Once habits are really formed, they are not easy to change, good or bad. It can be said that our daily life is made up of many habits, big or small. In fact, not only are bad habits hard to stop, but good habits are also hard to change. For example, people who are accustomed to running every day have a slight discomfort if they don’t run a day and feel ill if they don’t run for three days. But for ordinary people, although they know that running is beneficial, they do not want to run because it is too painful to run. It is the habit not to run that makes them more comfortable. Why? Why do people have bad habits? This should start with the causes and formation process of habits.
All habits, good or bad, are justified. Good habits and bad habits can satisfy your desire, which benefits the brain. The difference is that good habits can provide long-term or short-term benefits and are generally harmless; < b > while bad habits can only satisfy immediate impulse / short-term benefits, but they are harmful in the long run.
According to James Clear (2018), the nutrients of habits are four steps: cue, craving, response and reward. For ease of understanding, let’s separate these four steps.
Step one, hint. It’s usually something that enables the brain to produce the desired information about rewards, which can trigger the brain to direct you to take action. For prehistoric humans, the most noticeable cues are usually associated with primitive needs, including water, food and sex. For modern people, more attention has been focused on tips related to higher-level needs, such as fame and wealth, power, appreciation, love and friendship, or a sense of self-realization. Of course, meeting these needs will also improve people’s survival and reproduction opportunities. After all, survival and reproduction are the deepest motives behind all human actions. The brain is constantly analysing the internal and external environment, not letting go of every hint about rewards. Once prompted, the brain sees signs of reward and craves.
The second step is desire. It is the driving force for all habits. Without the desire for change, people have no motive for action. But what we yearn for is not habit itself, but the liberation that habit can bring, that is, a sense of comfort. For example, people who are used to smoking are not actually eager for cigarettes, but for the pleasure of stimulating nerves by nicotine when smoking, so nicotine patches can be used instead of smoking. For example, a person who brushes his teeth before going to bed is not motivated by brushing his teeth, but by feeling refreshed and healthy in his mouth. Before the exam, you don’t want to open a Wechat circle of friends. Instead, you want to have fun connecting with others and the spiritual world in order to temporarily get rid of anxiety. It can be said that any human desire points to an inherent desire for change.
Moreover, different individuals have different desires. In theory, as long as there are reward cues, the desire of the brain will be stimulated, but in fact, the same cue can stimulate action in different people. For a heavy gambler, the sound of a casino slot machine is charming, and he wants to bet on it. For a few gamblers, it’s just noise in a noisy casino. This is because cues can only trigger desire when they are given meaning by the brain’s interpretation process, which involves thoughts, feelings and emotions.
The third step is reaction. In fact, this step is our usual habit, it can be behavior, it can also be thought. And it can be either action or inaction, depending on the intensity of motivation and the amount of effort required. If you choose a response that takes far more effort (mental, physical, and risk-taking) than you would like to give, you are unlikely to react that way. Moreover, the response depends on the size of the ability. For example, people who never exercise want to be thinner. The reaction should be aerobic exercise such as long distance running, but at the beginning they can’t keep up with their physical fitness. This reaction is probably not going to work. A well-trained runner is physically fit, and 40 minutes of jogging is effortless for him. When the brain craves the pleasure of dopamine secretion after running, his response is naturally action – to run. In other words, can become your habit only if the brain considers it within its power. This explains why it’s difficult for people who didn’t like sports before to develop their fitness habits. Fitness requires effort and physical fitness. People who didn’t exercise before can’t meet the requirements immediately unless they have a strong motivation for fitness, so the body will honestly choose to be unfit. Habits make the body keep its matching abilities and make them comfortable areas of abilities, so changing long-term habits usually requires a lot of physical or mental effort, especially the consumption of willpower, so the brain tends to remain unchanged, and bad habits are no exception . When the brain thinks that its ability is not up to or objective conditions are not allowed, that is, there will be no reward, the response is no action, which is often said to be “acquisitive helplessness”.
In the fourth step, the reward was achieved for the response. Reward is the ultimate goal of all habits. From the first step, everything points to reward: the hint is that attention catches reward, the desire is for reward, and the reaction is to get reward. There are two reasons for pursuing rewards: 1) satisfying needs and 2) gaining experience.
The first function of reward is to satisfy your desire. As I said before, it represents some kind of benefit – Food and water can sustain life, promotion will bring more income and higher status, fitness makes you healthier and more attractive to the opposite sex, and so on. But compared with the benefits of long-term effort, the brain is always more anxious for faster gratification, that is, shorter-term, immediate benefits, such as being hungry after exercising and trying to relieve the hunger when it smells the fragrance of the downstairs kebabs.
The second function of rewards is to teach you which behaviors can benefit, which are worth remembering and reinforcing in the future, and even repeat automatically. The brain acts like a reward detector, and the nervous system responsible for sensory functions constantly monitors behaviors that satisfy needs or bring pleasure. Happiness vs. disappointment teaches the brain to distinguish between usefulness and uselessness, respectively. Winning a reward can motivate the brain to pay more attention to similar cues and generate desires to guide action. Habits are acquired, not instincts, but under the reward mechanism, strengthened habits can become thoughtless automated behavior, just like instincts.
If one of the four steps is missing before and after the action, it will not become a habit. The formation of bad habits must satisfy the above four steps, so it is difficult to change. Habit is not instinct. But because many bad habits are based on the brain’s “reward” mechanism, it is often mistaken for instinct.