HABIT

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A long-standing pattern oflearned behavior; often contrasted with a specific way. See SET. set, which is a temporary or recently Habit is one of the most pervasivof all aspects of behavior. We develop habitual ways of thinking, feeling, talking, walking, and perceiving. All our characteristic attitudes, reactions, verbal patterns, gestures, facial expressions, and mannerisms fall into this category. Our mental patterns help us to organize our experience, and our motor patterns enable us to act swiftly and automatically. Habit therefore has the positive value of providing a structure that enables us to cope with reality as it usually presents itself. On the other hand, it may have distinct disadvantages. The tendency to fall back on habitual ways of acting and reacting may blind us to the novel and unique, lull us into sameness, prevent us from adapting to change, and betray us into giving old solutions to new problems.Habits tend to operate on an unconscious, automatic level. We are usually unaware that we are acquiring them and equally unaware that we are using them. The golfer can rarely tell what started him to slice, and may fail to realize that he is twisting his club as he swings. The speaker who says “as it were” in every other sentence has no idea he does so until his wife points it out. Some of the most striking examples of the automatic in behavior are found in the psychology of perception. The cues we employ in seeing distance—perspective, color, and brightness differences—are so automatic that we do not realize we are using them. The same goes for perceptual constancy, the fact that we see a six-foot man as a six-footer even when the image on our retina is that of a four-footer. The photograph on Plate 20 is a particularly vivid example of habitual perception. We see it as a crater because we are used to certain patterns of light and shadow. If the book is turned upside down, these patterns will change and the crater will look quite different.How rigid are our perceptual habits? To answer this question, Stratton (1897)performed a classic experiment in which he had subjects wear special lenses which reversed the visual field, both left and right and above and below. Surprisingly, it took only a few days for the subjects to change their deeply ingrained habits and get used to seeing down as up, and to reaching toward the left for things that appeared on the right. In 1940 another experimenter, Foley, not only distorted the visual field of an adult monkey in these two ways, but made him see near as far and far as near. Within eight days the monkey was reaching, climbing, and walking practically as well as ever. It took him three days to readjust to the normal perceptual field when the lenses were removed. A similar experiment was performed by Willey et al. (1937), with hearing, using an apparatus called a pseudophone. He had human subjects wear earphones that delivered sounds from the right side to the left ear and vice versa. This produced confusion at first, but again the subjects soon learned to adapt to the new conditions.These experiments indicate that some of our most basic habits can be altered—a good thing to remember when we are called upon to adjust to new circumstances. The recruit may never come to like army food, but at least he gets accustomed to it. The student who uses a microscope for the first time is sure he will never see anything more than a blur, but within a week or so he begins to establish different habits of perception that open up a whole new world of understanding. The same thing happens with the medical student as he gradually learns what to listen for when he uses a stethoscope.Clinical studies have amply demonstrated the effect of early habit training on the child’s personality development. Disturbances in childhood and later can often be traced to the period when the child formed behavior patterns associated with sleeping, weaning,speech, and elimination. It is now generally agreed that the attitudes of the parents and the atmosphere of the home are as important as how or when the habit training occurs. Encouragement, approval, and trust not only make it easier for the child to acquire good physical habits, but are instrumental in the establishment of healthy emotional patterns as well. On the other hand, pressure and reproof can generate feelings of anxiety or resentment which corrode his relationships to himself and other people. Though both the healthy and unhealthy patterns tend to be lasting, it is important to recognize that the neurotic tendencies have a peculiar kind of persistence. This is illustrated by the fact that when an individual develops anxiety reactions in his adult life, he tends to revert to earlier habits which have laid a basis for this reaction. As a result, a vicious cycle may set in. Some of the newer behavior therapies, such as Wolpe’s technique, are directed toward breaking these habits and forming new ones. See BEHAVIOR THERAPY, REPETI- TION-COMPULSION.Some investigators view the learning process in terms of habit formation, since it establishes a connection between a stimulus and a response which did not exist before. Verbal habits are a particularly clear example: we learn to associate an instrument that contains ink with the response “pen.” The theory holds that all other activities that involve habit formation, such as the ability to ride a bicycle or the acquisition of emotional reactions and attitudes may also be interpreted in terms of learning appropriate responses to simple or complex stimuli. Opponents of this view argue that it makes learning a mechanical procedure and ignores the role of the cognitive processes. The “cognitive” camp tries to show that new, unpredictable insights can be gained from a knowledge of principles, while the “habit” or “as-sociationist” camp argues that all learning and knowledge can be explained from the single principle of