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Habit Formation and Behavior Change  

Benjamin Gardner and Amanda L. Rebar

Within psychology, the term habit refers to a process whereby contexts prompt action automatically, through activation of mental context–action associations learned through prior performances. Habitual behavior is regulated by an impulsive process, and so can be elicited with minimal cognitive effort, awareness, control, or intention. When an initially goal-directed behavior becomes habitual, action initiation transfers from conscious motivational processes to context-cued impulse-driven mechanisms. Regulation of action becomes detached from motivational or volitional control. Upon encountering the associated context, the urge to enact the habitual behavior is spontaneously triggered and alternative behavioral responses become less cognitively accessible. By virtue of its cue-dependent automatic nature, theory proposes that habit strength will predict the likelihood of enactment of habitual behavior, and that strong habitual tendencies will tend to dominate over motivational tendencies. Support for these effects has been found for many health-related behaviors, such as healthy eating, physical activity, and medication adherence. This has stimulated interest in habit formation as a behavior change mechanism: It has been argued that adding habit formation components into behavior change interventions should shield new behaviors against motivational lapses, making them more sustainable in the long-term. Interventions based on the habit-formation model differ from non-habit-based interventions in that they include elements that promote reliable context-dependent repetition of the target behavior, with the aim of establishing learned context–action associations that manifest in automatically cued behavioral responses. Interventions may also seek to harness these processes to displace an existing “bad” habit with a “good” habit. Research around the application of habit formation to health behavior change interventions is reviewed, drawn from two sources: extant theory and evidence regarding how habit forms, and previous interventions that have used habit formation principles and techniques to change behavior. Behavior change techniques that may facilitate movement through discrete phases in the habit formation trajectory are highlighted, and techniques that have been used in previous interventions are explored based on a habit formation framework. Although these interventions have mostly shown promising effects on behavior, the unique impact on behavior of habit-focused components and the longevity of such effects are not yet known. As an intervention strategy, habit formation has been shown to be acceptable to intervention recipients, who report that through repetition, behaviors gradually become routinized. Whether habit formation interventions truly offer a route to long-lasting behavior change, however, remains unclear.

Article

Automatic Regulation Used in Sport and Exercise Research  

Amanda L. Rebar

Much of our sport and physical activity behavior is regulated by processes occurring outside of conscious awareness. In contrast, most sport and physical activity research focuses on processes that are easily accessible by conscious introspection. More and more, however, research is demonstrating that automatic regulation is instrumental to our understanding of how to get people to maintain a physically active lifestyle and how to get the most out of people’s sports performance potential. Automatic regulation is the influence on our thoughts and actions that result from the mental network of associations we use to make sense of the world around us. Habits are automatic associations of cues with behavioral responses. Automatic evaluations are automatic associations of cues as being good or bad. Automatic schemas are automatic associations of cues with actual or ideal self-identity. These processes have been assessed with implicit measures by making indirect inferences from self-report or response latency tasks. Emerging research demonstrates that automatic associations influence sport performance and physical activity behavior, but further work is still needed to establish which type of automatic regulation is responsible for these influences and how automatic regulation and reflective processes interact to impact movement.

Article

Worry and Rumination  

Ed Watkins

Worry and rumination are both forms of repetitive negative thought (RNT) characterized by repetitive and often uncontrollable thinking about negative content. Rumination is typically defined as repetitive thinking about the symptoms, causes, circumstances, meanings, and consequences of negative mood, personal concerns, and upsetting experiences, often with a focus on depressive experience. Worry is typically defined as repetitive thinking about future potential threat, imagined catastrophes, uncertainties, and risks and is conceptualized as an attempt to avoid negative events, prepare for the worst, and problem-solve. Worry and rumination are implicated in the exacerbation of negative mood and negative thinking, reduced central executive resources, impaired problem- solving, and prolonged sympathetic activation and emotional responses to stress and, as such, transdiagnostically contribute to the onset and maintenance of multiple emotional disorders, including major depression, anxiety disorders, insomnia, eating disorders, substance and alcohol abuse, and psychosis. Both worry and rumination are implicated in poor response to psychological interventions—greater reduction in RNT is associated with greater symptom improvement, whereas no change in RNT is associated with no improvement or worsening of symptoms. Rumination and worry appear to be moderately genetically heritable and predicted by environmental factors such as early adversity, stressful life events, and unhelpful parental styles. RNT is a common pathway between multiple risk factors, including neglect, abuse, bullying, and chronic stress, and later psychopathology. Pathological worry and rumination share an abstract processing style, negative biases in attention and interpretation, and impaired executive control and are mental habits. Both worry and rumination have been hypothesized to serve an avoidant function. Interventions that target these mechanisms appear to be effective at tackling RNT, particularly rumination-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based interventions. More efficient interventions for anxiety and depression may result from interventions that target multiple of these proximal mechanisms.

Article

Attitudes and Behavior  

Geoffrey Haddock, Sapphira Thorne, and Lukas J. Wolf

Attitudes refer to overall evaluations of people, groups, ideas, and other objects, reflecting whether individuals like or dislike them. Attitudes have been found to be good predictors of behavior, with generally medium-sized effects. The role of attitudes in guiding behavior may be the primary reason why people’s social lives often revolve around expressing and discussing their attitudes, and why social psychology researchers have spent decades examining attitudes. Two central questions in the study of attitudes concern when and how attitudes predict behavior. The “when” question has been addressed over decades of research that has identified circumstances under which attitudes are more or less likely to predict behavior. That is, attitudes are stronger predictors of behaviors when both constructs are assessed in a corresponding or matching way, when attitudes are stronger, and among certain individuals and in certain situations and domains. The “how” question concerns influential models in the attitudes literature that provide a better understanding of the processes through which attitudes are linked with behaviors. For instance, these models indicate that other constructs need to be taken into account in understanding the attitude-behavior link, including intentions to perform a behavior, whether individuals perceive themselves to be in control of their behavior, and what they believe others around them think the individual should do (i.e., norms). The models also describe whether attitudes relate to behavior through relatively deliberative and controlled processes or relatively automatic and spontaneous processes. Overall, the long history of research on attitude-behavior links has provided a clearer prediction of when attitudes are linked with behaviors and a better understanding of the processes underlying this link.