You hop on a couch with your cat, turn on Netflix and get your favourite chocolate ice cream every night after work. How do you stop eating ice cream so late and often? It’s simple: get a new couch and switch to Hulu. You can keep the cat.
These measures might sound unnecessary and even extreme, but they are backed by recent scientific evidence. The couch, Netflix, the time after work and even the cat are actually cues that make up a strong habit of eating ice cream every day. If you don’t have the ice cream problem, think of other habits – it can be anything from washing your hands before dinner to smoking cigarettes. Now, not all habits are destructive and most of them actually make our life easier. Determine which ones are unwanted and bad for you and if it’s the ice cream, get ready to sell the couch (or get rid of the cues).
In psychology, habits are defined as the routine repetition of past acts cued by stable features of the environment. In our example, eating ice cream is a habit because you do it every day at the same time in the same context – you arrive from work, lie on your couch with your cat and watch Netflix. Being stable, features like the couch, cat, 8 p.m. and Netflix create an association for you as you experience the cues regularly and get triggered by them to eat ice cream. The stronger the habit becomes, the easier the association comes to you.
A research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that when people with strong habits do not enjoy performing them, they still act on their habits and can’t make a decision to change their behaviour. The study was done at a local cinema where participants were offered popcorn. People with stronger habits to eat popcorn in a movie theatre, kept eating the popcorn even if it was stale and they reported not liking it. The conclusion is that habits are so powerful that even negative evaluation of the product does not stop people from doing what they are used to.
So how exactly do you discontinue an unwanted habit? According to a research, done at the University of Bath, the most effective way of habit discontinuity is changes in life contexts. It can be moving house, changing your job, the way you get somewhere or something less radical to break your habit cues and increase decision making.
To break your habit of eating ice cream daily, you’ll have to get rid of the cues that trigger this behaviour. Think of what you could do to break this routine and change your typical workday night. Perhaps move things around in your house or change the usual things like the couch or the show you watch.
Another way to break a habit is to anchor a new, healthier option to your environment. If you prefer to keep your cues as they are, try anchoring another behaviour to them. For example, instead of buying ice cream, make a healthier choice and stick to it during weeknights when you are on a couch watching Netflix. Meanwhile, allow yourself to have some ice cream during weekends in a different setting – for example when you are out with friends. This way you will be less likely to slip on a weeknight.
As you can see, there is always good old science behind human behaviour, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel thinking of ways how to give up smoking or stop eating junk food. All you have to do is determine what habit you find unwanted and then figure out the cues in the environment that trigger your behaviour. If that seems difficult, get a journal and observe where you are, what time of the day it is, who surrounds you and what you are doing when you act on your habit. Then, you will be able to break it by eliminating the cues or anchoring a different behaviour to existing features.
Labrecque, J. S., Wood, W., Neal, D. T., & Harrington, N. (2017). Habit slips: When consumers unintentionally resist new products. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 45, pp. 119-133.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Wu, M., & Kurlander, D. (2011). The pull of the past: when do habits persist despite conflict with motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1428–1437. doi:10.1177/0146167211419863.
Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, Emotion, and Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, pp. 1281-1297.
Wood, W. (2017). Habit in personality and social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22, pp. 389-403.