establishing stimulus-response links through either classical or operant conditioning. SeeCONDITIONING, ASSOCIATIONISM, STIMULUS-RESPONSE ASSOCIATION, STIMULUS- STIMULUS ASSOCIATION. The study of habit raises three other important questions. How many repetitions are necessary to implant a habit? Once it is acquired, is a habit ever completely lost? What is the best way to break a habit?There is no single answer to the first question, but two important discoveries have been made. First, each repetition of an act tends to increase habit strength somewhat, but the returns tend to diminish. This means that we learn most rapidly at the very outset, and should therefore be particularly careful to start out on the right foot. In sports, for example, it is advisable to obtain instruction from an expert so that we can begin to form the correct habits at once. This also prevents us from acquiring habits that will have to be replaced later on, when it is extremely hard to change. Second, there is evidence that certain habits can be formed on the basis of single experiences, without any repetition at all. This seems to be especially the case where the emotions are involved, as in traumatic experiences. It probably does not apply to complex motor tasks, although some parts of them, likethe habit of resting one’s foot on the clutch while driving a car, may be developed during the first trial. SeeTRAUMA.The question of the permanence of habits has long been debated. Many psychologists today feel that habits are never completely lost, though they may be overlaid by more recent or stronger habits. There appears to be evidence for this theory in the ease with which we return to old motor habits such as touch typing after an interval ofmany years—also in the revival of extremely early patterns of behavior in senile patients or in individuals subjected to hypnotic regression. The question can only be argued but not settled at this moment. The study of the mechanism of memory may eventually shed some light on it. See MEMORY STORAGE.Habit-breaking is another question to which no single answer can be given. The following are some of the techniques most commonly discussed by psychologists. First, incompatible-re- sponse: supplanting the habit with a new behavior pattern that is antagonistic to it. This method is a form of extinction through “counterconditioning”—that is, eliminating the original response by replacing it with anew one. An example is the smoker who gets in the habit of chewing amint when he feels the desire to smoke. (Sometimes he ends up by smoking and chewing at the same time!) Inapplying this method as well as others, it is important to follow two maxims first proposed by William James in1890: “We must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible,” and “Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life.”The second technique is exhaustion: forcing the individual to repeat the undesirable behavior until the habit is fatigued. For example, a boy caught smoking might be forced to continue smoking until he becomes, literally, sick of it. When this happens, the desire to smoke will come to elicit a new response, nausea, and this discourages the boy from practicing the habit. A similar technique has been applied to nail-biting. The exhaustion method is closely related to “deterrent therapies,” such as the use of Antabuse or hypnotic suggestion in the treatment of alcoholic addiction. Like most habit-breaking techniques, these methods are forms of behavior therapy and do not attempt to alter the motivation that produced the pattern in the first place. See HYPNOTHERAPY, ANTABUSE THERAPY, BEHAVIOR THERAPY.A third method is toleration: introducing stimuli that arouse an undesirable habit or reaction in small doses, so that more acceptable responses can be gradually established. As an example, the child who fears grown dogs may react positively to a puppy, and as he and the dog mature, these positive reactions will continue and eventually replace the fear. Similarly a shy person can sometimes overcome his timidity through pleasant social experiences with one or two people, and then gradually widen his acquaintance. In experiments performed on animals, Kimble and Kendall (1953) found that the toleration method was superior to the exhaustion method. It is also likely to be more humane.A fourth technique is change of environment: getting away from the stimuli or situations that produced the bad habit. This is not always feasible—for example, it is hard to get away from smokers entirely, and most people would not abandon their old friends simply because they smoke. A change of scene usually brings only temporary results, though it might sometimes work if at the same time the individual finds new satisfactions to replace those provided by the original habit. This is again a form of counterconditioning. The Alcoholics Anonymous approach is a good example. An important part of the process is to provide new recreational activities and new friends to make it unnecessary for alcoholics to seek the company of other alcoholics or the companionship of the bottle. See ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS.Fifth, punishment is often used as a method of breaking habits, but it is probably the least effective of all the techniques. At best it merely suppresses the undesirable habit temporarily, and usually only in the presence of the punisher. It does not in itself encourage more desirable behavior and therefore tends to be purely negative. Moreover, it may even strengthen the bad habit, since the punished person may cling to it as a form of retaliation. For habit disturbances, see ENURESIS, NAILBITING, MASTURBATION, TEMPER TANTRUM, THUMBSUCKING, TRANSIENT SITUATIONAL PERSONALITY DISORDERS.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "HABIT," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/habit/ (accessed December 4, 2021).

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