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  • Divanshu

Behavioural insights on how habits are formed and changed

We all have an automatic way of acting in our daily lives, for example, waking up in the morning, brushing our teeth, eating breakfast etc. All this action is performed automatically without any considerable attention to our behaviour. But sometimes we want to break some of the habit we have (unhealthy eating) or adopt new habits (reading before sleeping). However, it is difficult to bring these changes. Behavioural insights on human behaviour can give possible frameworks on how to deal with this issue.



Habits are part of a learning mechanism which is mostly automated (system1 of our brain). It is an action which we have done in the past and has given us some form of reward. It mostly is done in an environmental context with predictable prompts. For example, if we want to have a vitamin pill after breakfast, we can place it on the dining table before, so we are reminded about it. A descriptive way is also when coffee drinkers come back from home after work(cue), drink a cup of coffee(behaviour), and enjoy the taste(reward). So to change a habit, we have to engage with the cue, behaviour, or reward. For example, in the example to reduce coffee, one can get bad quality coffee beans to reduce the reward factor in the habit or substitute with other behaviour which can be drinking tea.


But not all behaviour is easy to change, especially when it comes to addicted behaviour. In those circumstances, a particular change in the reward system can help. For example, many studies have been done to reduce smoking habit with addicts. One way is to reward participants some monetary value in exchange to reduce smoking. This process has produced positive results. But a more effective way is to make participants deposit some amount of money and penalise them if they smoke by taking some of the deposit. The results of this process go with the understanding of human behaviour where we are more averse to losses than seek gains.


However, not all breaking habit are such dimensional. Sometimes habits can be quite complex and enlarging. For example, to cut down sugar intake in our diet will be difficult if we remove all sugar substance from our diet all at once. A better way is to systematically eliminate some sugar items and then slowly adopting a more wholesome diet.

So, we have some understanding to engage with breaking some of our habits. Forming new habits follows a similar framework where we follow:

With a particular behaviour, we need a reward system. A neural process happens—when we are rewarded — where our brain releases dopamine, which is a neurochemical, that binds together the context that we are in and the response that we gave to get that reward. That’s one of the reasons why rewards are so important and useful for forming habits. The reward also has to be immediate. Anything later can divert our mind on to other things, and it’s no longer connecting context and responses. And to connect with a habit formation, we need regular prompts to remind us till the behaviour becomes a habit on its own. These prompts can be reminders, environmental cues etc.


One of the resistance to habit formation is that when we are distracted or feeling particularly tired or overwhelmed, we fall back on to bad habits. The circumstances in our lives overpower our conscious effort to stick to the habit formation. The best way is to accept such situations and figure out a particular time in a day or week that is mostly consistent and uninterrupted.

The bigger picture is that most of our habits are context-dependent. If a new environment has different cues from our old environment, it makes us free to adopt some new positive habits. For example, if a new city we shift to has an efficient recycling system, we are prompted to change our behaviour accordingly, which can form a particular habit.


So, knowing the importance of contexts in our habit formation, policymakers and government must pay attention to such understanding. For example, to make citizens healthier, it will be worthwhile to build sidewalks and cycling spaces in the city. Or encourage recycling by making it easier to do for the citizens.


A lot of habit formation psychology is also being used in various organisations to achieve various goals. For example, financial companies use behavioural prompts and use behavioural insights to nudge their users to adopt a saving habit.


The following 6 strategies (Neal, D "The science of habit" 2015) can help individuals and organisations to build habits:


1. Ensure a stable, support environment

2. Leverage the context

3. Make it easy

4. Develop cues and rewards

5. Practice and repeat

6. Build meaning and motivation


Hence, the scope of behavioural insights on habit formation is considerable and can produce positive social and individual results. Even though it might take time for a habit to form — 2 -3 months — but once done, all our goals will be performed automatically.