Wish you flossed every night but not able to make it a habit? Blame your habitual mind. According to psychologist Wendy Wood, PhD, of the University of Southern California, we are all of two minds — the habitual mind and the intentional one.
The habitual mind often overrides our best intentions because it’s fueled by potent repetition and cues, said Wood in a session at APA’s 2014 Annual Convention. In other words, we want to floss, but we didn’t last night. Or the night before.
“The thoughtful, intentional mind is easily derailed, easily taken offline,” she said. “And when that happens, people tend to fall back on their habits.”
Our habitual mind is particularly tough to overpower when we are stressed or distracted, or if the right contextual cues are in place, Wood added.
To illustrate this, Wood took a closer look at a contextually cued habit many of us have — eating popcorn at the movies. To see what might prompt people to bag the habit, Wood gave people who were and weren’t habitual movie-popcorn eaters either stale or fresh popcorn during a movie. Turns out, old popcorn couldn’t override people’s habits: Even those who said they hated their stale popcorn still ate most of their box if they were regular movie munchers.
In fact, most habit studies find that our routines often eclipse our best intentions, Wood said. Part of the problem is that efforts to change behavior — such as public service campaigns and weight-loss interventions — tend to target the intentional mind rather than the habitual one. These programs are often successful at increasing people’s motivation and changing their intentions, but aren’t overriding their bad habits, she said. To do that, the next generation of behavior change research should focus on finding ways to derail bad habits and disrupt their cues. That can help people repeat desired behaviors to form new habits and ensure that stable context cues are in place to trigger these new paths, she said.
“These are central principles that need to be included in behavior change programs so that we can … ensure those changes are maintained over time,” she said.
One good example, Wood said, appears in a 2013 study of flossing behaviors in the British Journal of Health Psychology. Researchers encouraged people to floss before or after they brushed their teeth for 28 days. They found that people who flossed after they brushed were still flossing regularly eight months later because their tooth brushing cued the flossing. “You can maintain these behaviors if you repeat them in ways that they can be cued by the context in which you live,” she said.