In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Habit Formation and Behavior Change

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • How and Why Should We Change Behavior?
  • What Is a “Habit”?
  • Are Habits Goal-Directed?
  • How Should Habit be Measured?
  • How Does Habit Form?
  • How Does Habit Influence Behavior?
  • Theories and Principles of Habit Formation for Behavior Change
  • Illustrative Examples of Habit Formation Interventions

Psychology Habit Formation and Behavior Change
Benjamin Gardner, Amanda L. Rebar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0232


Many of the most pressing societal issues—e.g., health, illness, and associated costs; climate change—are rooted in behavior. Even small changes to everyday behaviors can bring considerable benefits. Many people successfully adopt new behaviors but fail to maintain them over time. This problem has inspired interest in habit. Within psychology, habitual behaviors are defined as actions triggered automatically when people encounter situations in which they have consistently done them in the past. Repeating behavior in the same context reinforces mental associations between the context and behavior. Habit is said to have formed when exposure to the context non-consciously activates the association, which in turn elicits an urge to act, influencing behavior with minimal conscious forethought. As an initially goal-directed behavior becomes habitual, control over behavior is transferred from a reasoned, reflective processing system, which elicits behavior relatively slowly based on conscious motivation, to an impulsive system, which elicits behavior rapidly and efficiently, based on learned context-behavior associations. Habitual behaviors thus become detached from conscious motivational processes. Spurred by development of self-report habit measures, studies have modeled the relationship between behavioral repetition and the strengthening of habit, showing that habit is characterized by initially rapid growth, which decelerates until a plateau is reached. Theories propose that habit has two effects on behavior in the associated context: habit will prompt frequent performance, and will override motivational tendencies in doing so, unless self-control is particularly strong in that moment. People may therefore continue to perform a habitual action even when they lack motivation. These characteristics have generated interest in the potential for habit to support long-term adoption of new behaviors. People often fail to maintain behavior changes because they lose motivation, but if people were to form habits for new behaviors, they should in theory continue to perform them despite losing motivation. This has prompted calls for interventions to move beyond merely promoting new behaviors, toward advocating context-dependent habitual performances. Some have also argued that habit formation may be fruitful for stopping unwanted behaviors, because new, “good” habits can be directly substituted for existing “bad” habits. Realistically, habit formation is not a viable standalone behavior change technique, as it requires that people first adopt a new behavior, which through repetition will become habitual. The promotion of context-dependent repetition should complement techniques that reinforce the motivation and action control required for behavioral initiation and maintenance prior to habit forming. Real-world behavior change interventions based on these principles have been found to be acceptable and appealing, and show promise for changing behavior, though few have used long-term follow-up periods. This entry highlights leading work in the application of habit formation to behavior change interventions, drawing on the most methodologically and conceptually rigorous empirical research available. Most of the development and application of habit theory to real-world social contexts has been undertaken in health and pro-environmental domains. This entry thus focuses most heavily on these domains, but the principles outlined are thought to be applicable across behaviors and settings.

General Overviews

While no source provides a comprehensive overview of habit as it applies to behavior change, several texts offer useful introductions to the main issues. Remarkably, the textbook chapter James 1890, which seeks to understand repetitive and persistent everyday actions, retains its relevance and accessibility today. Verplanken and Aarts 1999 summarizes the key characteristics of habit from a social psychological perspective. Habit is however studied across various sub-disciplines of psychology, and Wood and Rünger 2016 brings together research from social and applied psychology with insights from neurobiology and computational modeling. Wood and Neal 2016 sets out evidence-based guidance for applying habit principles to behavior change policy and practice in the health domain.

  • James, W. 1890. Habit. In The principles of psychology (chap. 4) By William James. London: Macmillan.

    A classic chapter that is not only of historical significance as the first treatise on the psychology of habit, but also touches on issues that remain topical in the field today. James views habitual action as inflexible responses to everyday settings and, despite predating most empirical research into habit processes, touches on key characteristics of habit, such as repetition, associative learning, cue-dependence, and potential dissociation between habit and motivated tendencies.

  • Verplanken, B., and H. Aarts. 1999. Habit, attitude, and planned behavior: Is habit an empty construct or an interesting case of goal-directed automaticity? European Review of Social Psychology 10.1: 101–134.

    DOI: 10.1080/14792779943000035

    This review provides broad and still-relevant coverage of many key topics, and provides an excellent introduction for a newcomer to the theoretical concepts in the field, though the measurement section should be read alongside more recent sources.

  • Wood, W., and D. T. Neal. 2016. Healthy through habit: Interventions for initiating & maintaining health behavior change. Behavioral Science & Policy 2.1: 71–83.

    DOI: 10.1353/bsp.2016.0008

    Written for a policymaker audience, this review presents the rationale for using habit formation and disruption as mechanisms for behavior change for public health. Drawing on evidence from previous real-world habit-related interventions, it summarizes possible policy strategies for making and breaking habits.

  • Wood, W., and D. Rünger. 2016. Psychology of habit. Annual Review of Psychology 67:289–314.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033417

    This paper offers a state-of-the-art review of habit formation, habitual performance, and interventions designed to make or break habits. It effectively synthesizes material across social psychology, neurobiology and computational modeling approaches, so providing an accessible and broad introduction to the field from multiple perspectives.

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