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Habits May Not Always Be That Habitual

Whether you want to form a healthy habit or break a bad one, it’s generally thought that the process takes somewhere between 21 days and two months. That’s because it takes time for your brain to synthesize the behavioral change into something more automated.

But it’s that very presumption that led doctoral student Eric Garr (Brooklyn College, The Graduate Center, CUNY) and Professor Andrew Delamater (Brooklyn College) to question the underlying brain mechanisms involved in habit formation. Do habits always lead to an “autopilot type of behavior” or do people remain “goal-oriented” about their behavior? They published their study in the journal Learning & Memory.

Garr and Delamater trained two groups of rats in a specific task that involved pressing a series of increasingly complicated levers. The first group only received a moderate amount of training, while the second group was essentially over-trained. They predicted that the over-trained group’s behavior “would become habitual,” Garr said. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the rats “were reliably goal-directed.” In other words, their behavior didn’t become habitual because they appeared to retain a sense of awareness. 

The difference is an important one. “It’s been thought that automatic motor routine is the same thing as a habit, and we’re showing that that’s not the case,” Garr said. “The underlying brain mechanisms may not overlap. “

Their study opens the door for further research into habits and automated behavior by complicating the correlation between the two. Assuming “that automaticity leads to habit formation is overly simplistic,” the authors wrote. In other words, according to Garr: “Just because you develop this high level of automaticity with some tasks — whether it’s brushing your teeth or tying your shoes — it does not necessarily mean that you’re habitual in the sense that you’re on autopilot.” 

Beyond SUM

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Andrew Delamater (Professor, Psychology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2
Eric Garr (Ph.D. student, Neurobiology) | Profile 1