Do You Actually Choose Your Actions Or Are They Just A Matter Of Habit?

New psychological research points out a common attribution error we make when it comes to our behavior.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 2, 2022

A new study published in Psychological Science reveals that we often blame our mood for behavior even though it is, in most cases, prompted by habit. According to the study, this bias frequently leads us to misattribute the causes of our behavior.

"A study by my co-author found that more than 40% of participants' daily behavior was habitual," says psychologist Asaf Mazar of the University of Southern California. "Habits can be activated automatically without conscious thought, which means that habits are often the default response we revert to unless we have a strong desire to act differently."

To explain this, Mazar cites the common example of our morning coffee routine. When we repeatedly drink coffee in the morning, our brain learns to pair cues in our morning environment (like stepping into your kitchen) with drinking coffee. Once this habit association is formed, coffee drinking is automatically activated in our minds when we enter the associated context.

Interestingly, the inspiration for Mazar's study came from this very morning ritual and went on to influence the methodology of his study. When Mazar realized that his morning espresso was more of a habit than a need for a jolt of caffeine, he decided to test this idea out in a study.

The first study of this paper asked coffee drinkers to estimate the extent to which they drink coffee out of tiredness versus out of habit. Most said that tiredness was much more important than habit in driving their coffee drinking.

But when they tracked those same people's behavior over the course of a week, they found that people drank coffee out of habit just as much as they did out of tiredness.

"People underestimated the influence of habit over their coffee drinking, and overestimated the influence of fatigue," explains Mazar. "This suggests that we might fail to recognize how habits shape our behavior."

According to Mazar, a couple of things (amongst others) could prompt this misattribution of cause in us:

#1. Habits are difficult to monitor

Sometimes, when we are highly motivated, focused, and aren't in a time crunch, we can override our habits and act flexibly.

However, according to Mazar, it's easy to think that if we can control our habits once then we can control them all the time. But in reality, it's particularly difficult to monitor habits 24/7, so in the long run, we often end up rebounding to the easy, habitual choice.

#2. Cultural attitudes towards habits

American culture usually emphasizes goals, intentions, and feelings, therefore Americans are not used to explaining behavior in terms of habits.

Mazar points out that asking this question in the context of other cultures might yield very different results than the ones produced by his study.

How to overcome the bias

The bias that Mazar's study talks about could cause frustration in people in the long term if not dealt with properly. It might even make for poor interventions.

"If we keep thinking that behavior is driven by inner states, we'll keep trying to regulate behavior by regulating inner states," explains Mazar. "But, in the case of habits, this approach won't cut it, since habits can persist even when we intend to act differently."

For anyone looking to break a recurring pattern in behavior or a particularly stubborn habit, Mazar has the following advice:

"The most effective way to change habits is to design environments in a way that supports good habits and impedes bad habits," suggests Mazar. "Our recent research centers on friction — (seemingly) minor obstacles that stand in the way of a behavior. We find that friction can exert an outsize influence on behavior, but people tend to under-appreciate its effects when trying to change their habits."

Mazar concludes by saying that changing environments is not only up to individuals. People who have sway over our living environments — like policymakers and companies — need to ensure that spaces are designed to make the right choices easy.

A full interview with psychologist Asaf Mazar discussing his research can be found here: Are your problems due to bad habits or bad moods?