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The Science of Habit Formation

The Science of Habit Formation

Everyone knows that going on "autopilot" is very normal and part of being human.

Although it is enticing to believe that people can always think consciously about what they do, it is not possible. The reason is that going on "autopilot" is part of our underlying evolutionary biology.

In ancestral times when resources were a lot scarcer, we did many things in "autopilot" to save energy. It is a lower energy operating mode for the brain. This ability helped us survive and was passed on to our descendants. As such, we inherited a brain that deals reasonably well with pedestrian pace and limited hazardous energy. The problem is that modern life has become much faster with a lot of hazardous energy.

Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habits, deals with this. He defines habits as:

"the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day "

He introduces the concept of the habit loop. This is an association between a cue, a routine and a reward. Through repetition, the cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation results. He refers to this as a “neurological craving”. An example of what results is when people can't resist the impulse of looking at their mobiles even when you are speaking directly with them (can anyone relate here?).

Research has uncovered the role of dopamine (the “pleasure chemical”) in the science of habit formation. Dopamine plays a significant role when we are learning. It acts like the spark plug that increases focus and attention. This is required to build the neural networks that enable habits to exist. Once the habit is formed, the role of dopamine diminishes as the “neurological craving” takes over. The reason why this is an important brain function is that:

What we do habitually, we do more reliably and more energy efficiently.

When it comes to personal safety skills, we are a little more than the sum of our habits. The problem, of course, is that whatever habits we form tend to drive our behaviour, whether good or otherwise. Most of our habits are probably fine, but some could be safer.

The good news is that habits are not destiny, we can change or replace them.

Next Time: “Autopilot” behaviour: what can be done about it.


This blog is an excerpt from Third Generation Safety: The Missing Piece by Cristian Sylvestre.

Cristian takes what neuroscience is revealing about how the brain functions, explaining how human performance could impact personal safety and what individuals and organisations can do about it. TO BE RELEASED SOON

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