Habit Definition. What are Habits?
Various Definitions of Habits
Habit research spans across various fields, such as psychology, neuroscience, and sociology, each of which has different focuses. This leads to the development of multiple definitions regarding habits. Even within psychology, there are different definitions of habits.
According to Benjamin Gardner (2022), “habit is a social construct, for which there is not an objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ definition. Definitions must be judged according to their usefulness.”
Jan De Houwer (2019) encourages to consider various perspectives and approaches when studying such behavioral, cognitive, and neural phenomena as habits, rather than committing to one particular definition.
The Importance of Proper Definition of Habits
Having a clearer understanding of what a habit entails can help you be more effective in habit formation and maintenance.
Here are a few reasons why choosing a definition matters when developing new habits:
- Different definitions often come with different frameworks or models for habit formation. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of a habit can guide you in creating a structured plan for developing new habits.
- A clear definition can help you better understand why a new habit might not be sticking or why you’re struggling to maintain it. This insight allows you to make adjustments, find solutions, and ultimately increase your chances of success.
- A good definition provides a framework for evaluating your progress in developing new habits. By understanding the components of a habit, you can track your progress more effectively and make data-driven decisions to improve your approach.
What is a habit?
Simple Definition of Habit
Habit is a “frequent, persistent or customary behaviour” (Benjamin Gardner, 2014). This definition is used in everyday parlance.
Consequences of using this definition to change habits
This simplified definition does not provide insights into the underlying mechanisms of habit formation, such as the cue-routine-reward loop. Consequently, it may be less effective in guiding individuals through the process of changing habits as compared to definitions that include these aspects.
The definition does not explicitly mention the automatic or unconscious nature of habits, which is a crucial aspect of many habit definitions. This might lead to an underestimation of the role of automaticity in habit formation and maintenance, making it harder to change habits effectively.
However, the approach of altering the frequency and persistence of a behavior could be a helpful starting point for habit change, but it might be more effective when combined with a deeper understanding of habit formation processes and the specific strategies that can facilitate lasting change.
Psychological Definitions of Habit
Definition of habit by Benjamin Gardner
“Habit is a process by which a stimulus generates an impulse to act as a result of a learned stimulus-response association. Habit-generated impulses may compete or combine with impulses and inhibitions arising from other sources, including conscious decision-making, to influence responses, and need not generate behaviour” (Benjamin Gardner, 2014).
Consequences of using this definition to change habits
The definition does not explicitly mention the automatic or unconscious nature of habits.
This definition does not mention the role of rewards or reinforcement in habit formation and maintenance. As a result, individuals trying to change habits might not consider the importance of reinforcing desired behaviors or finding alternatives to the rewards that maintain undesired habits.
The definition also states that habits need not generate observable behavior, but it doesn’t provide guidance on identifying or addressing habits that manifest internally without visible actions. This could hinder the process of changing habits that impact thoughts or emotions rather than observable behaviors.
However, using this definition to change habits would involve focusing on altering the learned associations between stimuli and responses that could include modifying the stimulus or the response to change the habit. Recognizing that habits can compete or combine with other impulses and inhibitions can help individuals better understand the factors influencing their behavior and take them into account when attempting to change habits. This definition highlights that habits might not always result in observable behavior, which can help individuals be more mindful of the internal processes driving their actions.
It’s interesting to see how the same author has refined their definition of habits over the years. Gardner has refined their understanding of habits over time, placing greater emphasis on context cues and providing a more focused and simplified definition.
According to him, habit is a “process by which a context-response associations, learned through repeated behavioural performance is a specific context, triggers an impulse to enact the associated response upon exposure to context cues” (Benjamin Gardner (2022).
This definition places more importance on context cues as the trigger for enacting the associated response. This shift suggests that the author recognizes the role of context in habit formation and how specific cues within that context can influence habitual behavior. The author decided to focus on the core process of habit formation without considering the interplay between habits and other cognitive processes. This definition is more concise and straightforward, making it easier to understand for readers.
However, this definition, like previous ones, still does not explicitly mention the automatic or unconscious nature of habits, nor does it address the role of rewards or reinforcement in habit formation and maintenance
Lack of Single Definition of Habit
The author recommends removing assumptions about Stimulus-Response (S-R) associations from habit definitions, as the stimulus-driven nature of behavior cannot be directly observed. Theories about S-R associations can still be an important part of habit research, but the role of these theories has to be be firmly restricted to that of one possible explanation.
- The stimulus-driven nature of behavior cannot be observed directly.
- Establishing the automaticity of behavior is not only difficult but also does not guarantee that the behavior is stimulus-driven.
