Let’s Talk about Habits

Pic 1I recently read a fascinating book all about Habits. Not specific habits, but rather the nature of Habits in general, and it’s given me some real food for thought in relation to the way we work with Habits of Mind.

The book is called “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and work” by Charles Duhigg, and is well worth a read.

The first thing that struck me about Duhigg’s description of Habits is how he describes the “Habit Loop”. This involves a  cue or trigger, a Routine, and a Reward. This parallels what we’ve discussed before about the dimensions of growth of the Habits of Mind. We want students to be alert to the cues, develop the capacity to engage effectively in the action / routine, and to recognise the value or reward that is derived from engaging in the Habit of Mind.

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However, the above does not describe a “loop”, it’s more of a reflex. Recognise -> Act -> Reward. Duhigg goes on to describe the work of psychologist Wolfram Schultz that shows how lasting powerful habits are actually powered by more than these three components. They also involve a craving. And that in fact the most effective way to create a new habit is by creating the craving. Let me explain.

We begin to develop a habit when we recognise a cue and we behave in a particular way for which we get a reward. In Schultz’s experiments he was training a monkey to respond to images on a screen by rewarding with him blackberry juice when he performed the desired routine of pulling a lever.

Schultz monitored the monkeys neural activity during the experiment and sure enough when the monkey got the reward there was a spike in activity in the monkeys reward system. Probably not very surprising.

There is a parallel here to the way we often work with students to develop their Habits of Mind. We teach them to to be alert to cues that tell them when they should engage in a Habit of Mind – say, to listen with empathy when the teacher is speaking. We then expect them to engage in a pattern of behaviour we have taught them, and finally we either reward them, or ask them to reflect on the benefits and value they’ve derived from the behaviour.

However, what Shcultz showed was that as the monkey’s habit became stronger and stronger, the spike in activity in the monkey’s reward system occurred when the monkey recognised the cue. The learnt to anticipate the reward when they saw the cue. And in fact the monkey became upset if the reward didn’t arrive.

Herein lies a secret to developing a powerful Habit. The cue becomes not just the signal for an action, but also for a real reward response inside the brain. The cue leads you to anticipate the reward and this develops a craving, a desire, or a “wanting” to engage in the action.

As we associate cues with certain rewards we develop a subconscious craving in our brains, and this is what drives the Habit loop.

When working with the Habits of Mind in classrooms we typically associate rewards with actions, and do so after the action has taken place. This research suggests that we should also be associating rewards with cues, and doing so BEFORE the actions.

To do this we might need to have the students engage in more prediction type activities, as well as the more common reflection activities. Reflection activities tend to focus on the Why of the Habit of Mind. They ask, what did I get out of engaging in the Habit of Mind and therefor encourage students to say why they would do it again. Prediction activities would focus on the “Want” of the Habit of Mind and help students anticipate the reward.

Looked at this way, WHY and WANT might be considered opposite sides of the same Value coin.

This discussion is clearly related to the Dimension of Growth of Value. In previous contexts I’ve talked about this dimension as being about the WHY of the Habit of Mind. In light of what “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and work” by Charles Duhigg has taught me, perhaps I should be adding that this dimension is also about developing the WANT of the Habit of Mind?