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Creatures Of Habit: How Habits Shape Who We Are — And Who We Become

Stylized illustration of women jogging.
Lee Woodgate
/
Getty Images/Ikon Images

At the beginning of the year, many of us make resolutions for the months to come. We vow to work out more, procrastinate less, or save more money.

Though some people stick with these aspirations, many of us fall short. How do we actually develop good habits and maintain them? What about breaking bad ones?

Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, has some insight on this. She's been trying to understand how habits work for the past 30 years. According to Wendy, habits are mental associations.

"When we repeat an action over and over again in a given context and then get a reward when you do that, you are learning very slowly and incrementally to associate that context with that behavior," she says.

Eventually, that behavior becomes automatic, to the point where we aren't consciously thinking about the behavior anymore. Many of the things we do every day fall into this category.

"About 43 percent of everyday actions are done repeatedly almost every day in the same context," Wendy says. "It's very much like driving. We have this general sense that we're doing things but it's not driven by an active decision-making process."

This week on Hidden Brain, we consider the everyday things we do, over and over and over again, often without thinking. We hear how habits shape the course of our lives and how we can use them to make change.

Additional Resources

  • Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science Of Making Positive Changes That Stick by Wendy Wood, 2019.
  • "Fresh Starts, Guilty Pleasures And Other Pro Tips For Sticking To Good Habits" by L.Carol Ritchie from NPR's Life Kit, 2019.
  • "The Pull Of The Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives" by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, Mengju Wu, and David Kurlander in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,2011.
  • Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
    Thomas Lu is an assistant producer for Hidden Brain.He came to NPR in 2017 as an intern for the TED Radio Hour. He has worked with How I Built This, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Pop Culture Happy Hour. Before coming to NPR, he was a production intern for StoryCorps.
    Angus Chen
    Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
    Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.