New research carried out by a team of Warwick, Princeton, and Brown University researchers has shown that forming habits depends on how often you do something, not how much you enjoy it. The study, published in the Psychological Review, has shown that building new habits could be as simple as repeating activities until they stick.
The team of researchers built a mathematical model looking at how habits are learned by developing a computer simulation that used digital rodents. The rodents were given a choice of two levers, one of which was associated with gaining a reward. This was the ‘right’ lever, while the lever without a reward was the ‘wrong’ one. Researchers alternated the reward across the two levers and trained the simulated rodents to choose the reward lever each time.
The team of researchers built a mathematical model looking at how habits are learned by developing a computer simulation that used digital rodents
When trained for a short period of time, the rodents were able to keep choosing the reward lever, even when the chance of gaining the reward was swapped. But when the rodents were trained for longer periods of time on one particular lever, they carried on repeating this action – choosing the same lever each time, even when it no longer carried the reward.
Dr Shenhav of Brown University commented that: “Psychologists have been trying to understand what drives our habits for over a century, and one of the recurring questions is how much habits are a product of what we want versus what we do.” This new work shows that forming a habit could be as simple as doing something over and over again, irrespective of whether we actually want to do it or not.
But when the rodents were trained for longer periods of time on one particular lever, they carried on repeating this action – choosing the same lever each time, even when it no longer carried the reward
Similar experiments will need to be conducted in real-world situations with human behaviour to assess how useful this work could be, but it is thought that this research could help develop greater understanding of conditions characterised by repeated behaviours, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tic Disorder. If you’re trying to get fit and healthy in 2019, the trick could be to keep going to the gym and eating those greens until it’s just a part of your routine – even if you’re not that keen in the short term.