Habit Formation and Alteration
This is a worthy scholarly APA-style research paper that has something to do with success
Although this paper was done for my Psychology class, everyone should know that habits either set a person free or be enslaved to destructive behaviors. The reason why I say that is because our established habits are easy to perform, and if we can turn productive behaviors into habits then it would be a lot easier to be successful. Since formed habits are hard to break, but not permanent, it's possible to change them. Knowing this we can start to control our behaviors, the direct causation of our results.
Here's the paper below:
Habit Formation & Alteration
Think about driving a car. Now compare that experience when you first started learning how to drive. Big difference right? That’s because of your habits. Knowing the meaning of the word "habit" might seem trivial and it is. However as you might know, our habits are the behaviors that we do on a daily basis that requires minimal or no concentration of the mind. The reason why I chose this topic is because it’s interesting how and why habit forms. Without thinking about it, our habits is set on how we tie our shoelaces, get dressed, driving a car, and many other daily routines. This set of habits may include eating patterns, frequent smoking, regular alcohol intake, and etc. You can either develop good habits or bad habits. If you ever want to change your situations in life, you will need to know how to change certain set of behaviors. The things that we do repeatedly everyday will certainly affect the kind of results we get in the future, so it’s important to know about habit formation and alteration.
The first definition of the word “habit” Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (2018) gives is, “a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior.” The second definition says that habit is “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” The third definition reads, “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance.” (Merriam-Webster's Online, 2018) In all of those definitions, notice that the word “behavior” is included in each of them. Just as how your heart pumps out blood throughout your body is completely involuntary and requires no conscious work, note that it is because of the repetition of a particular behavior that will become nearly or completely involuntary. What this means is, that particular behavior will easily be performed in the future, with very little or no mental effort in your part.
Habits are often associated with behaviors that are learned. In general our brains are problem solvers, and once answers are found, the brain likes to store the solutions for future use. When the brain has learned to reach a solution to a problem, it remembers it how to get there. It does this by forming numerous pathways between neurons. As the brain recognizes an identical problem, it wastes no time finding new procedures to a solution. Instead the brain uses the same neurological pathways that were already established in the past to reach to the answer. (James, 1887)
According to William James (1887), in his book called Habit, the process of constantly forming and changing neurological pathways in the brain is due to the plasticity of the substances in the chemical level that forms in each cellular organization. Just as the properties of molecules and compounds can be stable enough to withstand outside forces, it can also change the way they behave when they react with other chemicals. Because of this, it renders the entire body including the brain to its nerve tissues to be flexible as well. (James, 1887) So just as muscles change to grow bigger in size with repeated strength training, certain neurological pathways grow stronger with each repetitive use. The result of this repeated use is quicker response manifested in behavior.
In the book, a new piano student is used to show the effects of habit formation. To perform successfully, the student must look at the sheet of paper with musical notations, figure out what pitch the note is, find out the duration of the note, and interpret it on the piano. The transcribing of the writings on the paper to actual sound must then be followed by locating the correct corresponding key on the keyboard. After the key is found, it is depressed down for the duration of the note, and its starts all over again by going back to the sheet music to play the next sequence of notes.
