A new study suggests that habits can influence our behavior in surprising ways. In this Verywell Mind article, Taish Malone, PhD, LPC, discusses the link and how it affects our emotional states.

Habits Influence Our Behavior More Than We Realize, Study Reveals

It’s often said that humans are creatures of habit. We develop routines and repeat behaviors whether they’re healthy for us or not. While they can help us get through the day, habits can also be destructive, and once they’re formed, they’re incredibly difficult to break.

If habits are that powerful, how much influence can they have on the way we act? New research suggests that too often we underestimate the role habit plays in our behavior.

The research

Research on behavior characterizes a habit as something that’s efficient, unintentional, uncontrollable, and that you’re not fully aware that you’re doing. And the amount of time it takes to form a habit is something that’s heavily debated—some research states a habit is formed in four weeks, while others argue it can take much longer.

A new study focuses on the effects of inner states, such as mood, on behavior by assessing participants’ attributions for that behavior. Researchers conducted two studies to better understand the concept. In one study, participants were asked to recall a happy, sad, or neutral event before completing a simple, unrelated task that trained them in either a strong or weak habit of pressing certain computer keys.

In a second study, researchers invited participants to track their coffee-drinking habits over a 5-day period. Participants were asked to report on fatigue levels and the strength of their coffee-drinking habit, and the results showed that participants “miscalibrated these behavioral influences” by attributing their coffee-drinking to fatigue over habit even though their reported fatigue levels largely stayed the same.

In both studies, participants underemphasized habits and overvalued inner states like mood and fatigue. Clinical psychologist, Debra Kawahara, PhD, notes that past research has found that people tend to believe their emotions and mood play a bigger role in their behavior than the habits they’ve formed over time.

Because habits are so second-nature, it’s likely you don’t even recognize some of the habitual actions that make up your day. They become a large part of who we are over time.

How we form new habits

Taish Malone, PhD, LPC, says emotions, patterns, and memories contribute to the underpinnings of habit. A strong connection is forged when we experience a reward or favorable result each time we perform an action, and the emotions felt regarding that reward are stored as memories.

“Even when the action doesn’t bring about the reward it once did, your memory of the experience pattern suggests that it is still likely that this reward will happen,” Malone says. “Your memory and your feelings are invested in practicing the habit all the same in hopes of once again being rewarded, so now we have a more ingrained pattern.”

So, it’s obvious that in order to form a new habit, introducing a reward system will make the process easier.

She suggests first identifying a reward, goal, or incentive, then consistently practicing behavior that will result in that incentive.

“We can either be influenced by favorable actions and follow the sequence to naturally develop positive habits or can use the properties of neuroplasticity to intentionally rewire one’s brain to create desired results,” Malone says.

“Rewiring one’s brain” may sound like serious business, but humans are highly adaptive creatures. Whether you’re trying to start a healthy habit or break an unhealthy one, rewarding yourself is encouraged.

Read the full Verywell Mind article with sources.

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