Unlearning Dysfunctional Thinking Habits

“…habits—even once they are rooted in our minds—aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.” (Duhigg 2012)

On a very similar note, the science of habituation has a lot to tell us about how to change often unnoticed thinking and behavioural patterns. We now don’t consider our actions in isolation but as part of our routines and question where they truly begin. Similarly, our opinions and conclusions might also be results of our own thinking habits, not constant, deliberative thinking and decision-making. One research in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.”(Verplanken-Wood 2006 – cited by Duhigg 2012)

According to a very popular summary of the science of habit formation, habit loops consist of four elements.

  1. Cue – A simple and obvious signal that triggers the habit. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
  2. Routine – The behaviour in question.
  3. Reward
  4. Craving – Essential part of the process. A “craving” drives the entire habit loop. Literal or mental, it is the expectation of the new reward. Cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward will the routine become a habit.

Duhigg describes the concept of keystone habits. By attacking them one can cause a ripple effect through an entire system. The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns. As examples Duhigg describes the successful reorganisation of Alcoa, based on focusing on safety, and how government efforts, which should be guided by logical rules and deliberate priorities, can instead be driven by bizarre institutional processes that, in many ways, operate like organisational habits. The latter is not far from the hardened routines and reactions of societies that linger long beyond their use or functionality.

Habits, however, can outlive their rewards. One working definition of habituation is when there is a systematic decrement in the organism’s state of attention due to prolonged exposure to the same stimulus. It thus gets less and less noticeable for the subject.

How to change habits

If one is to change a habit, one must first grapple with the challenge of a group of people or an entire society being the subjects of the habit change.

Introspection and keen self-observation are necessary before people embark upon changing their own habits. Consider the self-quantification movement. Its followers keep track of every quantifiable nuance of their daily lives and try to draw conclusions. Keen observation of our actual behaviour is the exact opposite of the default thinking mode of humans: using and projecting self-image, being influenced by social considerations and the use of mental models that give the illusion of understanding but fail to call attention to new phenomena.

In order to eliminate an old and dysfunctional habit, one has to find a replacement, a new, alternative habit. Designing the new alternative habit is, however, not a quantitative task but a qualitative one. Even more so since it applies to groups of people. That is its challenge and facilitator at the same time. Once the old habit is put into question, it can pick up quickly. Sometimes raising the question or becoming aware of our own, involuntary, habitual behaviour is a big part of the solution.

Having people discuss their own “authoritarian micro habits” would be a great achievement, for instance. People pointing out the victim blaming in each other’s argument and asking whether it is merely a form of self-comforting, would be a huge step toward change. Correcting one another when accidentally referring to public servants as authorities as opposed to public service providers, ridiculing people who don’t ask for a supervisor when their rights are denied in a public office – it would instantly change mass attitudes.

If we are to change a habit, we must find an alternative routine, and the odds of success go up dramatically when change is not an individual initiative. Belief in success is also essential.

So is the reason they try. Being pushed into a change is psychologically taxing. But when treated politely and like autonomous players, following through their resolution takes less of their available psychological resources. When studying two groups of people on a simple willpower depletion test, researchers concluded that those who were treated without respect fared worse on follow-up tasks, probably because it was that much more exhausting to comply when they didn’t feel it was their choice. “When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons—if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else—it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster.” (Duhigg 2012)

Unboiling the frog

Gradual loss of rights and personal choice is often blamed for people’s tolerance for creeping authoritarianism. But does the process work in reverse?

The answer may be what Duhigg calls small wins. Small wins are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. Small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. They are easier to achieve than broad, sweeping change at once, and they set the stage for another small win. Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

As an example Duhigg tells the story of the gay liberation movement. After enormous effort to achieve equality of right, in 1972 they decided to focus on one modest goal instead: convincing the Library of Congress to reclassify books about the gay liberation movement from “Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes” to another, less pejorative category. The Library of Congress agreed to make the shift, and created the category “Homosexuality, Lesbianism—Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement”. It was a minor change of an old institutional habit, but the effect was considerable. Gay rights organizations, citing the victory, started fund-raising drives. Within a few years, openly gay politicians were running for political office.

Small wins, symbolic but easily achievable changes are within reach most of the time. They also act as stepping stone to gain confidence and perhaps even to start craving new rewards.

Unlinking habits from identity

The new approach also provides a tool, useful beyond the study of authoritarianism: Unlinking habits from identity

We all know the dangers of identity politics. When too much of our learned mental habits are regarded as parts of our precious identity, we start to protect them from change. By separating the two, there is more leeway to adaptation and change. By demoting issues of (mental) habits from precious identity to mere habits, we make them changeable. We are free to see them as seeking comfort, familiarity, as informed by laziness and absence of decision, rather than some holy force of identity, determined for us ans shielded from efforts to improve.


(This chapter is a work in progress.)



6 thoughts on “Unlearning Dysfunctional Thinking Habits

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