My friend Karla rang me and asked if I knew of any research about “habits”. I had a look (Google Scholar “psychology, habit”) and discovered that the psychology of habit is seriously under-researched.

(Except for one article that argued that habit was “goal-directed automaticity”.)

So I thought about it, and I think that habit might consist of at least 5 different entities. Interesting thing is, when you consider each entity separately you get some ideas about how to overcome what can seem to be ingrained habits.

1) Pay-off. Some habits are maintained because they “work”. So, for instance, someone habitually accepts plastic bags at the supermarket, because that delivers ease and convenience.

Solution: make the practice less convenient, and it’s alternative more convenient.

2) Obliviousness. Some habits are maintained because we aren’t paying attention. For instance, I habitually ignore roadside speeding signs because I just don’t see them (really!) The human brain only has so much attention to spread around, and we might be just habitually paying attention to other things (like our thoughts). [Google “salience”].

Solution: prompt people to pay attention to the matter.

3) Sunk costs (or ‘loss aversion’). We may have invested a lot of money, time or prestige in a particular practice. Because humans naturally overestimate losses compared to potential gains, we often defend our investments to the point of stupidity. [Google “Loss Aversion”]

Solution: encourage people to consider the ‘big picture’ or ‘long view’ where the the long-term gain is worth the short-term loss.

4) Denial or resistance. Where fear of the unfamiliar causes us to avoid information about it, and resist pressure to change our behaviour.
[Google “Cognitive Dissonance” and “Psychological Reactance”]

Solution: increase the familiarity of the new practice.

5) Social identity. Where someone’s social identity is wrapped up in a practice, change can threaten their identity and relationships, so naturally they actively maintain that practice (a case of denial, really).

Solution: connect the new practice to people’s values.

6) Just plain old inertia. Change takes energy, and people naturally prefer a low-energy state, especially for routine tasks.

Solution: break the routine with an out-of-the-ordinary, fun, social event like a Ride to Work Day, or competition, party, sale etc…