press release
Published: 06 June 2024

New study challenges 'pop psychology' myths about habits

By ditching 'pop psychology myths' about habits, we can better understand our habits and take more effective action, according to researchers at the University of Surrey.  

Pop psychology tends to portray all stable behaviours as habitual, as well as implying that forming new habits will always lead to positive long-term change. 

New analysis by Surrey researchers argues that a habit is simply a mental link between a situation (cue) and an action (response). When someone with a habit is in the situation, an unconscious urge prompts the action. However, whether this urge leads to habitual behaviour depends on other competing impulses that influence our actions. 

Other impulses can overrule your habits – like cold weather derailing your habitual morning run.  

The paper points out that forming a new habit creates an association that can help keep you on the right track, but it does not ensure that a new behaviour will always stick. 

As for breaking bad habits, the Surrey researchers suggest several methods. 

There are multiple ways to stop yourself from acting on your habits. Imagine you want to stop snacking in front of the TV. One way is to avoid the trigger - don't switch on the set. Another is to make it harder to act impulsively – not keeping snacks at home. Or, you could stop yourself when you feel the urge.

While the underlying habit may remain, these strategies reduce the chances of ‘bad’ behaviours from occurring automatically.
Benjamin Gardner explains
In principle, if you can't avoid your habit cues or make the behaviour more difficult, swapping out a bad habit for a good one is the next best strategy. It's much easier to do something than nothing, and as long as you're consistent, the new behaviour should become dominant over time, overpowering any impulses arising from your old habit. Phillippa Lally adds

Notes to editors


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