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The Behavioral Science of Habit Formation

Posted On  June 23, 2020
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As the new realities of the coronavirus lockdown became apparent, large-scale economic impacts quickly followed, and with that, large-scale behavior changes.

In the midst of such radical behavior change, consumers are forming new habits as they adjust (like working remotely) and adapting existing habits to meet the new demands (like increased cooking from home). But knowing that many of these changes are temporary, how can we identify which habits – if any – will persist once lockdown is safely in the rearview mirror?

What habits are going to be temporary and which will be more permanent?

Consumer behaviors are changing at the product level and at the category level. The specific changes wrought by the pandemic create loads of questions on both levels, including:

  • Will mobile payments replace cash more fully than they have before?
  • Will preferences towards natural cleaners be replaced with ones that are scientifically proven, even though they might contain harsh chemicals?
  • Will work from home arrangements be temporary, or will Zoom meetings permanently replace in-person interactions?
  • Will record levels of video game play and video streaming continue when we have more alternative entertainment options?

Beyond consumer behaviors, the lockdown has upended many of our at-home behaviors, and this disruption creates an opportunity for us to create positive change in our lives that would have been more challenging when things felt more routine. For instance, pre-COVID, 80% of consumers say they want to read more books. In the first couple months of quarantine, book sales spiked by 700%. But we all know that just buying a book (or that fancy exercise bike) doesn’t immediately result in a positive new habit.

How can we predict the permanence of the new behavior—in this case reading—that we expect is happening on a larger scale?

Why the behavioral science of habit formation is so important

The traditional methods of predicting future behavior changes on a category and brand level aren’t designed to account for the influence of habit.

While we may have relied on futurists to provide reliable predictions of how behaviors might change in the future, the pace of change makes the futurist’s job much harder. Sales data, on the other hand, often lacks nuance to help us understand the underlying reasons behind a habit change, not to mention the inherent time lag between collecting the data and analyzing it. And of course, though we always ask consumers to project their future behaviors, these data tend to better reflect their current behaviors than their future ones. And though primary research is often effective in gauging consumer sentiment, a phenomenon called “affective forecasting” limits humans’ ability to accurately predict their future feelings.

But there is an alternative that draws from consumer psychology and behavioral science. And it offers a framework for understanding many of the less conscious drivers of habit change, because as the old saying goes, old habits are notoriously hard to break. The converse is also true, even for a desired habit change like reading more.

How habits influence behavior

In the behavioral science framework, there are three main elements that drive habit formation and make the difference between a temporary change and something more permanent.

Behavioral Context

First and foremost, behavioral context is critically important. When you’re engaging in a new habit like reading, what time of day are you engaging in the activity? Where are you engaging in the activity, and how does it fit into the rest of your day? Consistency of the behavioral context helps promote robust habits, while highly variable behaviors are slower to crystallize.

Cues and Reinforcers

Two other elements, cues and reinforcers, serve to reinforce or degrade habit formation. Cues are the things that happen right before you engage in the activity, and in strong habits they help trigger the behavior without engaging much conscious effort. Reinforcers are the feelings you experience after the behavior that influence whether you want to continue it. In the reading example, you may pour a cup of homebrewed coffee in your favorite coffee cup when sitting down to read every morning during quarantine, while the reinforcer may be the satisfaction you get in finishing a great book before starting your workday.

Even in the midst of behavioral disruption, those who have been successful in establishing a new habit have likely created unconscious strategies and contingencies that include a consistent behavioral context, stable cues that prompt the behavior and positive reinforcers that promote continuation of the new habit. Whether or not consumers set up these habits consciously, these factors help to support the success of this new behavior.

The good news? From a behavioral science perspective, we can bring these elements out of the shadows and into the more conscious realms. We can consciously increase and influence the likelihood that behaviors can morph into longer-term habits. And furthermore, we can take a series of concrete steps to influence consumer behaviors in ways that benefit our category or brand.

To learn more about the behavioral science of habit formation, and how to apply the concepts to your brand and category, please download our short, free e-book.

Written by Lauren Murphy
Director, Research Scientist, Pragmatic Brain Science Institute®
Lauren develops creative approaches to help understand consumer behavior and why people sometimes say one thing but do another. She draws on her expertise in emotion processing, decision making, and behavior to produce meaningful insights and novel research approaches. Lauren joined LRW in February 2018 and received a B.S. in Anthropology from Florida State University and a PhD in Psychology from Emory University.

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