Psych in Real Life: Habits

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the importance of habitual behavior in our daily lives

Habits: The Good, the Bad, and the Consequences

Think back across the last hour. What have you been doing?

Which of the last hour’s activities were habitual—done at particular times of the day on a predictable schedule? How much of the time were you “on automatic”, guided by well-practiced routines that require little thought? Often, as we drive a car or walk to our workplace, work out at the gym or shop for groceries, our actions are unconscious and stereotyped as we think about something unrelated to what we are doing.

Habits have gotten a bad reputation in popular literature. Eating too much and chatting online too much and so many other things we supposedly do too much are blamed on “bad habits”. And, in a world that prizes novelty and creativity, the idea that habits are “automatic” suggests that we may be going through life like zombies, not mindful and not experiencing our lives deeply enough.

But habits can be positive, too. Writer Gretchen Rubin notes that “habits are the invisible architecture of our daily lives…Our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.”[1] Habits free us from always having to plan our next action and use willpower to get things done.

Habits may be “automatic” in the sense that they free up our conscious minds to think about other things, but they can be changed and they can be chosen. For millennia, religious teachers and moral philosophers have urged us to choose who we wish to be by shaping our own habits. We don’t become better by trying harder; we become better by eliminating the need to try—we just do it.

How Much of Your Time is Guided by Habits?

One obvious way to find out what people do during the day is to ask them. In fact, pause to do that now. How much time do you think you spend in habit-driven activities? What percentage would you say, between 0 and 100%?

You probably found that it is not easy to come up with a number here. What counts as a “habit”? And how well can we remember how long we were engaged in one activity or another? It is easier to remember interesting things than dull things, so there may be built-in biases in our memories to recall the engaging activities rather than the repetitive, habitual ones.

The Diary Method

Wood, Quinn, and Kashy (2002) used a different approach, one that did not rely so much on memory: the diary method. They didn’t invent this research approach, but they were the first to apply it to the study of habits. This method doesn’t really involve keeping a diary in the traditional sense. Instead, it involves periodically “sampling” people’s activities along with some personal reflections on what they are doing.

Here is how it worked. Wood and her colleagues recruited college students and provided each one with a programmed wristwatch that buzzed once every hour. When the wristwatch[2] buzzed, the student recorded what he or she was doing. Then, the student answered a series of questions about this activity:

  • How often they engaged in that behavior.
  • Their current physical location.
  • The physical location in which they generally performed the behavior.
  • Which other people—if any—were involved in the activity.
  • The amount of attention needed for successful performance (1 to 4: almost none to constant attention)
  • The degree of difficulty of the behavior (1 to 5: very easy to very difficult)
  • The intensity of emotions felt as they engaged in the activity (1 to 5: much more negative than normal to much more positive than normal)

They also answered an open-ended question: what were you thinking about while you were engaged in the activity?

The Results of the Diary Study

The researchers analyzed the “diary” reports of 279 students across two version of this study. When they defined “habitual behaviors” as activities that regularly occurred at the same time and place, they found that 41% of the behaviors could be considered habitual. If this result actually generalizes the rest of us, then nearly half of our time is spent engaging in habit-driven activities.

In a separate analysis, the researchers approached the idea of a habit in a different way. They reasoned that if habits are somewhat automatic, then we can think about something else while we are engaged in the habitual behaviors. Because they asked the students what they were doing and what they were thinking about, the researchers were able to determine how often there was a mismatch between behavior and thoughts. Approximately 47% of the time, thoughts were about something other than what they were doing, a percentage very close to the 43% estimate from the previous paragraph. However, even though the data support the idea that we can and often do think about other things while engaging in habitual behaviors, we are not zombies—about 40% of the time, people were thinking about activities they labeled as habits while engaging in them. The experimenters explain that this is “consistent with the idea that this mode of behavior is best characterized by minimal or sporadic cognitive monitoring and not by the complete absence of thought.”[3]

The researchers report one other interesting finding about habitual behaviors. When people engaged in habitual behaviors they reported lower negative emotions than when they were performing non-habitual activities. Specifically, habitual behaviors were associated with lower stress, reduced likelihood of feeling overwhelmed, and lower probability of feeling out of control. Happily, people did not feel less interested or less motivated while engaging in habitual behaviors, so reduced emotional reactions were not caused by becoming disengaged or less attentive.

Studying Habits by Changing Them

An important insight about habits is that they are activated by triggers in the environment. These triggers can be people or places, events or the time of day. The important idea is that we have learned to respond to something outside of us (i.e., the trigger) with a specific behavior (the habit). We will come back to this idea that the situation initiates the habitual behavior later when we talk about changing your own habits, but first we will look at a set of studies by Wendy Wood, David Neal, and their colleagues. This is just one of many studies of habits that these and other researchers have conducted. It will give you an idea of how we can learn more about psychological processes by manipulating the details of a common event to see how people’s behavior changes.