A possible way to reduce these challenges is to focus on features of automatic behavior that are relatively easy to verify. For instance, to study behavior that is instigated quickly in certain contexts or that people subjectively experience as having little conscious control over. These criteria can be verified using experimental tasks or questionnaires. Then researchers could document the the conditions under which behaviors with those automaticity features occur.
The author suggests considering alternative models, such as episodic memory models and predictive coding models.
- Episodic memory models differ from S-R models in significant ways, such as encoding individual experiences as separate memory traces. They propose that behavior can be mediated by the automatic retrieval of episodic representations from memory, based on similarity between current stimuli and past experiences. This approach can inspire research on the role of recency and context dependency in habitual behavior, as well as the impact of instructions on automatic behavior.
- Predictive coding models, on the other hand, assume that organisms constantly build mental models of the world to minimize energy expenditure, with both model construction and behavior selection being based on inferential processes that can operate automatically.
“Goal-Driven” Definitions of Habit
Some researchers have recently proposed that “all human actions are driven by specific goals,” with the result that “habitual behavior is goal-driven” and designed to achieve valued behavioral outcomes (Kruglanski & Szumowska, 2020; Ainsle, 2020; De Houwer, 2018).
According to Kruglanski & Szumowska (2020), habitual behavior is actually driven by goals. This perspective is supported by demonstrating that habits are sensitive to changes in goal properties, such as goal value and the expectancy of achieving the goal. Although adjusting to these changes may be slower for habitual behavior compared to non-habitual behavior, this is likely due to the routinized or automatic nature of habits, which is characterized by decreased attention to outcomes. The extended persistence of habits, despite seeming detached from their original goals, probably results from being connected to a different goal. Therefore, there is no need to assume behavior without purpose.
Habitual behavior is sensitive to the expected reward value, or the goal it is meant to achieve. When a more appealing reward or goal is activated, individuals abandon their previous habitual behavior, meaning the environmental context no longer cues that behavior. Similarly, if the original goal of a habit loses its appeal, such as under satiation or when associated with unpleasant experiences, the habitual behavior stops.
Habitual behavior is also sensitive to the expectancy of achieving a goal or obtaining the reward through the behavior. The phenomenon of extinction demonstrates that this expectancy can diminish over time, and when it falls below a certain threshold, the behavior is discontinued. However, this process can take a long time, and habitual behavior can persist for many trials even after the goal or reward has been withdrawn.
Allegedly purposeless behaviors, like eating when not hungry, can be explained by goal replacement or goal conflict. The situational context might automatically activate a goal that temporarily prompts a habitual behavior in conflict with the intended goal. Typically, individuals quickly recognize that the automatically activated behavior serves a currently irrelevant purpose, and they discontinue and replace it with a behavior that serves the situationally appropriate goal.
Kruglanski & Szumowska define habits as goal-driven behaviors.
‘Habits are highly routinized behaviors performed without much thought or conscious attention… driven by specific goals, even if not consciously represented at all times‘. Kruglanski & Szumowska (2020)
Habitual behavior may be slower to respond to failures in anticipated outcomes due to its routinized nature, but it still demonstrates goal dependence. Although habitual behavior may be less sensitive to changes in goal contingencies, consciousness returns when the habit fails to achieve its objective, guiding the search for new ways to reach the goal. Eventually, futile habits are abandoned.
This perspective has significant theoretical and practical implications. It allows us to apply insights from cognitive research on goal seeking to habitual behavior. For example, goal systems theory can predict which behaviors are more likely to become habitual. Confidence in a behavior’s ability to achieve the expected outcome is crucial for habit formation. Behaviors that serve unique or single means to valued goals are more likely to become habitual.
Understanding habits as goal-directed behavior has important implications for changing habits and uprooting undesirable ones. One needs to first identify the specific goals a behavior serves, then find alternative behaviors that serve the same goals. Establishing an expectancy that the replacement behavior will effectively achieve the desired ends is essential.
Alternatively, creating a connection between the context and a superior, incompatible goal can crowd out the undesired habitual behavior. Future research could address replacement goals and the persistence of behavior despite the elimination of original goals.
Considering habitual behavior as goal-driven provides an integrative, generative, and parsimonious account of the scientific evidence concerning behavior and its determinants. Evidence suggests that nature and the evolutionary process did not allow for the perpetual enactment of purposeless behavior.
Critics of Goal-Driven Definitions
William James (1914) initially highlighted the distinction between habits and conscious will, observing that habitual actions occur automatically. He noted that frequently repeated mental actions tend to continue, leading us to automatically think, feel, or do things we’re accustomed to under similar circumstances, without any conscious intention or expected outcomes. However, he also recognized that goals can initiate or adjust habitual responses when necessary. James’s perspective on habits corresponds with the prevalent direct context-cuing account in modern psychology.
