A Required Response

How do bad habits arise, and why do we seem to have more bad habits than good ones?

Bad habits arise when we find ourselves in difficult situations that require a response. To deal with these situations, we will do whatever is necessary to minimize the discomfort and put an end to the dilemma. In a difficult social situation, for instance, we might tell a “little white lie.” Or during a difficult yet important test at school, we might take a quick glance at another student’s paper. And when we are a tiny bit short of having the cash we need to pay for the pizza we ordered, we might “borrow” a little money from a roommate who keeps his wallet in his desk drawer.

But the problem with these socially acceptable compromises is that they teach the brain a shortcut to solving that particular problem. So when a similar situation arises in the future, the brain will remember the action that got you out of hot water the last time, and the brain will prompt you to engage in a similar activity. Whether you know it or not, your brain remembers the connection between the problem and the solution that brought you immediate relief. So the brain will “write” that solution to its hard drive. And when you repeat the action a few more times, a habit will be formed, a habit that will become subconscious, spontaneous, and automatic.

We rarely think about it while it is happening, because habits are formed gradually over time. But habits are habits, nonetheless, and they can dictate the course and the outcome of our lives. So our habits can appear to be “innocent” while they are taking shape. But the things we do routinely and with little thought are the things that will define us unless we change them.


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