The Psychology of Habit Formation

    Do you want to develop good habits or change your bad habits into productive ones? Understanding the psychology of habit formation is essential to forming new habits or changing your old habits.

    Knowing how a habit forms will help you create positive, useful habits and get rid of habits that could hurt you.

    Habits Begin with Goals

    Researchers at the University of Southern California found that habits come from a motivation to act. The desired goal influences why a habit is formed. The motivation can be positive, such as developing healthy eating habits or good study habits in college.

    Motivation can also come from avoidance, creating habits that help you have by keeping you away from troubling people or situations. Low self-esteem can lead to bad habits. If you don’t feel that you deserve good things, you may develop bad habits that reinforce your beliefs by bringing you negative results.

    Goals are centered on what end state a person wants to accomplish. When an action brings a person closer to their goal, they will repeat and improve on it until it becomes a habit.

    The goal could be general, like staying safe or being a better drive, or it could be more specific, like studying to get a degree or losing ten pounds. The goal of bad habits is usually to escape some unpleasant reality or focus attention on something other than the underlying issue.

    Habits Develop in Three Stages

    Habits contain three stages in a repetitive loop. Each time a person cycles through the loop, the habit becomes more formed and ingrained as a part of their behavior.

    The three stages are:

    • Cue or Trigger Stage
    • Behavior Stage
    • Reward Stage

    Cue or Trigger Stage

    The cue or trigger stage is the circumstance that causes a person to have a goal. When something new happens, your mind processes the situation as either threatening or non-threatening.


    You quickly form a goal to deal with the new situation by fighting, avoiding, or accepting the input.

    Each time you are presented with the same or similar situation, your mind references your previous decision and causes you to act to fight, avoid, or accept it.


    Without the cue or trigger, your brain won’t process the situation the same. Habits are formed first by repeatedly being exposed to the same cue or trigger.

    Behavior Stage

    Scientists at the University College London studied the behavior a person does when faced with a cue or trigger.


    They found that the more a person performed the same action or response, the more efficient they became at carrying out the behavior. Over time, the behavior becomes routine and required less thought to perform.

    It takes an average of 66 repetitions for a behavior to become a habit. Some people develop habits more quickly, while other people need more time.


    The emotions attached to the cue and behavior play a role in how fast something becomes a habit. The stronger the emotions, the more the cue and behavior are reinforced.

    Reward Stage

    The reward for performing an action after a cue or trigger also forms the habit loop. If an action helps a person to reach their intended goal, the reward signals their brain that the action is useful each time they encounter that cue or trigger.


    They will repeat the action over and over to reach the reward. As an example, imagine yourself driving a car. One of the rules of driving is to use a turn signal. But knowing the rules isn’t enough to form a habit.

    However, if each time you drive and use the turn signals properly, you are able to safely change lanes or make a turn, the reward of safe driving reinforces your action and helps you meet your safety goal.


    You begin to use the turn signal automatically or habitually, unlike a new driver who must think about using the turn signal when they first start driving.

    Conversely, if you don’t use turn signals and still arrive safely, not using them becomes a bad habit. Your mind won’t make the connection between the action of using the turn signal and driving safely if there is no reward associated with the action.

    Habits Can Be Changed

    Once something becomes a habit, you no longer consciously think about taking that action.

    Changing a habit requires changing all three parts of the habit loop. Smoking is a dangerous and unhealthy habit. To stop smoking, a person must have a different goal than to have a cigarette.

    When they are presented with a cue or trigger, like having a drink or after meals, they need to change their action.

    People trying to stop smoking often chew gum instead when they are cued or triggered to have a cigarette. The reward of feeling better reinforces the new action until it becomes a new habit and the old habit is replaced.

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