsible for a person s decision to utter a certain sentence, to use one mode of expression rather than another in writing a letter, or to take the long way home on his way from work? Obviously, again, it is no explanation to say that these decisions represent acts of will. Such an explanation, like one in terms of habit, leaves the mechanism responsible for the behavior as much a mystery as if the explanation had never been offered.

Turning to more nearly acceptable explanations, it is interesting that scientists in many fields in different countries and at different points in time have offered highly similar answers. According to these explanations, the stimuli for a voluntary act are the images of the consequences of that act. Thus, in order to reach for an object, one must know how it would feel to make the reaching motion and how visual experience would change as the hand approaches the object. In order to speak a word, one would have to know what it would sound like actually to say that word. There is reason to hope that studies of verbal behavior may provide a means of testing the validity of this theory.

Habit Breaking

The distinction between habit and performances is crucial to the discussion of habit breaking. Although performances based on habits may disappear under various circumstances as a result of forgetting or deliberate habit breaking, there is a question as to whether these procedures ever lead to the complete destruction of the underlying habit itself. In fact, there is reason to argue that habits may never be lost or forgotten. For example, cases of regression, in which a person under stress reverts to an earlier mode of behavior, reveal that old habits remain even after they have been replaced by new habits. Almost anyone with any experience in driving an automobile has found himself demonstrating a very simple form of regression. When, in a tight driving situation, one finds himself pressing the nonexistent clutch on a car with automatic transmission, he has obviously reverted to an earlier mode of behavior appropriate to a different automobile. This is an application of the concept of habit-family-hierarchy. The old and new driving habits coexist in the person.

Under normal circumstances the new habits are stronger, but stress may cause a regression to the earlier habit.

Whether habit-breaking procedures destroy habits or merely suppress them, it is conventional to recognize four habit-breaking methods.

Incompatible Response Method

As the term suggests, this procedure involves finding an acceptable response that is antagonistic to the undesirable behavior and to substitute the former for the one to be eliminated. For example, a psychologist cured a fear of rabbits in a three year old boy by having him eat candy in the presence of a caged rabbit. The method worked so well that the child came to respond positively to the rabbit. Handled skillfully, the incompatible response method is quite effective, but the handling must be expert to avoid possible unfortunate consequences. In the previous example, the incompatible responses are fear of the rabbit and eating. A moment's thought will reveal that one outcome of the procedure just described might have been a transfer of negative reactions to candy.

Exhaustion Method

In this technique for breaking some types of undesirable habits, the individual practices the unwanted response until fatigue sets in, and other responses replace it. An example is a method used by some parents to discourage a child from smoking. The child who is caught smoking is forced to continue, even beyond his strenuous objections. In this way the smoking response is exhausted, and a new one, probably nausea, is called forth by the sight of a cigarette or perhaps by the mere thought of smoking.

Toleration Method

In this method of habit breaking, the stimulus for an undesirable habit is introduced gradually. When it is finally presented full force, the undesirable reaction has already disappeared. To illustrate, suppose a child is afraid of cats. To cure him, one might give the child a kitten to which he will probably show positive reactions. As the kitten grows up the positive reactions will be maintained, and the fear of cats will have been destroyed. There is reason to believe that this method is particularly effective with fearful reactions.

Change of Environment Method

Another method of breaking habits involves isolating oneself from the cues for undesirable behavior. On this basis, someone might propose to "get away for a few days" in the hope of losing an undesirable habit. Great difficulties are associated with this method because most undesirable behavior is controlled by so many cues that it is impossible to isolate the person from them. For example, the cues controlling the habit of smoking are so numerous and pervasive that a mere change of scenery is not apt to be successful. Smoking is associated with the sight and smell of tobacco, completing a meal, feelings of nervousness, the sight of other people smoking, going to a party, taking a drink, playing cards, and sometimes, finishing a cigarette. To give up smoking, a person would have to break the reaction to all of these cues. Beyond this, for the method to be effective, it is necessary to isolate the person permanently from the controlling cues; but this is rarely practical. Thus, what is perhaps the most popular procedure for habit breaking is probably the least effective.


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    • KBEvolve profile image

      Kenneth Brown 

      8 years ago from United States

      It's great to see such a scientific examination of habit forming.


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