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Neuro of Habits

For this week’s installment of our neuropsych series, we decided to revisit a favorite topic – habits.

My Take

Habits are an incredibly useful tool in our behavior toolbox. What sets them apart is that they can be triggered and completed with very little conscious attention and mental workload. They are a great match for behaviors that are consistent, conditions that are predictable, and when we would prefer to be focusing the user’s attention on something or somewhere else.

The negative of course is the flip side. When something becomes a habit, the user is not going to be particularly mindful when doing it. I was going to say “engaged” with it, but there isn’t really much engagement there. This is why we eat the proverbial (or the real) whole bag of chips before we realize it. One handful after the other.

So it attracted my interest to see this article describing some new findings on the neuroscience of habits. If we can find better ways to control habit formation, performance, and extinction, imagine how easy our New Year’s Resolutions will become!!

Taming that sweet tooth for your New Year’s resolution might be harder than you think. New research suggests that forming a habit leaves a lasting mark on specific circuits in the brain, which in turn seems to prime us to further feed our cravings. The research deepens scientists’ understanding of how habits manifest and may suggest new strategies for breaking the bad ones.

Here is the skinny. It turns out that out basal ganglia, the neurons that control motor actions, have both GO paths and STOP paths. One kind activates when we start and perform the habitual behavior and the other activates when we stop. The trick is in the balance between them.

As we learn a new habit, both pathways get stronger. After all, each time we perform the habit we have to start and then we have to stop. But the ratio of that strengthening is key. Stronger habits develop when the GO pathway develops faster than the STOP pathway.

And there are individual differences in play. People who have traits coded for habit formation develop really strong GO pathways and relatively weaker STOP pathways.

There are also generalizable effects. When you develop one habit, it strengthens a generalized GO pathway that makes it easier to develop another habit later.

What does this have to do with human factors? A few things I can think of. If you think about the Procedures post last week we talked about finding deterministic workflows and creating formal procedures to ingrain them in the user’s mind. These are perfect candidates for habit formation. But it also tells us that having habits for some tasks makes it easier to create habits for other tasks. Even if we don’t want to. It might be a good strategy to group deterministic, proceduralized behaviors together into one job description and group the others into a different job description.

We might also want to think about trait habit formation as a job assignment tool. Find employees who have this trait and assign them to the highly proceduralized, habitual jobs and vice versa.

We might soon be able to test people for the strength of a habit as well. Put them into an fMRI machine and map out their basal ganglia activation when performing the habitual behavior. The strong the activation, the stronger we know the habit is. This could (in theory at least) help us develop interventions to break habits by redirecting the behavior into something else that is related. Kind of like smokers use gum chewing.

Your Turn

Can you think of other applications or interventions? Are you a prisoner of your habits and found a way around them?

Image Credit: PeterFranz

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