Wendy Wood (2021) criticizes the view that all behavior (even habits) are goal driven. He thinks that in practical terms, the notion that all behavior is goal driven is not open to empirical test because ruling out dependence on one goal leaves open the possibility of other, as yet untested, goals. To provide an argument, he shared an example of a seatbeltwearing habit. People do not necessarily activate a safety goal each time they habitually reach for a seatbelt. Once a habit is formed, it becomes an automatic behavior that can be triggered by context cues without consciously invoking the original goal. In this case, the habit of reaching for a seatbelt becomes a natural part of the routine when getting into a car, rather than a deliberate action motivated by the safety goal.
According to him, scientific progress in this area is likely to emerge through empirical tests examining “how and when behavior is guided by habits and when by goals, as well as how habits and goals interact”.
Wendy Wood provides a new definition of habit.
‘Direct context-response associations learned through repeatedly rewarded responding‘ Wendy Wood (2021)
Wood points out that current research has identified that habits are primarily formed through instrumental learning. As individuals repeatedly perform a rewarded action in a stable context, they gradually develop associations in procedural memory between the response and recurring contextual cues.
Habits are directly triggered by contextual cues without needing to involve the goal that might have initially motivated the learning.
This direct cueing occurs because habits rely on cached representations in memory that store direct cue-response associations.
The habit system generates behavior by directly activating response units.
Once a response is mentally triggered, people tend to act on it through ideomotor processes, where the thought of a behavior reflexively and automatically leads to the corresponding physical response.
However, habitual actions are not obligatory, and people can override the response if they have sufficient motivation and opportunity.
In contemporary theories, habits are not goal-dependent; they are activated directly by context cues without relying on goals. People can act on habits independently of their current goals. However, habits can still align with goals by producing a desired future state without depending on goals as causal drivers.
These fundamental aspects of habit performance are widely accepted.
- Habits may involve the formation of hierarchical action sequences, where a prior action directly cues a subsequent one, and they may also be influenced by Pavlovian instrumental transfer.
- Moreover, habits don’t function in isolation but interact with other psychological processes in guiding behavior, especially for complex actions with multiple steps (e.g., going to the gym). For instance, habits can integrate with conscious goal pursuit, as activated goals can enhance desirable habits and inhibit undesirable ones.
The central feature of habit performance—direct context-response cueing without a corresponding goal—is widely supported by research.
Wendy Wood particularly emphasizes that “goals inevitably fluctuate” while habits help “in maintaining behavior stability over time”.
In the study, researchers observed participants for two weeks to understand the relationship between exercise habits, daily intentions to exercise, and actual physical activity.
The study found that on days when participants had strong intentions to exercise, their habit strength did not influence their physical activity levels. This finding suggests that on these days, people’s actions were primarily driven by their goal to exercise, indicating goal-directed control.
However, on days when participants’ intentions to exercise were weak, those with stronger exercise habits still engaged in more physical activity compared to those with weaker exercise habits. This demonstrates that well-established habits can lead to behavior even when the conscious intention to perform the behavior is weak.
The example shows that while goal-directed control can guide actions when intentions are strong, habits can also play a significant role in driving behavior, particularly when intentions are weak.
Wendy Wood says, that habit differs from the goal-dependent automaticity.
Behavior-prediction studies have consistently found that explicit goals, no matter how they are measured, are not effective predictors of strongly habitual behavior. For instance, when individuals have developed strong habits of taking the bus, they continue to use this mode of transportation regardless of their personal reasons or intentions, such as reducing their carbon footprint or simply getting to school.
Why is it difficult to concisely define what habits are?
The way habits are studied might not fully capture their essence.
There are the differences between laboratory settings and everyday contexts in the study of goal-directed control and habit performance.
Lab settings typically encourage goal-directed control due to their structured nature and the limited set of responses available to participants. Real-life situations involve more distractions, time pressures, and stress, which can influence the balance between goal pursuit and habit responding.
To better study habits and their formation, lab paradigms should include extensive repetition for building strong habits, recurring context cues to trigger them, and the introduction of time pressures and distractions to simulate real-life conditions. Additionally, it’s recommended using measures like reaction time to track habit activation even when participants are pursuing goals.
1. Benjamin Gardner (2014). A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour. Health Psychol Rev. 2015 Aug 7; 9(3): 277–295. Published online 2014 Jan 21. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2013.876238
2. Benjamin Gardner & Phillippa Lally (2022). Habit and habitual behaviour, Health Psychology Review, DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2022.2105249
3. De Houwer J (2019). On How Definitions of Habits Can Complicate Habit Research. Front Psychol. 2019; 10: 2642. Published online 2019 Nov 29. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02642