Tag Archives: research

“Habit Change Is Easiest When People Move House or Undergo Some Life Transition.”

Habits interview: Wendy Wood.

I was very pleased to get the chance to interview Professor and Vice Dean Wendy Wood, because she’s one of the top experts in the field of habits, and has done much of the most interesting research in the area.

For instance, it was her research that showed that about people repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily — and usually in the same place.

I read a lot of her work as I was writing Better Than Before, my book about how we change habits. (To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.)

I was very curious to hear more about Wendy’s ideas about habits, and how she thinks about them in the context of her own life.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Wendy: Habits are a simple, basic form of learning. Even rats form habits.  It’s amazing that this simple form of learning underlies so many of our daily activities.

People repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily and usually in the same location (shown in a  study I conducted at Texas A&M Univ–not Duke, as often reported). Given this high level of repetition, people easily form habits for daily activities.

Once habits form, the habitual response comes to mind automatically when you are in the familiar context.  For me, walking into my kitchen first thing in the morning brings to mind making coffee. And I usually just go ahead and make it without asking myself whether I particularly want to drink coffee this morning. It’s just my habit to do so, and I find myself doing before thinking—that’s the hallmark of habit.

What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Habits develop slowly, across many experiences. So they don’t shift easily when people change their goals and preferences. This means that we can actually be of two minds about something.  Your habitual mind might suggest one activity whereas your preferences and goals might suggest another.

The two minds were evident in a study I conducted with people at a movie cinema. We gave some cinema-goers stale, week-old popcorn and others fresh popcorn. And no surprise, people reported really disliking the stale popcorn. But those who had a habit to eat popcorn at the cinema ate the stale popcorn anyway. It was as if, even though they told us they didn’t like it, they were propelled by the cues of being at the cinema to keep eating it. People without popcorn-eating habits didn’t eat the stale popcorn, only the fresh.

Usually, our habits and our preferences are more in line than with the cinema study. But this study is important because it reveals the two minds problem. Habit learning (in that case, a cinema-popcorn habit) doesn’t integrate easily with our current goals and plans (disliking the stale popcorn).

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Ah, there’s the rub. With repetition, action tendencies become stronger.  The more often you drive to work the same way, the stronger your habit to drive that particular route. When habits are really strong, then you are even repeat them when you don’t intend to. On a Saturday, when not thinking about what you are doing, you might find yourself inadvertently taking the route to work when you meant to go to the store.

Feelings, however, become weaker with repetition. So, the more often you eat ice cream, the less pleasure you get from eating it.  Philosophers refer to this as the difference between the “active” and “passive” components of habit. With repetition, our action tendencies get stronger but our feelings habituate and weaken.

The bottom line is that, if you really enjoy something, you don’t want to repeat it in a routine way so that it becomes a habit. You lose the pleasure in the experience. Instead, you want to make habitual the necessities in life….that is, regular exercise, a healthy diet, saving money and paying the bills, and working. The pleasures in life should be savored and not performed in a habitual way…..including time with family, a great glass of wine, and the sunset over the ocean.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Oh, jeez, we all have bad habits. These are habits that are inconsistent with our goals. Some bad habits were probably learned unintentionally, and others may have even been intended at one point, but no longer fit with our current goals and plans.

Many habits are tough to change. They become really resistant when they get tied up with physiological addictions such as smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. But even habits that are not addictive are tough to change. When you are in the context in which you performed the habit in the past, that behavior automatically comes to mind. You may have decided to change that behavior. Not to do it anymore. But it takes energy to inhibit the habit in mind and to choose to do something new. Often, we don’t have the willpower to make these decisions, and it’s just easier to act habitually.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I’ve had several points in my life when I was overweight, especially after both of my pregnancies. Me at 200 lbs was not fun. But I was fortunate to be able to lose that baby weight. That experience was partly how I got interested in habits. In the U.S., most of us know what we should do to be healthy—exercise, eat lots of fruit and veg, and avoid sweets and fried foods. But few of us do this. I started to believe that researchers are focusing on the wrong thing when trying to get people healthy (think, the “Strive for 5” health campaign). Psychologists are very good at changing people’s beliefs—or at changing behaviors for a short period of time. Many people can lose weight briefly, but longer-term change is tough. That’s been the focus of much of my research—to figure out why habits are so tough to change and to identify strategies to change them.

