Habits or Goals: Which Ultimately Determines You?

David T. Neal, a leading psychologist from The University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and his team conducted a research in 2013 into understanding what drives us to change our habits.  They revealed how undesirable habits prevent us from breaking a pattern in our usual behavior. This finding may help people with harmful habits to realize that they actually have the ability to impact their own motivation and goals.

Decision making involves two processes occurring in the brain. The first is the habitual or automatic process. The second is goal-directed process.

For example, in the morning, you typically read a newspaper while eating cakes for breakfast and drinking coffee.  But lately you have realized that you have put on weight and want to get back in shape.  You have decided to avoid intake of sweet and food high in carbohydrates  in favor of fresh food, like apples.  Although you are aware of the latest healthy facts, your hand automatically reaches out for the cake on the table unconsciously.  On the other hand, the control of your eating, as well as the control of any goal-directed process, will always be more difficult for you to achieve and  will require additional efforts.  Why does this happen?

Both habitual and goal-directed processes involve a high number of neuron patterns taking place inside your brain, each of which is responsible for a specific action, idea, knowledge, emotion or event. The more often you carry out a certain action, the stronger a corresponding neuron pattern becomes.

The habitual process may appear simpler because it only involves the direct relationship between your action and your setting. In this process, the brain chooses an action that is more familiar with in a given setting.  The brain makes decision based on  known results from past experience.  Implementation of the action requires less energy and time because this habitual action are stimulated by stronger neuron patterns. The strength of neuron patterns results from the regularity of their usage.

In the goal-directed process, the brain uses a model of past setting and previously stored information to decide on a path to take from several possible unusual actions.  This process is flexible and does not require much experience but it requires cognitive efforts, such as memory and computation, to find the optimum path.  This decision requires more energy because the brain tries to enhance weaker old neuron patterns or to create new ones if they do not already exist from a past experience.

Paradoxically, you and your brain may have different goals.  Most likely, your goal is to change your bad habit, and this requires additional energy.   At the same time, your brain’s goal is to reserve energy so it wants to resort to a habitual behavior that uses less neuron energy.   To overcome this, you should continue to make efforts to learn new things  or  to acquire new habits that may be useful for you in the future.  If you want to change your behavior, you should try not only to carry out actions that may lead you to your goal  but to also control your habitual, conventional actions.  Ultimately, you should work hard to develop desirable habits that help you achieve your life goals; otherwise, these unwanted habits that will determine your life.


Svetlana Stroganova, Nikolai Shmelev

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