Why bad habits are hard to break

Habits.  We all develop them.  Good habits can be helpful in our daily lives, while poor habits can result in unintended consequences which may not be known for a long time. This discussion will briefly review how habits can influence risk-taking, as well as the basic neuroscience of habit formation. habitLet’s start with a definition. A habit can be defined as something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way so that it becomes involuntary. Examples of some common habits include brushing your teeth, answering the phone when it rings, stopping at a favorite coffee shop each morning, or washing your hands after using the restroom (although this is not a habit for a surprisingly large proportion of the American population). We also develop habits in the way that we do work.  Most times, these work habits are beneficial, as it frees our mind for activities that require more conscious thought. However, there are situations where a habit can have negative outcomes.  Examples include the long-term habit of smoking or perhaps eating a high calorie dessert after every meal.

Habit – An Influencing Factor on Risk

Terry Mathis and Shawn Galloway (no relation to the author) of ProAct Safety proposed a Four-Part Model of the influences on risk.   They explained that a person is influenced to take a risk depending upon their internal choices (perception or habit) or their external choices (obstacle or barrier). Their model is summarized in the graphic below.

[google-drive-embed url=”https://docs.google.com/drawings/d/1DDYfUxT2FNoKbhYd5_W9rK6FRqmlFCISBhw0XGge23o/preview?h=512″ title=”4-Part Risk Model” icon=”https://ssl.gstatic.com/docs/doclist/images/icon_11_drawing_list.png” width=”100%” height=”400″ style=”embed”]


This post addresses only one of the four influences in this model: the sub-conscious choice of Habit.  If someone is influenced by habit to take a risk, by definition they are performing an action that has been repeated in the same way for such a long period that the behavior has become involuntary.  In essence, a mental template has been created so that a person’s sub-conscious thoughts take over to perform the task.

Let’s consider a poor driving habit.  Imagine that you routinely drive your car in a rural area. Every day you cross an intersection that has a stop sign.  Because you rarely see any cars when approaching this particular intersection, you develop the habit of slowing down (but not coming to a complete stop) and simply glancing both ways before proceeding. Law enforcement officials refer to this behavior as a “rolling stop.”  Over time, your car enters the intersection before you even look for opposing traffic. Eventually, the confluence of this poor driving habit and another vehicle will result in a collision.

If we have developed a good (safe) habit, a “mental template” serves us well.  But what happens if we have inadvertently developed a habit that carries a hidden risk?  Or what if the circumstances change such that our low-risk habit now has a higher risk profile?  In either case, changing a habit can be very challenging and frustrating.

Permanent Memory of Habits

Some recent research helps us to better understand what happens in our brains when habits are formed – and why existing habits are so hard to change.  Graybiel and Smith recently published research in Scientific American that identified specific brain circuits that are activated when habits are formed.  Here are some of their key findings.

  • The authors confirmed that within the brain, habits become laid down and marked as standardized “chunks” of neural activity.  A specific area of the brain (the neocortex) is actually controlling these chunks of activity, even though we are performing these habits seemingly within our subconscious.
  • Most people are familiar with Russian scientist Pavlov’s work with dogs many years ago, where he could condition the animals to salivate at the sound of a bell – because this sound was associated with food.  Pavlov concluded that animals never forget deeply conditioned behaviors such as habits.  The most they can do is suppress them.  The experiments by Graybiel and Smith supported this conclusion.
  • They propose that a trigger or cue is critically important to any conditioning that you want to develop.  This is consistent with the Fogg Behavioral Model, which was discussed in a previous post.

Practical Implications

Because habits are one source of influence on risk, it is important to recognize the difficulty in modifying behaviors that have been repeated long enough to be imprinted in our brain.  It simply is not realistic to tell someone (or ourselves) to stop doing this….and start doing that.  We need to have a systematic and thorough approach to enabling a new habit, because the previous habit never goes away from our memory.  It is a latent circuit just waiting to be activated under the right circumstances.  Breaking the new desired habit into small pieces is one successful strategy for developing more complex habits.

The next time you are trying to determine the primary influence on someone taking a risk, use the Four-Part Model as a simple diagnostic tool.  If a habit is identified as the primary influence on risk-taking, accept the reality that it will take more than a casual effort to replace this behavior with a more desirable one.  Develop a plan for constant reminders and cues (along with ability and motivation) that will enable a new habit to take root.  To enable this effort, the Fogg Behavioral Model is a good place to start.


“Good Habits, Bad Habits”  Scientific American.  June, 2014.  pp 39 – 43.  Ann M. Graybiel and Kyle S. Smith.

“Understanding Influences on Risk: A Four-Part Model”  EHS Today.  February, 2010. Terry L. Mathis and Shawn M. Galloway.

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/dYaRkM (Petras Gagilas)Pet

About David Galloway

Dave Galloway is Founder and Principal of Continuous MILE Consulting, LLC. He blogs about leadership, continuous improvement, safety, and innovation. Dave enjoys coaching others to higher levels of performance.

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