Developing good habits is more important than self-control in meeting goals, study finds

May 27, 2013

Stress and exhaustion may turn us into zombies, but a novel study shows that mindless behavior doesn't just lead to overeating and shopping sprees—it can also cause us to stick with behaviors that are good for us.

Across five experiments appearing in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the , the researchers provide an important new twist to the established idea that we have finite resources for , meaning it's harder to take control of our actions when we're already stressed or tired.

Turns out we're just as likely to default to positive habits, such as eating a healthy breakfast or going to the gym, as we are to self-sabotage. Led by Wendy Wood and David Neal of USC, this research shows that lack of control doesn't automatically mean indulgence or hedonism – it's the underlying routine that matters, for better or worse.

"When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control. But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits. Habits persist even when we're tired and don't have the energy to exert self-control," says Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC, who holds joint appointments in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Marshall School of Business.

Wood, who serves as vice dean for social sciences at USC Dornsife, is one of the world's leading experts on habit, the automatic behaviors that make it possible for us to function everyday (imagine if we had to relearn every morning how to brush our teeth or what route to take to work).

Learned habits also play a big role in our health; research has shown that exercise, overeating and smoking are significant risk factors for major diseases. Indeed, obesity and smoking are the two primary reasons Americans die before people in other high-income countries, according to a recent National Academy of Sciences report led by Eileen Crimmins of the USC Davis School of Gerontology.

But while most disease prevention efforts focus on self-control, the latest research from Wood shows that the best way to prevent disease might be knowing how to let go: "Everybody gets stressed. The whole focus on controlling your behavior may not actually be the best way to get people to meet goals," she said. "If you are somebody who doesn't have a lot of willpower, our study showed that habits are even more important."

For example, in one experiment Wood and her co-investigators followed students for a semester, including during exams. They found that during testing periods, when students were stressed and sleep-deprived, they were even more likely to stick to old habits. It was as if they didn't have the energy to do something new, Wood explains.

Students who ate unhealthy breakfasts during the semester – such as pastries or doughnuts – ate even more of the junk food during exams. But the same was true of oatmeal eaters: those in the habit of eating a healthy breakfast were also more likely to stick to routine and ate especially well in the morning when under pressure.

Similarly, students who had a habit of reading the editorial pages in the newspaper everyday during the semester were more likely to perform this habit during exams – even when they were limited in time. And regular gym-goers were even more likely to go to the gym when stressed.

"You might expect that, when students were stressed and had little time, they wouldn't read the paper at all, but instead they fell back on their reading habits," Wood says. "Habits don't require much willpower and thought and deliberation."

Wood continues: "So, the central question for behavior change efforts should be, how can you form healthy, productive habits? What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform, so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine."

Explore further: Habit makes bad food too easy to swallow

Related Stories

Habit makes bad food too easy to swallow

September 1, 2011
Do you always get popcorn at the movies? Or snack while you're on the couch watching television? A new paper by USC researchers reveals why bad eating habits persist even when the food we're eating doesn't taste good. The ...

Controlling alcohol habits as students find 'release' may avoid later addiction

April 24, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Current college culture allows for an environment where risks of addiction and alcohol dependency increase while mental health decreases.

Neuroscientists identify a brain region that can switch between new and old habits

October 30, 2012
Habits are behaviors wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them automatically. This allows you to follow the same route to work every day without thinking about it, liberating your brain to ponder other things, such ...

The pilot and autopilot within our mind-brain connection: Conscious vs. unconscious, habit vs. non-habit examined

January 11, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Have you ever driven to work so deep in thought that you arrive safely yet can't recall the drive itself?  And if so, what part of  "you" was detecting cars and pedestrians, making appropriate stops and ...

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ODesign
not rated yet May 27, 2013
Interesting. Makes sense. Useful.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.