One insight has to do with performance contexts. Habits are activated automatically by context cues. So, change the context. We find that habit change is easiest when people move house or undergo some other life transition that changes the contexts in which they live (e.g., start a new job, get married). This is perhaps why people often report that they started a new, healthy behavior when on vacation. Away from familiar cues to bad habits, people are freed to act in new ways. Beware, though, that changing everyday contexts also removes cues to good habits. And in my research, people who were exercising habitually didn’t continue to do so after they moved and the cues to exercise changed.

People also can take charge of some of the context cues in their personal environments. For example, many people keep cookies, candy, and chips on their kitchen counter. Removing these cues to eating can help to stop habitual snacking. In restaurants, even something as simple as moving desserts to the end of a cafeteria line can reduce people’s consumption of sweets. Obesity is really an environmental problem.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Yes, as described above, out of familiar everyday contexts, people are freed-up to act in new, nonhabitual ways.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I had a speech teacher once who said she tried to do everything in a new way each day. She claimed to walk to school a new way, eat different things for lunch every day—you get the idea. To me, it sounded exhausting. She was clearly resisting habit formation, or at least the habituation of feeling that comes with repeating activities.

To me, habit formation is beneficial. Through habits, I pay my bills and I write for a couple hours every morning. I do those things automatically. They aren’t a struggle and so don’t take too much energy and decision making. Instead, I want to think about the activities that are important to me, especially spending time with my husband and sons.

This idea of doing some things habitually and others in a more thoughtful way follows from the two minds problem I mentioned above. We all have a habitual mind (even my old speech teacher, although she fought it). Might as well make it work for you—it is reliable at doing the same thing as in the past. And some tasks don’t require more than this. Of course, when I say that my writing is habitual, it’s really making time to write that is habitual. The writing itself requires effort and thought. But if you have a habit to write at a certain time every day or to write a certain amount every day, then you don’t have to struggle to make yourself do it.

A Key to Good Habits? Don’t Allow Ourselves to Feel Deprived.

A few days ago, I read Gretchen Reynolds’s piece in the New York Times, Losing weight may require some serious fun, about a study that makes a point that I think is incredibly important.

In the study, women were sent to walk a one-mile course in the next half hour, with lunch to follow.

–Half were told that their walk was meant to be exercise, and they should think of it that way, and monitor their exertion as they walked.

–Half were told that the walk would be for pleasure; they’d listen to music through headphones and rate the sound quality, but they should mostly enjoy themselves.

Afterward, they were asked to estimate mileage, mood, and calorie expenditure.

The “exercise” group reported feeling more tired and grumpy — and at lunch afterwards, they ate significantly more sweets than the “for fun” group. (The piece discusses other studies that show the same kind of result.)

Reading this study reminded me of one of my important conclusions about habits: If we want to stick to our good habits, we should try very hard never to allow ourselves to feel deprived.

When we feel deprived, we try to make things right for ourselves. We begin to say things like “I’ve earned this,” “I deserve this,” “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this,” “I’ll just do this now, that’s fair, but tomorrow I’ll be good.”

Feeling deprived means that we’ll feel justified in invoking many of the most pernicious loopholes: the Moral Licensing loophole, the Tomorrow loophole, and the Fake Self-Actualization loophole.

The lure of loopholes is why the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting is so important.

Once I realized how dangerous it was to allow ourselves to feel deprived, I grasped the importance of the Strategy of Treats. It’s a delightful strategy, yes, but it’s not frivolous or selfish.

Treats help us to feel energized, restored, and light-hearted. Without them, we can start to feel resentful, depleted, and irritable. When we give ourselves plenty of healthy treats, we don’t feel deprived. And when we don’t feel deprived, we don’t feel entitled to break our good habits. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: When we give more to ourselves, we can expect more from ourselves.

And when we can frame a habit as fun, that’s useful too. This year, I started walking once a week with a friend. It started as a way to get more exercise, but now I view it as a way to get more friend time. Now that same habit is a treat.

In my forthcoming book about habit-formation, I talk a lot about how to avoid feelings of deprivation. There’s the Strategy of Abstaining, of course, for my fellow Abstainers; there’s “consumption snobbery,” that works too; there’s delay, within the Strategy of Distraction.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, Gretchen, I can’t wait to read your book which sounds so fascinating and helpful,” fear not, you can sign up here to find out as soon as it goes on sale.

How about you? Do you find that deprivation makes you feel justified in indulging or breaking a good habit?

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Take a Look At These Fascinating Happiness-Related Word Clouds.

