Understanding how habits are formed, how they can be broken, and how more favourable ones can replace them, is an area of interest to both neuroscientists and business leaders.
Our decisions dictate our lifestyle choices and form the habits that contribute to our health and wellbeing; and, in the workplace, without the power to take control over habitual behaviour, improvements in performance are less likely and changes in organisational culture less effective.
A recent neuroscience study has shed light on the chemical reactions occurring in the brain when making decisions, and which influence our choice between habitual behaviour and goal-oriented behaviour; this may pave the way for greater understanding of how to break old habits and form new ones.
What are habits?
Habits are basically reflexive behaviours that have become engrained into our everyday actions. Brushing one’s teeth or shaving are ‘habits’ – actions that we do without thinking or conscious effort. These are perhaps ‘neutral’ type actions that everyone does, and which are necessary for everyday functioning.
Other habits can be classed as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. ‘Bad’ habits can lead to addictions and health problems; in the workplace ‘bad’ habits lead to consistent poor performance.
And, of course the reverse is true of good habits. But the problem is that it can be very difficult to change engrained patterns of behaviour, even if we want to.
In order to change behaviour, a conscious decision is required to make decisions based on goal-oriented actions. We need the capacity to ‘break habits’ and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information – and this requires a shift of emphasis, and often a concerted mental effort.
This is easier said than done. Goal-directed behaviour and habitual behaviour are centred on different parts of the brain; serious failure to shift between the two can lead to certain disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and the aforementioned addictions.
But, in fact, most of us have difficulty being able to make this ‘shift’ at various times. For instance, think about when your normal ‘wake up’ and ‘get to work’ routine is disrupted and how that can make you feel.
The latest neuroscience on habit formation
A recent study, published in the journal Neuron, has shed some more light on how the brain controls the basic process of forming and breaking habits.
A team of neuroscientists was able to pinpoint a self-made neural mechanism that reduces the flow of information to a part of brain known to participate in goal-oriented behaviour.
The lead researchers said:
“Our results suggest that alterations in the brain’s endogenous endocannabinoid neuromodulatory system could be blocking the brain’s capacity to “break habits” as observed in disorders that affect switching between goal-directed and habitual behaviors. In other words, endocannabinoids act as a brake in the OFC, allowing for habit formation.”
While that quote may sound confusing, it’s relatively simple to break down and ‘translate’. The OFC is the orbitofrontal cortex, which is known to be involved in goal-oriented behaviour. Reducing activity in the neurons here has long been considered one of the keys to habit formation, and the neurochemicals called ‘endocannabinoids’ are known to reduce the activity of neurons. This study has effectively ‘connected the dots’ between the two.
For medical researchers, this could have important consequences for breaking addictions. Quite what this means in the workplace remains to be seen; but the role of endocannabinoids is set for more research.
Apart from the importance of these neurochemicals in understanding more about how habits can take over and subdue goal-oriented behaviour, interest has been generated in everything from their role in the body’s reward system during exercise, to their mood enhancement, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory properties.