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Habits Influence Our Behavior More Than We Realize, Study Reveals

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Key Takeaways

  • Research suggests that forming habits was evolutionarily beneficial for humans.
  • A new study suggests that the strength of habit in influencing our behavior is often overlooked.
  • Once habit loops are formed, they can become a large part of who we are.

It's often said that humans are creatures of habit. We develop routines and repeat behaviors whether they're healthy for us or not. While they can help us get through the day, habits can also be destructive, and once they're formed, they're incredibly difficult to break.

If habits are that powerful, how much influence can they have on the way we act? New research suggests that too often we underestimate the role habit plays in our behavior.

The Research

Research on behavior characterizes a habit as something that's efficient, unintentional, uncontrollable, and that you're not fully aware that you're doing. And the amount of time it takes to form a habit is something that's heavily debated—some research states a habit is formed in four weeks, while others argue it can take much longer.

Debra Kawahara, PsyD

People typically want to think that their capacity for self-determination and self-regulation are better and stronger than they really are.

— Debra Kawahara, PsyD

A new study focuses on the effects of inner states, such as mood, on behavior by assessing participants' attributions for that behavior. Researchers conducted two studies to better understand the concept. In one study, participants were asked to recall a happy, sad or neutral event before completing a simple, unrelated task that trained them in either a strong or weak habit of pressing certain computer keys.

After the training portion, participants were asked to indicate, by pressing one of those computer keys, whether they would donate more time to the study. Although participants who were strongly trained to press a certain key were more likely to answer the question by pressing that same key, when they were asked to explain their choice, participants were more likely to attribute their behavior to inner states over habits, even when that behavior was driven by habit.

In a second study, researchers invited participants to track their coffee-drinking habits over a 5-day period. Participants were asked to report on fatigue levels and the strength of their coffee-drinking habit, and the results showed that participants "miscalibrated these behavioral influences" by attributing their coffee-drinking to fatigue over habit even though their reported fatigue levels largely stayed the same.

In both studies, participants underemphasized habit and overvalued inner states like mood and fatigue. Clinical psychologist Debra Kawahara, PsyD, notes that, like this study, past research has also found that people tend to believe their emotions and mood play a bigger role in their behavior than the habits they've formed over time.

"People typically want to think that their capacity for self-determination and self-regulation are better and stronger than they really are," Kawahara says. "We want to believe that we are the decision-makers of our behavior, and our behaviors are not automatic and unintentional."  

Taish Malone, PhD, LPC

Your memory and your feelings are invested in practicing the habit all the same in hopes of once again being rewarded, so now we have a more ingrained pattern.

— Taish Malone, PhD, LPC

Because habits are so second-nature, it's likely you don't even recognize some of the habitual actions that make up your day. They become a large part of who we are over time, Kawahara says.

"Once the habit loop is formed, the part of the brain that is needed to focus on the behavior or activity is no longer needed and it frees up so our brain can focus on other activities or behavior," Kawahara says.

How We Form New Habits

Licensed professional counselor Taish Malone, PhD, LPC, says emotions, patterns, and memories contribute to the underpinnings of habit. A strong connection is forged when we experience a reward or favorable result each time we perform an action, and the emotions felt regarding that reward are stored as memories.

"Even when the action doesn’t bring about the reward it once did, your memory of the experience pattern suggests that it is still likely that this reward will happen," Malone says. "Your memory and your feelings are invested in practicing the habit all the same in hopes of once again being rewarded, so now we have a more ingrained pattern."

So, it's obvious that in order to form a new habit, introducing a reward system will make the process easier.

"If practice and incentives are the glue that solidifies the strength of a habit, one sure fire way of forming a positive habit is to work backwards," Malone says.

Taish Malone, PhD, LPC

If practice and incentives are the glue that solidifies the strength of a habit, one sure fire way of forming a positive habit is to work backwards.

— Taish Malone, PhD, LPC

She suggests first identifying a reward, goal, or incentive, then consistently practicing behavior that will result in that incentive. For example, if you want to exercise more but dread the thought of going for a run, identify a treat or location you can incorporate into the end of that run. Or, if you're working out at home, choosing a show you really like and only allowing yourself to watch episodes while you exercise can be the motivation you need to make working out a habitual part of your week.

"We can either be influenced by favorable actions and follow the sequence to naturally develop positive habits or can use the properties of neuroplasticity to intentionally rewire one’s brain to create desired results," Malone says.

"Rewiring one's brain" may sound like serious business, but humans are highly adaptive creatures. Whether you're trying to start a healthy habit or break an unhealthy one, rewarding yourself is encouraged.

What This Means For You

When thinking more critically of our own behavior, it's important to consider what actions have become habit rather than attributing them to emotional states.

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Lally P, van Jaarsveld C, Potts H, Wardle J. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real worldEur J Soc Psychol. 2009;40(6):998-1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674

  3. Mazar A, Wood W. Illusory Feelings, Elusive Habits: People Overlook Habits in Explanations of BehaviorPsychol Sci. 2022;33(4):563-578. doi:10.1177/09567976211045345