I recently decided to reduce my sugar intake but, disappointingly, I just ate the bowl of ice cream they offered me on my flight. I hadn’t planned to eat it but said yes without really thinking about it. Ice cream on a plane has become a habit.
According to the research of Wendy Wood, a social psychologist at the USC School of Business, we truly are creatures of habits. Although people think they are in control of what they do, almost half of our behaviors are not really conscious choices. They are repeated habits cued by our environment. As she points out,
Most people don’t think that the reason they eat fast food at lunch or snack from the vending machine in late afternoon is because these actions are cued by their daily routines, the sight and smell of the food or the location they’re in. They think they’re doing it because they intended to eat [at that time] or because they like the food.
As a society, we have long counseled people with addictive tendencies to avoid anything which triggers their craving; for example, alcoholics should stay out of bars. Wood’s research suggests environmental cues also influence the behavior in healthy people. In one study, Wood found college students were more successful in breaking their television habit if the TV were placed in an unfamiliar location.
The key to breaking a habit is to break the routine. Someone who wants to stop eating fast food could change their normal commute to avoid passing the restaurant. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explains:
The same technique can be used to create positive habits. If you need to take a pill every day, the solution could be to store it next to your toothbrush. The habit of brushing your teeth is transferred to the habit of taking a pill.
It’s an intoxicating theory. The key to exercising regularly or stopping smoking– or even becoming more productive – is to understand the underlying positive or negative habit.
In my case, if I want stop eating ice cream, maybe I need to stop getting on planes.