The Popcorn Study

Popcorn in a popcorn holder.
Figure 1. Are you a habitual popcorn eater?

Movie theater attendance is on the decline in the United States, but going to the movies is still popular. Of course, we go to the theater to see the movie, but for many people the experience is just not complete without the right refreshments: popcorn, candy, and soft drinks. You may be too health-conscious to buy these snacks, but most movie theaters depend on their concession stands to stay open.[4] Eating popcorn in a movie theater is a great example of a habit: a behavior that is triggered by a particular setting—the movie theater.

In 2011, David Neal, Wendy Wood, and some of their students published a study in which they used the movie theater-popcorn connection to study habitual behaviors.[5] They looked for evidence that movie theaters really do trigger eating popcorn. But checking out the validity of that claim was just the starting point for studying the popcorn habit.

The Setup

A movie theatre.
Figure 2. Researchers set out to test whether students would eat more popcorn in a movie-theater room, like this one, or in a regular meeting room.

The experiments were conducted on the campus of the University of Southern California (USC). The campus has a cinema that regularly shows films that are popular among students.[6] They recruited students and assigned them to one of two conditions. In the Cinema condition, the students went into the theater before the regular movie started and they watched and rated movie trailers. The important thing to understand is that the setting looked, sounded, smelled, and felt like a movie theater (which, of course, it was).

Other students were recruited to come, at the same time of day, to a meeting room near the movie theater. These students were asked to listen to watch and rate music videos. The music videos had been pretested to assure that they were as interesting and engaging as the movie trailers that the cinema group watched. For this meeting room condition, the room was as comfortable as the theater and the task was as engaging as the one in the theater, but the location did not look or sound, smell or feel like a movie theater. It was a meeting room.

Next came the critical prop for this experiment: a full box of popcorn was given to each person, along with a cup of water. No one made a big deal about the popcorn, but (unknown to the participants) the main question was: how much popcorn would people eat?

Try It

Where do you think the participants ate more popcorn: in the cinema or in the meeting room? Move the bars below to give your estimate of the percentage of the box of popcorn (this is the percentage number on the Y-axis) that was eaten—on the average—by the participants in each location.

Click here to see the results.

Bar graph showing that 60% of the popcorn was eaten in the cinema room as opposed to 30% in the meeting room.

The first question was the easy one. But we left out a crucial piece of information: half of the participants in each location had nice fresh popcorn, but the other half had rubbery, stale popcorn. Now, how much fresh or stale popcorn do you think participants ate in the two locations?

Try It

Now adjust the bar graphs to give your estimate of the percentage of the box of popcorn that was eaten—on the average—by the participants in each location. Brown represents stale popcorn and yellow represents fresh popcorn.

Click here to see the results.

Bar graph results showing that cinema viewers ate 50% of the stale popcorn and 60% ate it if it was fresh. In the meeting room, 20% of the stale popcorn was eaten and 40% of the fresh popcorn.

To interpret the results, look at the size of the difference between the brown (stale popcorn) bar and the yellow (fresh popcorn) bar. A bigger difference means that the participants were more influenced by the taste of the popcorn. A smaller difference means that the stale versus fresh popcorn didn’t influence their behavior so much—or, in other words, that habit was more powerful than taste. As you can see, in the cinema—the habitual place to eat popcorn—subjects not only ate more popcorn, but they were less influenced by the quality of the popcorn. This is exactly what you would expect if people are engaging in a learned behavior rather than responding to factors that generally influence how much we eat—such as how good the food tastes.

Now perhaps the people in the cinema just didn’t notice that the stale popcorn was stale. Fortunately, the experimenters anticipated that question, so they asked the students to rate the taste of the popcorn. Here is what they found:

Results of the question, "how much did you like the popcorn?" on a seven point scale? In the cinema, stale popcorn tasters gave it a 2.6, and the fresh popcorn eaters gave it a 3.5. In the meeting room, stale-eaters gave it a 3, and fresh eaters gave it a 3.5.
Figure 3. Researchers found that students in both conditions rated the popcorn pretty low, and many students who didn’t like the stale popcorn still ate it.

There was no statistically significant difference in the ratings between the cinema and meeting room groups. But notice that, if anything, the cinema subjects rated the stale popcorn tasted as being slightly worse than the meeting room subjects did. The subjects in the cinema knew that the stale popcorn tasted bad, but they still ate it.

