This week, I started my initial research into my inquiry project on the science behind habits. Currently, my background information on this topic is quite limited, so my research will be addressing my broad questions first. To start my research, I accessed several databases, including those in the UVic library. However, many of the sources I found in the UVic library were focused on very specific topics within habit development; which was unsuitable for me to read at this stage. Eventually I settled on an article from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia that gave me a general overview on habit formation.

What I researched: Habit Formation and Behavior Change by Benjamin Gardner and Amanda L. Rebar. This article is from a verified academic website which accurately cites its sources throughout the paper. From these indications, I am confident that this article contains reliable information from an authentic source.

Summary of the resource

In everyday discourse, a habit is defined as an action that is done frequently and repetitively. However, through a psychological lens, habit formation is described as a process where the “exposure to a cue automatically triggers a non-conscious impulse to act due to the activation of a learned association between the cue and the action.” In other words, when you repeat an action when you are regularly exposed to a certain cue, your brain strengthens these cue-behavior associations, making your response habitual and the associated behavior to be performed automatically without any conscious oversight. For example: automatically putting on a seat belt (action) after getting into the car (contextual cue). Habits are cognitively efficient, because the automation of common actions frees mental resources for other tasks.

The article also stresses the difference between a habit and habitual behavior. A habit is a process that generates behavior.

The habit formation process is represented by a period of transition – behavior regulation starts off as a a deliberate, reflective processing system which then changes into an impulsive system where action is generated rapidly based on the activation of contextual information (the cue association).  Habit formation occurs in three steps:

  • Initiation phase: this phase marks the beginning attempts of a habit where the new behavior and context in which it will be done is selected. The context can be any cue, for example, an event (“when I wake up”),  or a time of day (“after lunch”) that occurs frequently in daily life.
  • Learning phase: during this phase, the behavior is repeated in the chosen context to strengthen the context-behavior association. The initial repetitions of the action have the greatest impact on habit development. This means that this is the period where people likely need the most support in sustaining motivation before the action becomes automatic.
  • Stability phase: the phase in which the habit has formed and its strength has plateaued, meaning it persists over time with little effort or consideration.

My reflection on the source

I found this resource to be extremely informational – I was able to deepen my understanding of habit formation and the different phases in which this development takes place. However, I thought this article was a bit tough to read. Although formal writing conventions are expected from scholarly sources, this article contained a great deal of medical and scientific jargon which forced me to pause and look up the meaning for these phrases while reading.

For next week, I will find another source that explores the reward system in the brain in relation to habit formation – I am hoping to watch a TedTalk or informative video about the topic. Following this, I will create a progress plan about a habit that I will to change for myself.