The Philosophy of Habit
by Robert DePaolo
This article discusses the adaptive nature of habits with regard to psychological, aesthetic and health-related considerations. While overly rigid adherence to behavioral habits is not seen as ideal (newness and progress being important factors in establishing a vibrant life style as well) habit is nonetheless viewed a pre-eminent aspect of psychological and physical health, that can be occasionally punctuated but not replaced by variety, change and the search for new experience.
Much of the literature and mores of human societies over time seems to suggest that change is pre-requisite to happiness, creativity and the advancement of ideas and perspectives. Over time the words of philosophers have lent support to the change mandate. The Greek philosopher Heraclitis insisted change was both inevitable and necessary. Thomas Jefferson maintained that to ensure continuation of a vibrant democracy required a (philosophical/political rather than violent) revolution every few decades. Meanwhile, Wilhelm Georg Hegel’s theory of history referenced a triadic progression consisting of thesis (the extant governmental/societal format) antithesis (the inevitable, historical challenge to that format) and synthesis (the new, resulting revision). For him societal and political change, which necessarily entails behavioral change, was unavoidable. He felt the only choice homo sapiens had was in deciding which new habits and formats to adopt. (1821)
Hegel’s model was adopted by Marx and Engels who took liberty (excuse the oxymoron) to define the new, inevitable synthesis as communism (Figes, 2014)). They in turn referenced Darwin’s theory of natural selection which emphasized the importance of evolutionary change in adaptation and survival. Similar sentiments have pervaded the field of psychology, as for example Carl Rogers’ notion of an ever-changing, expanding creative self (1961) and Freud’s ideas on stages of development.
No one would dispute that change occurs in virtually all natural and human endeavors. Indeed since time does elapse, it must do so. Yet there is a very practical, existential argument to be made against change, one that suggests that fixed habits might well contribute more to human existence and progress than change. The argument espousing that idea can be called the philosophy of habit.
First, a qualifier: Habit pertains to a fixed state of behavior, but by its repetitious nature, it can be viewed as a substrate of any structural phenomenon. It is a rigid word, associated with, at best boredom, stagnation and “squareness” (to re-state a term inspired by early Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Lucien Carr) and at worst obsession, addiction and pathology. It has a bad rap, which is unfortunate, because the sheer power of habit in sustaining mental and physical health, prompting states of contentment, societal cooperation and creativity are inestimable. To underscore these points, let’s look at the problem from a neuro-psychological perspective.
Pathways to pleasure…
Research has shown that establishing habits has a strong, stabilizing and aesthetic influence on brain and mind. Indeed habituation could be considered the mechanism by which the stress inherent in novelty-based confusion and anxiety is overridden (Karamati, Gutkin (2014). As any animal develops a habit structure (defined as repeated behaviors that secure expected/needed feedback), a pleasure enhancing (catecholiminergic) response from midbrain neurochemical pathways is released, in effect “saying’ to the organism… now that you have attained a fixed response pattern you may feel good again. (Shoenfeld, Uretsky, 1972) That experience is more than relief, i.e. a negative reinforcement process. It is a hedonic experience.
High Octane Habituation…
Beyond neurobehavioral factors, habits have ergonomic benefits, one of which is that establishing habits precludes the need for ongoing vigilance, which can induce hyper-arousal and stress. In that sense habits are an ergonomically efficient behavioral mechanism. To the extent that theorists in many fields consider energy conservation the sine qua non of structure and function (whether in terms of psychology, physics, cosmology or biology) that is highly significant. Indeed one reason individuals afflicted with psychopathologies tend toward rigid behavior patterns, i.e. rituals, compulsions and obsessions, might be because habits reduce the stress inherent in their every day experience. (In that context, rather than being viewed as pathognomic such patterns might also be seen as internally adaptive.
The benefits of habit readily extend into the existential domain. For every individual who craves new circumstances, challenges and environments there are many who look forward to going to work every day, getting in their five mile run, thirty laps in the pool or practicing with the band once a week. For so many people routines are not stale but rather restorative.
One argument against habituation is based on the notion of drabness, but is that really a valid argument? Behavioral research suggest not. Olds and Milner found that if the behavioral-feedback relationship is rewarding repetitive responding is typically experienced as a positive thing (1954). Thus, rather than habit in itself being “drab” it might be that the reinforcing value of the habit is the determining experiential factor. Beyond that, Premack’s studies clearly indicate that oft-repeated (high probability) behaviors tend to become reinforcing over time due to their sheer frequency of expression (1963).
Habits vs. Artistry…
Much criticism of the habitual life style emanates from the fields of art. For example, musicians, actors, writers speak constantly about spreading their horizons, trying out new material, taking creative risks etc. Presumably the essence of this argument revolves around two premises. One is that newness makes the artist feel more artistic. The other has to do with the artist’s presumption that the audience places a similar value on newness and divergence.
While one needn’t choose abjectly between habit and change this issue is rather easily resolved through the prism of Information Theory. This theory has many complex features and mathematical substrates which won’t be discussed here, but one of its tenets is quite interesting in terms of the habit vs. change dichotomy. It is found in the maxim first proposed by the Greek philosopher Zeno that change per se is impossible: more generally that one cannot perceive or create new information (change) unless it is derived from a pre-established level of uniformity – here the writer takes license to embellish Zeno’s basic conception.