Typically, the new player will not only move his finger to press a key, but will include his entire arm, head, and body. These sequence of steps is such a strenuous task for the student because the very physical movement is the direct result of deliberate conscious activity. To add to this awkwardness, in an attempt to play correctly, the completion of every single step described above requires separate concentration and effort for each step. However, the more the piano player repeats the same series of actions over and over again, neurological pathways between thought and movement becomes stronger and quicker. With frequency, the amount of work by the body and the brain decreases as energy is concentrated to the fingers alone. (James, 1887)
When learning a new skill, sometimes a series of steps must be performed. During those intentional actions taken by us, we are extremely attentive to each of those steps. As we master these skills, each step of the way will trigger a familiar sensation that would automatically induce us to perform the next step. The completion of step one, would allow us to easily move on to the step two. Step two would cause us to do step three, and so on. In mastery of a skill, to get through the completion, the only trigger required to start these series of reaction is step one. William James (1887) wrote in his book, "In habitual action, on the contrary, the only impulse which the centres of idea or perception need send down is the initial impulse, the command to start.” (James, 1887, p. 37)
As the piano student's skill advances from beginner to mastery, the series of steps become mixed together into one seemingly unified step. In psychology this process is called “chunking,” where a sequence of actions turn into an automatic chain reaction. (Duhigg, 2012, p. 17) So in the future, when the experienced piano player looks at the musical notations, he has already completed playing the tune in his mind. This is also aided when a musical notation is perceived by the eyes and the brain, it also triggers next step, which is interpreting of the note. Once that step is done, it then triggers the next chain of steps until the piano player makes actual music. All of this is done almost instantaneously, that as soon as the musician looks at a note, with an instrument ready in his hand, it is automatically played. To a beginner, playing a tune is made of multiple steps. To a master and to the audience, everything looks seamless. With the repetition of playing the piano, causes stronger and quicker neurological pathways. This process allows us to learn behaviors that are eventually embedded as "second nature." (James, 1887)
The act of learning fosters the formation of habits. The brain learns to associate repeated bodily reactions to certain stimulants. So when a similar stimulant arises, the neurons are able to fire nerve impulses through already established pathways and therefore have quicker responses. This is especially important when learning a new skill. When we learn a new skill, there are so many different things we pay attention to and this includes the important and unimportant ones. The more we attempt a certain action, the more we learn to fail and succeed. When we are learning as beginners, the variety of actions we could take would probably be numerous, simply because we have not learned the correct way. This means that we might respond in a wrong way that doesn't produce fruitful results, but the more we do it, we learn which responses create desired outcomes. So by learning which actions are successful, our brain stores these reactions so that we can repeat them in the future. As we learn them successfully, the amount of effort required by the brain decreases as it knows which one are important and which ones aren’t. (James, 1887)
If it were not for the process of habit formation, there would be no such things as learning. If no learning and no habits are formed, then the brain efforts of mental activity of a person would only be confined to the most basic activities of surviving. (James, 1887) Imagine if walking upright requires deliberate exertion of coordinating our motor-physical capabilities with visual perception every single day. Our energy would only be utilized for movements as our brain would require full attention to them. With habit formation, a healthy individual's body can be performed to walk upright all day long, but the attention of the mind does not necessarily be focused on the act of walking alone.
According to William James (1887) there are two practical application of habit formation to human life. "The first result of it is that habit simplifies the movements required to achieve an given result, makes them more accurate and diminishes fatigue." (James, 1887, p. 26) This means that the more we learn which action cause successful results, the more concentrated our energy towards to that specific behavior so that it is optimized. Since a learned behavior requires less energy to be performed, we can put our attention somewhere else. William James says, "The next result is that habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed." (James, 1887, p. 31) This allows us to go on through our daily lives as we let our brains find answers to other unsolved problems simultaneously. In general, habit formation are here to serve us.
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It is universally recognized that not all habits formed serve us in a beneficial way. Some habits have no practical use to us and some are even more detrimental to our health and wellness. Think about frequent smoking, emotional eating, abusive alcohol drinking, and many more. To change our habits, we must first know the basics steps of what happens when we are acquiring behavioral patterns. The book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business written by Charles Duhigg (2012) explains that there are three steps in forming a habit. The first step is the “cue”, which a certain stimulant triggers a particular chain reaction in your brain. The second step is called the “routine,” which when the person actually takes an action triggered by the “cue” and this can be in the form of thoughts, emotions, or behaviors. The third step is called the “reward,” which helps your brain whether or not this sequence of stimulant and behavior is worth keeping as a habit for the future. Knowing these three steps would allow us to change our habits effectively by altering something in the process of habit formation.
