FEATURE6 June 2017

Habit formation

Behavioural economics Features UK

Marketers need to understand people’s habitual behaviour and neuroscience can help explain how a habit loop is formed. By The Behavioural Architects' Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker

Brain connecting to body_crop

Understanding habits – the formation and maintenance of actions, skills, thoughts and emotions, and how to change or break them – is critical for marketers and researchers as around 45% of our daily actions are habitual. New understanding about what is actually going on in the brain as we create and maintain a new habit will further enhance this understanding.

Research by award-winning MIT neuroscientist Professor Ann Graybiel has revealed that a brain region called the striatum (see location in the image below) plays an important role in habit formation.

The striatum – contained within a part of the brain called the basal ganglia – coordinates things like action planning, decision-making, motivation, reinforcement of actions, but particularly our perception of rewards.

Neuroscientists have found that the striatum plays an important role when we are learning a new behaviour or task. Graybiel and her colleague Scott Grafton describe it as “a sort of learning machine dedicated to achieving success in behaviour.”[ 1 ]

It gathers information from other brain regions so that we can learn to quickly choose which behaviours to carry out, eventually acting instinctively, making our brain more efficient.

So what happens in the brain when we decide to do something new?

  • Step 1: Whether a new behaviour, skill or thought process, such as learning a new route to work, a new language or a new DIY task, we need to engage our prefrontal cortex – this is the part of the brain involved in conscious, higher level cognition such as problem solving and planning complex tasks. During this process, our prefrontal cortex sends continual messages to the striatum.
  • Step 2: The striatum, on receiving these messages, relays them to other parts of the brain, enacting the necessary actions, thoughts or movement.
  • Step 3: Then over time, as we repeat a behaviour day-in, day-out, we engage the prefrontal cortex less and less and the message inputs sent to the striatum fade. For example, human brain imaging as people practice sequential finger movements – like playing the piano – has found that there is progressively reduced activity in the prefrontal areas as they practice. And further evidence shows that those who reduce activity in the prefrontal cortex sooner, seem to acquire that skill or embed a habit faster. Instead, the new habit is enacted automatically via other, more primitive parts of the brain.

We can now carry out the behaviour without needing to think about it consciously, saving us considerable brainpower.

Of course, this is problematic for bad habits because it means we have little conscious control anymore. Graybiel says “Even if you really don’t want to, it’s hard to not do.”

Once a habit loop is formed, it is fixed in our neurological patterning forever.

Over time, these wiring shortcuts don’t disappear either, even if we drop the habit over time. A recent study by Lee Smith and Ben Gardner, drawing on longitudinal data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, found that children aged 10 who often participated in sports were more likely to participate in sport or physical activity aged 42. Habits formed in childhood can continue into adulthood, even if they are ‘dormant’ for periods of time.[ 2 ]

What these discoveries by neuroscientists show, from an ‘inside the brain’ point of view, is what can start and feel like heavy neural lifting will soon become effortless.

By Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker, Behavioural Architects


[ 1 ] Graybiel, A., and Grafton, S.T. The Striatum: Where Skills and Habits Meet” Cold Spring Harbour Perspectives in Biology 2015;7

[ 2 ] Smith, L, Gardner, B, Aggio, D & Hamer, M 2015, ‘Association between participation in outdoor play and sport at 10 years old with physical activity in adulthood’ Preventive Medicine 74 ( 2015 ) 31-35.