Understanding Habit, Habituation and Change

Originally posted on June 22, 2019 @ 4:07 PM


Despite all humans know about technology, space and war we have no idea why or how people change. Whilst we know in hindsight what the tipping point is (Gladwell), we have no idea why people convert from one thing to another. I recently read Sunstein’s book ‘How Change Happens’ and apart from the misleading title, we are none the wiser. Despite the success of their book Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein still don’t know why some nudges work and others don’t. I don’t think Behavioural Economics is going to do much more than point out the bleeding obvious. Hindsight bias is a wonderful teacher.

The reasoning behind ‘nudging’ is to take people to a conversion point. Despite all we know about social influencing from the work of Pratkanis (https://safetyrisk.net/mapping-social-influence-strategies/ (free download), https://www.amazon.com/Science-Social-Influence-Frontiers-Psychology/dp/1138006157) we still don’t know how or why a nudge or context works for change in one person and not in another.

I think part of the reason we know so little about change is because we are locked into mechanistic, behaviourist, scientist and individualistic anthropologies. One think is for sure, change doesn’t just happen in a person’s head, conversion is a highly complex socially-dependent phenomena that extends way beyond common ideas of persuasion, influence and reasoning. However, we do know that when the moment comes and a tipping point happens that there is a leap of faith of some sort whereas previously there was fear, anxiety and distrust.

It was Pierre Bordieu that introduced the idea of the habitus. The habitus is the habits, skills and dispositions of a social world. Peoples, groups and institutions are socialized into a particular habitus (disposition). This occurs through upbringing, training, mimetics (copying) and osmosis. A habitus is much more than a habit, it is the social structure of orientation to the world. We might also call this habitus our worldview.

Sure, our habits, worldview and norms are socially conditioned but why is it that when social conditions change habits don’t? Why is it that the way we interpret the world becomes the self-fulfilling way the world appears to us? And when some thing, belief, value or activity is habituated, why is it so hard to make a shift? One thing is for sure, the simplistic idea that habit/routine is formed purely by reward and punishment such is proposed by Duhigg (The Power of Habit) doesn’t come close to understanding why we do what we do. For a better understanding we perhaps need to venture into some of the work of Higgins (Beyond Pleasure and Pain) and Fuchs (ecology of the brain).

However, just like Sunstein’s ‘nudges’ we do learn in hindsight about critical factors that lead to conversion and change but we still don’t know why some do and don’t work. We do know why some habits become more deeply entrenched and ‘blind’ and why other habituated things change.

In my 3 day workshop on culture we explore the powerful dynamics that create and break habit. This centres around a dynamic that is represented graphically at: Figure 1. Habit Dynamics. Importantly, there is no time factor in this model nor a sequence of flow. One thing is for sure that without some level of cognitive dissonance habits and beliefs are unlikely to be broken. This is problematic of course because humans are avoidant of change, disruption or challenging beliefs.

Figure 1. Habit Dynamics


We do know that the way people are enculturated plays a profound part in the habitus and construction of habit. Critical factors such as: belonging, identity, social meaning, purpose, security, embodiment, resonance, interaffectivity, politics, ethics, interconnectivity, relationships and trust play a vital part. But there too we have generally such a limited definition of culture that we tend to look in the wrong places for understanding. If we are to better understand the dynamics of culture in the shaping of habits then we need to think more of culture as a semiosphere and the collective unconscious. If we keep thinking that behavior in humans is like cogs in a machine, we will have no idea even how to even create some ‘nudges’ at work.

I was watching a documentary on Paul McCartney a few days ago and it is amazing to hear him talk about his song writing. He explains that he has no idea where his music or songs come from, he explains it ‘a mystery’, ‘magic’ and ‘inexplicable’. In the documentary he tries to explain where ‘Yesterday’ came from and the process for its creation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P3UpuGnYKA) but it is made up of sequences and collections of consecutive moments with each moment bring together that song. Anyone of those flukes, moments or circumstances and he probably he would have ended up with a mediocre song ‘Scrambled Eggs’.

This is like trying to understand enculturation, habit and belief, and the shift and change from belief to another belief. Or, the shift and change from one set of values to another set of values.

Twenty five years ago my wife lent my daughter an opal ring that held strong significance and my daughter lost it. Unfortunately, my daughter doesn’t remember where she lost it, so we were limited even in tracing steps to try and find it. We have speculated for years that she dropped it on our patio but to search would mean to rip it all up just to see if had fallen through on the ground below. Because of that cost we have never decided to take the patio option but we did look in many other places thinking it could be there.

Sometimes we get exasperated by the habits and beliefs of others but we go searching in the wrong place to evoke change. We think that if we just present a better or more reasoned argument people will change. Or perhaps, if we create greater penalties and coercion that will invoke change. We don’t give up our worldview (https://safetyrisk.net/can-there-be-other-valid-worldviews-than-safety/ ), the other doesn’t change because they are stupid, cantankerous and oppositional. So, we keep on trying to change things by better programming because the human brain is understood as a computer and, so nothing changes.

Perhaps we are looking for change in the wrong place. Perhaps we need to shake our own worldview first in order to better understand habit.

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