For example, slang and other language nuances – as exemplified in the shift from phrases like “out of sight” in the 50s to “groovy” in the sixties to “awesome and amazing” among today’s millenials – could not have developed without access to the seedbed of extant, formalized English. In that sense habit can be said to be father to innovation.
Beyond the language realm, Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity could not have been developed without the pre-existing ideas of Maxwell and Minkowksi. In historical terms the newness of the Roman empire was derived from the ideological, religious and political habits of Greek culture, which in turn took its cue from the Egyptians, who borrowed from the Sumerians. There were probably pre-urban. nomadic groups whose ideas anticipated those.
Thus it could be argued that the structural nature of habit is what actually provides us with the capacity to explore, invent and take risks. It is life’s independent variable: all facets of experience typified not by ongoing change but through a process typified by themes and variations…the former providing the rock solid stability that sustains us, enables us to progress and adapt individually, socially and as a species.
That template has been applied to the study of aesthetics, often being referred to as the “synthesis-divergence” model. It was succinctly expressed by St. Augustine, who defined aesthetics as “order derived from the distribution which allots things equal and unequal” and supported by the research of Berlyne on the neuropsychological aspects of aesthetic experience (1971, (1974).
The physical and mental health implications of habit are particularly interesting. One fascinating version of this phenomenon was offered decades ago by Seligman who discussed the importance of learned hopefulness (an overriding sense of being able to manifest habits effectively) in maintaining mental and physical health. He even suggested a negative correlation between effective habituation (reinforcement control), depression and death (1975).
In a sense the above contention might seem counter-intuitive. After all, Lashley’s early studies on mass action and brain arousal patterns suggests the mind processes experience by first creating neurologically induced uncertainty prior to the search for closure (Rutherford, Fancher, 2012). Does that mean the brain implicitly rejects habit and certainty? Not if one acknowledges that, despite the uncertainty-reducing functions of the brain the mind could not possibly operate by an a priori random process without lapsing into a state of neuro-entropy. There would have to be original, ingrained cognitive and perceptual templates providing a pre-conception of desired outcomes, otherwise it would be impossible to determine if or when resolution occurred. In effect, without some mental foundation information processing cannot occur.
The philosophy of habit might seem to conflict with the mores and customs of the social world; as exemplified by sayings like: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”… or “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Then again is this a valid critique or merely a take by others (rather than the self) on what is right and necessary in defining an adaptive human being? For example, if one were to express what any given individual (for the sake of argument, assume he has reverted back to a state of nature) might feel about his own existence, the phrase: “happiness means discovering a few things you really like to do and continuing on that path” might in many instances be a more effective existential guideline by which to live.
Society and the Philosophy of Habit…
At the risk of taking this argument beyond its initial premise, the habit vs. change conundrum could have significant societal and moral implications. As the pace and volume of information increase, the possibility of info-consolidation decreases. As a possible consequence, attitudinal foundations can be compromised, destroyed or precluded. Every experience, triumph and tragedy could be diluted by interfering, overlapping subsequent experiences: the net effect being a lack of perspective, lack of meaning and no realization of existential signposts marking the historical journey of a society or of individuals within that society. Since individual human identity is in part derived from the time and place in which one lives, such a process could lead to self-image confusion – perhaps even to an increase in psychopathologies over time. One hopes not, and perhaps, having adapted to various stressors and strains over the course of human existence the ego will figure out some way to avoid such outcomes.
Berlyne, D.E. (1971) Aesthetics and Psychobiology, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts
Berlyne, D.E. (1974) Studies in the New Experimental Aesthetics. New York, Wiley
Figes, O. (2014) A People’s Tragedy; The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. The Bodley Head. p. 127
Hegel, G.W. F. (1821) Elements of Philosophy of Right.
Jefferson, Thomas. in a letter to James Madison wrote “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing”. Revolution and Reformation: On Politics and Government. R.G. Eyler (ed) Early American Review.
Keramati, M. Gutkin, B. (2014) A Reinforcement Learning Theory for Homeostatic Regulation. Group for Neural Theory, LNC. ENS Paris, France.
Note: The Beat writers, including Kerouac, Ginsburg and Lucien Carr developed the bohemian mindset/attitude initially as rebellion against the conservative literary formats taught at Columbia University. Over time this belief spread into various aspects of life style and behavior patterns.
Note; Heraclitis’s famous quote: “One cannot step into the same river twice” was indicative of the pervasive idea in ancient Greece that the universe was typfiied by change. A possible exception to that belief was Aristotle’s concept of a god he referred to as the “Unmoved Mover.”
Marx, K & Engels, F. (1848) The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marxist Internet Archive
Olds, J. Milner, P. (1954) Positive Reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of the rat brain. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 47 (6) 419-427.
Premack, D. (1963) Rate differential reinforcement in monkey manipulation. Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior (6) 81-90
Rogers. C (1961) On Becoming a Person; A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. London, Constable
Rutherford, R.E. Fancher, A. (2012) Pioneers of Psychology: A History (4th edition) New York, W.W. Norton
Schoenfeld, R Uretsky, N.J. (1972) Operant Behavior and Catecholamine neurons: prolonged increase in lever pressing after 6 – hydroxydopamine. European Journal of Pharmacology Vol. 20 (3) 357-362
Seligman,M. (1975) Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death. San Francisco. W.H Freeman
Note: St. Augustine reference from his work, City of God XIX