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Conventional wisdom has it that we make a new habit fairly swiftly, about 21 days to make a habit. As with anything else in science and the world, this turns out to be an average, or rather something that can happen with some things, but others can take the better part of 2-300 days. And so we are introduced by Dean to the world of habitual actions and changing them. Certainly, developing a habit of drinking a glass of water or more, every day, is an easy habit to create, but more effortful habits, such as getting to the gym a few times a week or doing 50 situps a day understandably take longer to adopt. Adopting change, rather than complying with some regimen dictated to you may take longer than other types of human behavior shift.
In reality, between one third and half our time is spent in behaviors that are habitual. One of the great drivers is of course also logical: context will often dictate what we are doing, so waking up in our house might lead to a shower inevitably, but perhaps before or after breakfast, depending on our individual responses. New house: new issues with habits, such as when and how we do things. Changing anything makes habits more effortful, so moving to a new gym further away, or your gym being surrounded by a building site robbing the parking, can apply forces of habitual change.
We all know the road to nothing is paved by intentions that do not translate into action, such as New Year's Resolutions. Dean says that habit and intention is not a fair fight. Intentions can flow into habitual ways of thinking: our minds are good at spotting patterns, which can lead to attaining new skills, namely by practice. So this is not just a layman’s idea, but is proven by experts too. And Dean will hold out here that this thinking is flawed. We can infer intentions from our new habits, namely, I am doing this, so I wanted to, clearly. Or I wouldn’t have done it: this supports our sense of agency, but Dean holds this is not always the case, referring to cognitive dissonance. One of the clear issues is our lack of access to the non-conscious biases underlying some actions as end states of unclear cognitions.
We thus have less control over conscious behaviors than we might think. Dean refers to a secret autopilot, which might affect who we find attractive for instance, as he demonstrates with reference to a sneaky experiment where subjects choose between a few faces, then are shown a face that is similar that they did not choose, but are instructed to describe why they did, without usually noticing the switcheroo. He demonstrates further that many aspects of ourselves, our inner nature and drivers, that we are sure of, are not what we think they are in terms of autonomous thinking and opinion of them. Of course we are not slavish victims to the non-conscious world, as we have a thinking capacity to reflect on things, the frontal executive areas, but when there is damage, volitional control may be lost and inhibition of these habitual actions may be lost, for example in utilization behavior. However, Dean holds, awareness of these non-conscious drivers is the first part of the key to changing and creating new habits, the title of the book.
There are thus habits we want, and habits we actually get! Priming experiments are one example he uses of this, and how small priming words for instance can have outcomes on us. In some ways, this can be bizarre, for instance that people who expect to live longer, often do. Networks of patterns create habits, linking often seemingly unrelated things, such as a bicycle and shopping, or travel. The problem with context is that it can stir thoughts which are not what we expected or wanted at that time, and which may shape habitual behavior, e.g. avoidance.
In part two he begins to look at everyday habits, and the predictability and comfort we gain from not just our habits, but of those around us. For example, if my wife suddenly showers instead of making her breakfast, my attempt to shower and then have my breakfast will coincide and collide with hers. The daily grind of habitual existence however may be boring, as with the story of The Dice Man, who follows throws of the dice instead of his own volition, creating havoc. Rats in a maze will find their way to the cheese, learning a new habit, and that helps us, in the daily rat race, understand ours. It also helps us understand why the dopamine dysregulation of Parkinson’s disease prevents us from learning new behaviors as sufferers, since the reward that comes with learning and attaining a goal is lost, even in motor skills. Social, work and travel also suffer and are bolstered similarly. And of course, there are eating and shopping habits...
Dean uses OCD as a disorder of driven habitual behavior, and so you can see overall in the book how he comes at the problem of habit, looking at the everyday mundane, as well as pathological overheating of the executive function. As with Tourette’s disorder, habit reversal in therapy is possible. Clearly then, habitual thinking in dark states and negativity, underpins depression and other low mood disorders. Attributions we make are thus also a form of habit, or habitual response, and hence the value of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other challenges to habitual thinking. Dean is quick to point out though that worrying is not always negative, and may be an effective strategy in other ways, preventing illness from deteriorating for instance.
Habits can kill, as Dean explains, referring to aircraft accidents where automatism of checklists can lead to issues that are disastrous. SPADS are signals passed at danger, a red light on train tracks that are meant to tell a driver to stop, but drivers still do that often, habituating to the signal and not responding, as Dean shows in one incident in the UK, but which is all too common. Routine can let people down.
Dean has to deal with a modern phenomenon: social media and the internet, and so the word addiction, a habitual usage of something rewarding, has to finally emerge here in the context of modern media and cyberspace. One would have to add the largest online industry here, namely pornography too.
Section three finally gets to habit change, something most readers would have waited 131 pages to get to, which might be frustrating to many, but his discussion so far has been interesting enough to engage most readers.
The first part of this is making habits rather than changing old ones. Motivation is the first prerequisite he discusses, and of course biting off more than we can chew will create ambivalence, and hence damage our motivation to stick to it, and grittily create a new habit, the target of behavioral change. Contrasting a vision of a successful outcome is an effective strategy when the contrast is a reality check: too high a discrepancy again can alter our resolve. He now takes us through the ways we can build a new habit, starting off with a plan. Chapter ten confronts the breaking of habits, and I won’t elaborate here on the plan, or on the breaking of habits, as this would negate any value of buying the book, if I summarize.
Overall this is a book for mostly beginners, not professionals, and should have wide appeal. He does engage and writes entertainingly and whilst referring to research, doesn’t get too onerous with detail, but summarizes the outcome well. He finishes with both healthy and happy habits, delving into positive psychology too, so this book is not all about bad stuff, but a serious look at the range and diversity of habit and its impact on us.
A book for laymen or beginner psychologists, and usefully populated with the simplest of tools, elegant, not complex, not pathologically directed, to help us direct new and happier, healthier habits. He does take half the book to get to the nitty gritty, but the read is enjoyable and worth it.
Understanding is the why, and he also gives us the how, so worth your time and money, even if you are just the average Joe. We all are faced with multiple, often habitual choice making and habitual decisions at least half of the day, so why not become just a bit expert in watching what you do, and changing the necessary parts to enrich your life.
© 2013 Roy Sugarman
Roy Sugarman PhD, Director: applied neuroscience, Athletes Performance Arizona