Why Establishing Adapative Habits Is Difficult

Psychologists tend to think of behavior as governed, or driven, by two separate systems. In his bestselling book Thinking, fast and slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman labels these systems simply as “System 1” (a fast, habitual system) and “System 2” (a slow, goal-directed system).

Principally, System 2 should be able to produce better solutions to everyday problems but comes at the cost of requiring more effort and thought being put into the solution produced. Simple examples for this are guessing the solution to 17x32 versus actually performing the calculation or taking the usual way to work versus planning a detour as a traffic jam is announced on the radio. Indeed, many maladaptive behaviors are at their core habitual (e.g., addiction), which is why a lot of research focused on figuring out how to override habits.

However, and this is potentially less well known, research also indicates that people who are very good at pursuing challenging goals (think exercising, dieting, studying, quitting smoking…) tend to have developed strong habits that help them to achieve those goals. So, focusing on these positive habits, I will explain along a recent, rather technical and complicated research paper (Hardwick et al., 2019) why it can be difficult to establish adaptive habits when pursuing your goals.

To understand why it can seem impossible to develop good habits, we need to revisit System 1 and System 2. What can be confusing about Kahneman’s characterization of System 2 as a goal-directed system is that he does not specify toward which goal the system is directed. Else, you might come to the conclusion that you just need to think thoroughly enough about the benefits of a certain behavior, and you will always be able to act accordingly. For most of us, this is not the case. The reason is that we are designed to have many different goals, and these goals often contradict each other. For example, a student might have the goal to pass her final exam next week, but simultaneously she also wants to attend the party her friend is throwing tonight. Both of these goals are easy enough to understand.

What should we take away from this? That good habits are like bad habits, only the other way around! When deciding whether or not to go to the gym after a hard day at work, System 2 may work in favor of staying at home. In other words, it will act against your initial, conscious goal of exercising regularly and toward an alternative goal of relaxing or conserving energy.

Most of the time, we tend to think of habits as learned associations between a stimulus and a response. However, Robert Hardwick and his colleagues showed that a habit is really more of a learned association between a stimulus and the preparation of a response. First, they made their participants complete 20,000(!) trials of a cognitive task over four days. This led the behavior on the task to become habitual, as evidenced by significantly faster reaction times and fewer errors at the end of the four practice days.

Next, they slightly changed the rules of the task—if participants now would make a lot of mistakes, they would exhibit habitual behavior (because the stimulus would provoke the learned response, even though the goal of the task has changed). However, participants only made more errors than a control group that did not train the task for four days when they only had a very short amount of time to respond to the task (< 600 ms). If they had more than 600 ms to respond, they performed as well as the non-habitual group.

What this shows is that when a stimulus is paired often enough with a response, the next time the stimulus is presented, people will habitually prepare the learned response. But System 2 can still get in the way if a sufficient amount of time is available. This tends to be the case in everyday situations. For example, sitting in the subway on the way home from work leaves plenty of room for System 2 to convince us that we shouldn’t go to the gym because we are really tired and should watch Netflix instead.

The results of this study can help us establish good habits in three ways. First, we need to recognize that doing things a certain way any number of times might not be enough to establish a strong habit. If you are too confident in this, it might be that sooner rather than later you are left wondering how it is possible that you haven’t seen the inside of a gym (replace this with one of your goals) for weeks.

Second, being aware of System 2 working in favor of a competing goal might help you to stick to your habitual plans more often. In other words, you try to align the goal that is pursued by System 2 with the one for which you try to establish the habit.

Third, it seems that the most promising way to establish a habit is to not use System 2 at all! We know that one of the strongest predictors of behavior is the formation of intentions. If you formulate only one intention, chances are you are not going to change plans at the last second. Let’s stick with the example that you want to go to the gym after work. Ideally, you don’t even question that you will go, and you don’t formulate alternative intentions. In this way, you don’t give System 2 a chance to interfere as the habitual response is prepared (you bringing sportswear to work) but not yet executed (as you prepare to leave work, you decide to go home instead at the last minute).

Jonas Dora, PhD
Jonas Dora, PhD
Postdoc in Psychology

My research interests include self-control, motivation, decision-making, and emotions.