As stated by Charles Duhigg (2012), the habit loop of cue, routine, reward cannot be eliminated. He says, “Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine” (p. 62). One of the first steps of changing a habit is being aware what triggers the “routine” part of the process. After the “cue” is made aware by the individual, the “reward” part of the process is also examined. The reason why the “routine” part exists is because the behavior causes the reward to be satisfied. As previously mentioned by William James, the brain is a problem solver and remembers the solution. So when an action is taken by the individual, it relieves the tension that is caused by a problem or the “cue,” and therefore a resolution or the “reward” part of the process is reached. The brain remembers this loop of cue, routine, reward and thus makes into a habit. In the case of bad habits, the behavior as the “routine” is detrimental to our health and wellness, not the “cue” or the “reward.” Either way, the person must still address the cravings of what the “cue” triggers; the habit loop must still be completed. As the individual recognizes what is the “cue” and what is the “reward”, only then the replacement of the “routine” can begin. To make the new behavior stronger, repetition must be applied. Similar to what William James is saying in his book, Charles Duhigg (2012) says that, “Over time, this loop—cue, routine reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic.” (Duhigg, 2012, p. 19)
Although, Charles Duhigg (2012) admits that simply knowing how habit forms and how to modify them does not guarantee change as everyone is different, but there are ways that can increase the odds of successful habit alteration. Also as important, a belief that change is possible must be present. The stronger the conviction, the better. In addition, since habits have the characteristics of plasticity, during in times of devastating incidents, habits are extremely vulnerable to change. This is why there are stories of individuals making drastic changes in their behavior when there is an impactful event in their life, for the better or for the worse. To prepare for the uncertainties of life, there must be a support group available when extreme traumatic stress is experienced by the person. All of the methods discussed here are actually used by Alcohol Anonymous members to help change their lives as Charles Duhigg (2012) explains it in his book. By knowing and applying the combination of procedures described here, an individual can increase the odds of changing their habit patterns and ultimately keep it for their lifetime.
To recap, starting with William Jame’s (1887) work, the reason why the neurological pathways in the brain is continuously changing is because of the plasticity of the substances at the chemical level in the body including the nerve tissues are made of. This allows the brain to be flexible, changing its form so that it can be most efficient. As we learn certain skills and behaviors, the brain molds its connections between neurons to reach desired outcomes quicker. With more repeated use, the stronger these pathways become, thus the easier to perform certain behaviors under similar circumstances. When we learn a new skill in the beginning, brain activity is heightened because many of our senses are involved. However the more we repeat a certain behavior that produces successful results, the less effort is required by the brain and the body as it is more focused. During the mastery of a skill that requires a series of steps to be completed, the first step is usually the one that needs triggering as the completion of steps trigger the others into a chain reaction. Finally according to William James (1887), the result of habit formation is to simplify the movement to achieve a successful result and this frees up our mind to focus on other things that our brains haven’t solved yet. (James, 1887)
With Charles Duhigg’s (2012) work, knowing how habits work and develop is important. There are three steps that occurs when forming a habit. The first step of the habit loop is called the “cue”, the second step is the “routine”, and the third step is the “reward”; they may be also referred as the trigger, the behavior, and the resolution. Habits cannot be eradicated, instead they must be replaced. The “cue” and the “reward” part of the process must be addressed, so modification of the habit loop is done only on the “routine” or the behavior. For some people, solely changing a piece of the habit loop is not sufficient, other ways must be implemented. Habits are rigid, but not always permanent, so during extremely stressful times, a support group must be present. The conviction or belief on an individual is also one of the major keys that predicates change. Since there is no method of habit alteration that is guaranteed, combining multiple strategies is essential to increasing one’s rate of a successful outcome. (Duhigg, 2012)
I believe the information presented here will benefit everyone. Knowing what habits are, how they form, and how to change them can be useful to anyone. Some habits are good, some are harmless, and some are detrimental to our health and wellness. Our behaviors affect the result we get in life. So any person who want to improve their circumstances can begin with improving their behavior. A student can use this information to aid them in getting better grades. A salesperson can improve their interaction with costumers, and thus grow their sales. A patient can develop better eating habits to avoid and decrease the risk of nutrition-related diseases. A parent can be a better parent. A lover to a better lover. Any person who wants to be better can be better. All it takes is acquiring the right kind of knowledge and as important, the application of that knowledge. Since there are so many things that we do in life that have become automatic, is it possible to deliberately design behaviors that best serves us and turn that automatic as well?
Habit [Def. 1, 2, 3]. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Online, Retrieved April 4, 2018, from
James, W. (1887) Habit. Retrieved from https://ia800205.us.archive.org/8/items/habitjam00jameuoft/habitjam00jameuoft.pdf
Duhigg, C. (2012) The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York, NY: Random House.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is actually available on MENTORBOX featuring the author himself in the video summary!
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