Are we sure that habit had something to do with this behavior? The experimenters asked participants to rate the strength of their own habit of eating popcorn in movie theaters. Of course, some people didn’t like popcorn much, while others wouldn’t think of going to the movies and skipping the popcorn. The experimenters divided the participants into three groups, based on their ratings of the strength of their popcorn-at-the-movies habit. Here is what they found for the subjects in the cinema condition:

Bar graph showing habit strength of weak, medium, or strong on the x-axis and the percentage of popcorn eaten on the y-axis. Those with weak habits ate 45% of the stale popcorn and 70% fresh. With medium habits, they ate 50% of the stale and 60% of the fresh. And those with strong habits ate 65% of the stale and 60% of the fresh.
Figure 4. This shows those with either weak, medium, or strong popcorn-eating habits, and how much they ate in the cinema condition. Those with weak popcorn habits still ate a lot of fresh popcorn (the most, even!), but they ate the least amount of stale popcorn.

On the average, the three groups ate about the same amount of popcorn. But—once again—notice the difference between the brown (stale) and yellow (fresh) bars. Participants with weak movie-popcorn habits ate a lot of the fresh popcorn, but not much of the stale popcorn. The stale-fresh difference was smaller for the medium movie-popcorn habit group. And, for the students with a strong movie-popcorn habit, there was no significant difference in the amount of fresh versus stale popcorn consumed (with slightly more stale popcorn than fresh actually eaten!). The students with strong habits knew that the stale popcorn was nasty, but they still ate it as if it were fresh.

Try It

What do you think happened in the meeting room? You already know that they ate less popcorn in general, and that they at less stale popcorn than fresh. But did habit strength affect them as much as it did for the folks in the cinema? Make your prediction using the bars below.

Click here to see the results.

Bar graph showing the meeting room condition and habit strength. When the popcorn was stale, those with weak habits ate 15% of the stale popcorn and over 30% of the fresh. Those with medium habits ate 20% of the stale and nearly 40% of the fresh popcorn. Those with strong habits ate 25% of the stale and 45% of the fresh popcorn.

Students with stronger cinema-popcorn habits did eat slightly more popcorn overall than those with weaker habits, but look at the DIFFERENCE between the two bars at each habit level. At all three habit strengths, participants ate about the same amount LESS stale popcorn than fresh. This is the sort of thing that people do when they are aware of the food they are eating. If something tastes good, you eat it. If something tastes bad, you leave it in the box.

These results are consistent with the idea that the cinema environment triggers the popcorn-eating habit. The habitual popcorn eater consumes popcorn in the triggering environment (here, the cinema setting) even if the popcorn is not worth eating. In a different environment (the meeting room) the habit is not triggered, so popcorn consumption is much more determined by its quality, regardless of the strength of that habit in the cinema setting.

Breaking Bad Habits

The experimenters weren’t quite done. They had demonstrated that a habit cued by the right context can lead to behaviors that no one would consciously choose: like eating bad popcorn. However, they also wanted to know if interfering with the situation could reduce the power of the habit.

In a second study, the experimenters went back to the cinema. There was no meeting room condition. This time they wanted the cinema to trigger the popcorn habit, but they asked if changing some essential part of the habitual behavior would reduce its power.

Which hand do you use to hold the box of popcorn? Which hand do you use to grab a kernel or two and raise it (them) to your mouth? I hold the box with my left hand and feed myself with my right. Always.

For this study, the experimenters put a handle on the popcorn box and instructed half of the subjects to hold the box with their usual hand, and the other half to hold it with the other hand—the one they usually don’t use.[7]

The theory here is simple: If we change something about the habit, then we reduce its power. In turn, we become more aware of what we are doing—more guided by our conscious goals and less by our automatic sequences of behavior. Is that what happened?


As with the first study, the experimenters divided the subjects into those with weak, medium, and strong movie-popcorn habits. The participants ate less popcorn in this experiment than in the first one,[8] but the pattern of results was still interesting. Here is what happened when participants used their usual hands for holding the box and eating.

Figure showing popcorn eating behavior when using the typical hand in the cinema condition of the study. Those with weak habits ate about 15% of the stale popcorn and 30% of the fresh popcorn. Those with medium habits ate 30% of the stale popcorn and 33% of the fresh popcorn. Those with strong habits ate 45% of the stale popcorn and 40% of the fresh.
Figure 5. Those who used their typical hand when eating popcorn in the cinema condition were more likely to eat popcorn if they had strong popcorn-eating habits.

Notice that these results are very similar to the results of the first experiment, except that habit strength had a stronger influence on amount of popcorn consumed. Most importantly, at low habit strength, students ate less stale popcorn than fresh. At stronger habit strengths, the quality of the popcorn didn’t matter. They just ate a lot of it.

Try It

But what happens in the cinema, with all of its cues for eating popcorn, when an important part of the habit is altered? Make your prediction by moving the bars in the figure below. Remember that the opposite hand condition is supposed to reduce the power of the habit. It just doesn’t feel the same.

Click here to see the results.

