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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.