6 responses to “Creatures of Habit -David Neal on Autonomy

  1. This lecture segues nicely from our prior discussion of practice as habit, while also adding nuance to the intentionality construct. Neal reiterates the idea that most habits begin as discrete behavior components that are chunked into goal-oriented sequences and subsequently compiled through repetition into unconscious routines, with brain activation shifting from the frontal cortex to the basal ganglia. “The majority of our habits are blindly in the service of our goals, because they reflect the residue of past goal pursuit, they originate in goal pursuit.”

    Neal cites observational studies showing that, on average, 45% of what people do they do daily and in the same environment; i.e., it’s habitual. He also notes that, while people tend to emphasize their bad habits, most habits are “good” in that they generate positive regulative outcomes.

    “Active self-control is not all it’s cracked up to be.” Conscious intentional goal-directedness is a limited resource, and so it can be depleted and overtaxed. It’s also not very effective in overriding habit. Does intent to do something predict actually doing it? That depends, says Neal. He cites meta-analyses showing that, for non-habitual behaviors that are not performed frequently, intention is a strong predictor of doing the behavior in the future. For behaviors done frequently and in the same environment — habits — the predictive power of intention is nearly zero. Very similar findings occur when evaluating the effectiveness of behavior change intentions predicated on forming solid intentions: it works in triggering or suppressing infrequent behaviors, but not for frequent behaviors. Neal concludes that, on frequently performed behaviors, habit yields positive regulatory outcomes more reliably than does deliberate, self-controlled, goal-directed intentional behavior.

    “Habit formation involves a binding of environment and behavior such that goals have little influence.” He describes the results of a study in which subjects who strongly associate movie viewing with popcorn eating will eat just as much old stale popcorn as fresh popcorn, even though they report that the stale popcorn tasted bad. The implication: it might be easier to modify habits not by exerting willpower but by modifying or vacating the environment in which the habit typically manifests itself. This I think is an insight shared by many programs that seek to extinguish addictive behaviors.

    • yes good and I think fits in with some of the posts hereabouts that I have put up on environmental(not nature conservation) psychology, the question it raises for me is what kinds of habits can we cultivate when we have created such disruptive/toxic environs that are beyond both our abilities to change and to avoid?

    • Tweets? Not me — I got no Twitter. But if, say, the habits of learned helplessness are compiled in and behaviorally bound to a pervasively hostile economic environment, and if it’s pretty much impossible to alter that larger environment, and if the intent to change and setting goals and so on are pretty ineffective in changing habit, then what’s left? Establishing some alternative economic heterotopic microclimate perhaps, where the old habits aren’t automatically activated and where different behavioral sequences might take shape, compiling themselves into an alternate set of habits.

      • yes sorry, mixed signals and migraine, had you con-fused with ArrJames for a second hopefully the comments are more aligned now, “Establishing some alternative economic heterotopic microclimate perhaps”, Michael made such a suggestion in the comments of my last post on the tragic scenes of Ukraine flaming out and I get the logic of it but not sure if there is anywhere left to go and even then the knowledge/memories/attachments will come with us, need something like buddhistish non-attachment without denying that things matter, that or I hear they are cranking up some prescription painkillers for legal sale (yes I know they don’t really work for chronic pains)…

  2. “even then the knowledge/memories/attachments will come with us”

    It might be okay if those survived the transition as long as the habits didn’t. I knew guys who were regular heroin users in Vietnam but who never touched the stuff when they got back home, with no withdrawal either. But they did carry back with them all sorts of other wartime habits — paranoia, hypervigilance, anhedonia, etc. — that weren’t nearly as adaptive stateside.

    • that’s the thing the habits are active/constitutive parts of us, even if I could escape this crumbling, racist, madteapartying-town, to someplace lovely and more humane I would still care about, still be shaped by, attached to, the ever unfolding horrors whether I sought out new info about them or not, short of technical intervention/invention there are real limits to ‘plasticity’.

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