A thoughtful reader sent me the link to Michael Kelley’s piece, “Scientists Used Facebook for the Largest Ever Study of Language and Personality, about a fascinating study done by University of Pennsylvania researchers, “Personality, Gender, and Age in the Language of Social Media.”

They used 700 million words, phrases, and topic instances taken from Facebook, from 75,000 volunteers,  to analyze linguistic patterns. This might not sound fascinating, but looking at the word clouds generated by this study is riveting.

They generated word clouds that track the traits of introversion and extroversion, neuroticism and emotional stability, gender, and age.  It’s quite funny to compare the word clouds generated by 13-18 year old, 19-22 year olds, 23-29 year olds, and 30-65 year olds (I didn’t notice an explanation of why they picked these particular age groupings).

From a happiness perspective, I was most interested in the word clouds for extraversion, introversion, neuroticism, and emotional stability. (For more on those terms, read here.)

Here it is, but note, there are a lot of curse words, if that bothers you.

 

Hmmmmm. What, if any, conclusions do you draw from this information? And here’s another question. The way that you feel will influence what you post, but do you also think that what you post influences the way that you feel? From my own experience, I’d say yes.

Secret of Adulthood: Most Decisions Don’t Require Extensive Research.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

 

Agree, disagree?

Whether or not research is required, some people love to do research.

A desire to do extensive research may be related to whether you’re a satisficer or a maximizer, or where you fit in the Four Rubin Tendencies of Upholder, Questioner, Rebel, or Obliger. (Yes, for lack of a better label, I’m calling these the “Rubin Tendencies.”) Questioners, in particular, love to do research.

What’s true for you?

Why the Internet Makes Me Happy. Also Drives Me Crazy, But Makes Me Happy.

People talk a lot about the happiness risks of the internet, such as how online shopping or celebrity news can suck away our time, or how Facebook can foster comparison with other people.

The internet amplifies aspects of human nature, so I try to watch out for its bad effects. But I also remind myself of how happy the internet makes me! I try never to take it for granted.

For instance, I’m often haunted by some quotation or anecdote I read somewhere, someplace, in the past. When I read it, it didn’t strike me as important, but now for some reason I desperately want to re-read it. So often, with just a few bits  of information, the internet locates what I’m looking for, to my immense relief.

For instance, when I was doing my research for Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I came across an anecdote in a diary related to World War II. I loved it — but I lost it.

I’d read so many wartime diaries — from where did this story come? I was sure that I’d copied the passage into my huge trove of notes and quotations, but somehow it had vanished. I thought it was in Jock Colville’s wonderful Fringes of Power, and I actually paged through the whole book, but couldn’t find it.

Finally, I turned to the internet. Now, I couldn’t remember the story exactly. I hadn’t read it in five or six years. And search, search, search…Eureka! I found the story that had eluded me for so long.

Here it is. It wasn’t Jock Colville, it was Harold Nicolson. In June 1941 he was working at the wartime Ministry of Information, and he wrote in his diary for June 10:

The Middle East have no sense of publicity. The Admiralty is even worse. We complain that there are no photographs of the sinking of the Bismarck. Tripp says that the official photographer was in the Suffolk and that the Suffolk was too far away.

We say, ‘But why didn’t one of our reconnaissance machines fly over the ship and take photographs?’

He replies, ‘Well you see, you must see, well upon my word, well after all, an Englishman would not like to take snapshots of a fine vessel sinking.’

Is he right? I felt abashed when he said it. I think he is right.

At the beginning of the summer, I had a similar experience. One of the pitifully few scraps of knowledge that I retained from college was a single line, which I remembered as something like, “Can one coin make a man rich? Pile up one coin and then another, and at a certain point, he becomes rich.” I was preoccupied with this idea and very much wanted to re-read this line.

Where did it come from? I pulled out a few college books and started leafing through them. Then I thought, “Hey, I could check online.” Bingo. Erasmus, The Praise of Folly. The funny thing is that I hadn’t even underlined this story in the book! And it wasn’t even in the actual text of the book, it was in the editor’s note in the footnote explaining the text’s reference to the “argument of the growing heap.”  And yet it was the only thing I remembered from that class, so many years ago — and I was able to find it again, in a flash.

If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.

(I explain my preoccupation with the significance of the “argument of the growing heap” here.)

The internet is a good servant, and a bad master. But a good, good, good servant.

How about you? Does the internet add or subtract from your daily happiness?