Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Importance of Habit

The biggest theoretical threat to psychoanalysis is the idea of habit. Wave it at a true believing psychoanalyst and he will rush out to find the garlic. He will act like he had seen a witch.

Classical therapy is based on a single theoretical assumption. Your misery, your anguish, your symptoms, and your errors are meaningful expressions of an unresolved mental conflict.

Your troubled mind is expressing itself in your bad behavior and negative emotions. Your mind is the author of your mental illness.

It may be your conscious mind; it may be your unconscious mind. Either way, the path to cure lies in resolving your mental conflict. Only then, therapists have promised, will your mind be relieved of the necessity to use your life or your emotions to express its issues.

Obviously, the alternative says that symptoms are not meaningful. They are simply bad habits.

Jonah Lehrer quotes the eminent pragmatist William James: “Ninety-nine hundredths of our activity is purely automatic…. All of our life is nothing but a mass of habits."

Habits are learned behavior. Repeated over and over again they take on a life of their own. They become automatic. 

If habits are learned behavior, they can also be unlearned. After all, cognitive and behavioral therapies have long assumed that mental suffering is largely caused by bad habits and that these habits can be unlearned.

Aaron Beck founded cognitive therapy when he saw that a great deal of depression was a bad mental habit. The person who falls into the habit of excoriating himself with self-deprecating judgments, regardless of their truth or falsity, will become depressed.

Beck didn’t ask why you had gotten depressed, or what the self-deprecating judgment was saying about you. The fact that everyone’s negative self-judgments were about the same—I never get anything right; I always fail; I am useless and worthless—suggested strongly that they were not expressing anything very personal about the individual. The thoughts were simply bad habits.

The concept of habit comes to us from Aristotle. The philosopher saw that you needed to do more than unlearn a bad habit. To overcome a bad habit, he wrote, you need to replace it with a good one.

By this theory cognitive and behavioral theories are only successful if they teach people how to develop good habits, like good social skills and the qualities that make for good character.

Aristotle would want you to make a habit of being kind and generous and respectful toward other people.

In his philosophy people should not be judged by their singular performances, their spontaneous actions, but by their habits. Do they consistently act virtuously or is their good character something they put on from time to time for show.

Does this mean that the good life is a life of mindless routines? And why would it not be a mindful routine?

Much of what we do we do automatically. You might say that flossing your teeth is a mindless routine, but certainly it is the right thing to do. You might and should want to get to the point where you act courteously as a matter of course. But that does not make it a soulless exercise.

You might even have to think about what would be courteous in this or that situation, but your goal should be to act courteously and to think about it later.

For example, a soldier is trained to act courageously. He arrives at the point where he will act courageously without considering the alternative. Does that make his consistent acts of courage a mindless routine?

Charles Duhigg, author of an excellent new book called The Power of Habit, explained some of the recent research:

Take backing your car out of the driveway. When you first learned to drive, that act required a major dose of concentration, and for good reason: it involves peering into the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned, calculating how images in the mirrors translate into actual distances, all while applying differing amounts of pressure to the gas pedal and brake.

Now, you perform that series of actions every time you pull into the street without thinking very much. Your brain has chunked large parts of it. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit, because habits allow our minds to conserve effort. But conserving mental energy is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, like a child riding her bike down the sidewalk or a speeding car coming down the street. So we’ve devised a clever system to determine when to let a habit take over. It’s something that happens whenever a chunk of behavior starts or ends — and it helps to explain why habits are so difficult to change once they’re formed, despite our best intentions.

If the driver follows the habit mindlessly, he might miss a child riding her bike. But if he follows the habit mindfully, alert and attentive to what he is doing, he will also be able to stop the routine, if necessary.

Duhigg also provides a compelling picture of how he overcame a bad habit. It feels innocuous, but his habit of stopping work every day at 3:30 to go to the company cafeteria to get a chocolate chip cookie was expanding his waistline.

To replace the bad habit he needed to find out what there was about the cookie run that had made it a habit. Then he needed to substitute another, good habit.

Here Duhigg did not introspect. He tried out different behaviors to test the alternative hypotheses about why he felt a 3:30 urge for cookies:

So one day, when I felt a cookie impulse, I went outside and took a walk instead. The next day, I went to the cafeteria and bought a coffee. The next, I bought an apple and ate it while chatting with friends. You get the idea. I wanted to test different theories regarding what reward I was really craving. Was it hunger? (In which case the apple should have worked.) Was it the desire for a quick burst of energy? (If so, the coffee should suffice.) Or, as turned out to be the answer, was it that after several hours spent focused on work, I wanted to socialize, to make sure I was up to speed on office gossip, and the cookie was just a convenient excuse? When I walked to a colleague’s desk and chatted for a few minutes, it turned out, my cookie urge was gone.

The truth was, he wanted to socialize. So he developed a new, good habit to satisfy the more important urge.

So now, every day around 3:30, I stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, then go back to my desk. The cue and reward have stayed the same. Only the routine has shifted. It doesn’t feel like a decision, any more than the M.I.T. rats made a decision to run through the maze. It’s now a habit. I’ve lost 21 pounds since then (12 of them from changing my cookie ritual).

You can see why the therapy culture would be horrified at this approach: it’s fast, it’s effective, and it’s free.


David Foster said...

Seems like the concept of asking why five times may be relevant here.

Anonymous said...

Thank you . This little essay is very much on point. It reminds me of one of Voltaire's better quotes:

Life is thickly sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them. The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Anon, for a great Voltaire quote. Why do so many therapists want people to dwell on their misfortunes.

Father Marker said...

@Stuart A cynic like myself would imagine that by getting clients to dwell on their misfortune that they get to keep them longer and make more money out of them.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

A cynic or a realist?