Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

[LINK] The NYT on Everyday Habits

6 Post author: Alex_Altair 18 February 2012 08:23AM

The New York Times just published this article on how companies use data mining and the psychology of habit formation to effectively target ads.

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges.

It has some decent depth of discussion, including an example of the author actually using the concepts to stop a bad habit. The article is based on an upcoming book by the same author titled The Power of Habit.

I haven't seen emphasis of this particular phenomenon—habits consisting of a cue, routine, and reward—on Lesswrong. Do people think it's a valid, scientifically supported phenomenon? The article gives this impression but, of course, doesn't cite specific academic work on it. It ties in to the System 1/System 2 theory easily as a System 1 process. How much of the whole System 1 can be explained as an implementation of this cue, routine, reward process?

And most importantly, how can this fit into the procrastination equation as a tool to subvert akrasia and establish good habits? 

Let's look at each of the four factors. If you've formed a habit, it means that the reward happened consistently, which means you have high expectancy. Given that it is a reward, the value is at least positive, but probably not large. Since habits mostly work on small time scales, delay is probably very small. And maybe increased habit formation means your impulsiveness is low. Each of these effects would increase motivation. In addition, because it's part of System 1, there is little energy cost to performing the habit, like there would be with many other conscious actions.

Does this explanation sound legitimate, or like an argument for the bottom line?

Personally, I can tell that context is a strong cue for behavior at work, school, and home. When I go into work, I'm automatically motivated to perform well, and that motivation remains for several hours. When I go into class, I'm automatically ready to focus on difficult material, or even enthusiastically take a test. Yet when I go home, something about the context switches that off, and I can't seem to get anything done at all. It might be worth significant experimentation to find out what cues trigger both modes, and change my contexts to induce what I want.

What do you think?

Edit: this phenomenon has been covered on LW in the form of operant conditioning in posts by Yvain.

Comments (6)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 18 February 2012 02:14:08PM 14 points [-]

If you've formed a habit, it means that the reward happened consistently, which means you have high expectancy.

Just a sidenote: habits where rewards happen inconsistently maybe take more time to learn, but are also more difficult to rid of. If something was rewarded consistently, and you stop the reward, you broke the pattern. If something was rewarded randomly, and you stop the rerward, you didn't break the pattern, because "sometimes not receiving reward" was also part of the pattern.

As an example, procrastinating on web is addictive not because every hyperlink you click leads you to a precious jewel. It is addictive because of its random nature; perhaps the last ten links you clicked were an obvious waste of time, but who knows, maybe the eleventh link will show something that is really worth reading... so you click the eleventh link too. The randomness of reward makes it more exciting.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 18 February 2012 02:06:00PM *  1 point [-]

I haven't seen emphasis of this particular phenomenon—habits consisting of a cue, routine, and reward

Sounds like operant conditioning ?

Do people think it's a valid, scientifically supported phenomenon?

Works like hell for animals, at least for some behaviors. I suspect it will work for many human behaviors, though being the reinforcer and reinforcee seems like a serious handicap. Karen Pryor appears to be the expert in this area - see http://store.clickertraining.com/people-tagteach-training-books.html. It's something I've been meaning to look into for a while, so please report back if you get into it!

Comment author: Alex_Altair 18 February 2012 10:23:31PM 1 point [-]

Sounds like operant conditioning?

Wow, why didn't I pick up on that? After going over Yvain's post (which I read many months ago) I think it didn't strike me the same way because he discusses the validity of extending the concept to humans and the details within a laboratory setting (which is great), while the NYT article takes it as a basic observation of humans and focuses on applications to real-life motivation.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 18 February 2012 10:39:10PM 0 points [-]

Which post? Sounds like I want to read it too :)

Comment author: Alex_Altair 19 February 2012 03:20:21AM 0 points [-]

http://lesswrong.com/lw/6ja/basics_of_human_reinforcement/

Plus a few before and after it that are relevant. I looked for a sequence page, but it wasn't on any.

Comment author: rlp10 19 February 2012 05:07:25PM *  0 points [-]

I believe that this is sometimes referred to as the 'ABC model' (antecedent, behaviour, consequence) and is the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy.

The book, Self-Directed Behaviour, is based on this model. I enjoyed it but, as I'm not academic in that area, can't really comment on the research behind it.