Bar graphs showing the opposite hand condition in cinema and amount of popcorn consumed. Those with weak habits ate 15% of the stale popcorn and 12% of the fresh popcorn; those with medium habits ate 25% of the stale popcorn and 30% of the fresh popcorn; those with strong habits ate 30% of the stale popcorn and 45% of the fresh popcorn.

At the weak habit level, the participants are not eating much popcorn at all. As habit strength increases, the desire to eat popcorn presumably also increases, but notice that the quality of the popcorn is increasingly important (look at the differences between the brown and yellow bars). The habit is not eliminated, but conscious evaluation of the popcorn is now having a greater influence on behavior.

The second study is important for a practical reason. It suggests that the strength of a habit can be influenced by minor changes to our routine. Habits can be weakened and they can be eliminated. And that leads us to our final topic.

How to Create Good Habits

Let’s imagine that you want to start a new habit. For example, maybe it is time to get into shape, so you decide that you want to run every afternoon before dinner.

No one can give you a guaranteed system for creating a new habit—or for breaking an unwanted habit. However, habit experts, like Dr. Wood and Dr. Neal—have some advice that comes from their research.

  • Don’t believe simple formulas about making or breaking habits. In 1960, a popular self-help book claimed that forming a habit takes 21 days.[9] If this is true, then you just need to be sure to run before dinner every day for three weeks and you’ve done it! In 2010, psychologist Pippa Lally found that this timeframe for creating a new habit takes, on the average 66 days. But Dr. Lally’s more important point is that many factors determine how long habit formation takes. Her research showed a range of times from 18 days to 254, estimates based on self-reports. New behaviors vary in complexity and people have a variety of motivations and goals, different personalities and social support systems. True habit formation is a long-term commitment, so plan to make a conscious effort for many months.
  • Make your habit the default behavior for a particular time or place. Habits are created from actions that are repeated frequently and in a particular context. This is particularly important on those days when your motivation is low—when you would rather sit at home than go out and run. But your brain is on your side in this. In a 2013 study, Neal and Wood found that, when we are tired or distracted, we avoid making decisions.[10] In other words, we go with the decision that is easier. If you make your new habit (running before dinner) your default behavior, it will be easier to just go out and run than to put in the effort to decide to do something else.
  • New habits require effort.
  • Choose your cues. This point is related to the previous one about creating a routine. Habits are associated with cues. This is very obvious with “bad habits” where we know that a particular smell makes us want to eat or just hearing the cellphone ring can take our attention away from something important that we are doing. If you want to create a habit, use cues to take over some of the effort. For the person wanting to run each day, let the ritual of changing out of your work clothes create a set of associations—the drawer with your running shorts or the closet with your shoes—that help you get out of the house and onto the trail.
  • Make a habit to break a habit. Old habits are hard to break. New habits can be hard to learn, but in general—assuming you stay motivated—it is easier to get rid of an unwanted habit by replacing it with something you want to do. You may like to drink a beer (or a soda or something else that isn’t water) when you get home from work. If taking that drink is a habit, you may find it hard to resist. But if you start your new running regimen, running as you get home from work, the unwanted habit will need to move aside. And every day that you don’t engage in the unwanted habit (because you are on your 5-mile run) it becomes weaker and easier to resist.

Final Thoughts

At the beginning of this activity, we suggested that “habits are the invisible architecture of our daily lives.” A lot of our time is spent engaging in habitual activities, some good, some bad, and most of them useful for getting ourselves through the day. But we have also suggested that old habits can be changed and new habits can be chosen and learned. In fact, this area of psychology says that you can decide what kind of person you want to be, and there is a reasonable chance you can become that person. But it isn’t easy and it won’t happen over night.

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  1. The quotation comes from her book about changing habits: Better than Before.
  2. Today, cell phones are likely to be used for diary studies, but in 2002, only about 60 of students had clamshell-style cell phones, and the “smart phones” were still 5 years in the future.
  3. Wood, Quinn, & Kashy (2002), page 1281.
  4. According to research reported in Stanford Business, 20% of theater revenue comes from food sales, but a whopping 40% of profits come from food. They suggest that the high price of these snacks helps keep ticket prices down.
  5. David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, Mengju Wu, & David Kurlander (2011). The pull of the past: When do habits persist despite conflict with motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1428-1437.
  6. This study was conducted in 2011. Habits change as social conventions change, so we can’t guarantee that the USC cinema is still a popular attraction on campus.
  7. Reports collected after the experiment indicated that most participants followed these instructions almost all of the time, and no one violated the instructions very often. Happily, most college students are willing to cooperate with researchers.
  8. This difference in average consumption is not discussed in the research article, and it might be nice to know why popcorn consumption was down in the second study. Nevertheless, the more important results was the difference between stale and fresh popcorn consumption in the three habit levels.
  9. Maxwell Maltz (1960) Psycho-Cybernetics. Prentice-Hall.
  10. David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, & A. Drolet. (2013). How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(4), 959-975.


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