“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” Chapter 3

 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won’t cost you any more, but I’ll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

People are astonishingly bad at describing what they find attractive in member of the (usually) opposite sex. But they’re no worse if the researcher switched photos – they usually go ahead and describe why they’re attracted to the person they originally thought less attractive, and they do it just as enthusiastically as people who’re looking at the original photo.

Freud thought of the subconscious as something you could dig out with skilled help, and that’s the popular understanding. But it seems to behave more like a black box. Ask people which of four pairs of identical tights they prefer, they generally pick the one on the right,. Ask they why, and they come up with all sorts of explanations except the position. If you suggest the position might have influenced them, they give you a funny look. Ask them about their self esteem, and their answer has no relation to what their body language says.

People with damage to the frontal lobes of the brain may have no breaks on their habits. Put a pair of glasses in front of them, and they’ll put the glasses on – on top of the other two pairs they put on a minute ago. At the other extreme, there’s alien hand syndrome, where the patient’s hand is completely out of the patient’s control. It grabs doorknobs, undoes buttons, even hits people, without the patient (consciously) wanting to do any of those things. The patient feels as though someone else is controlling the hand. It’s like Dr Strangelove, but of course it’s not at all funny for the patient.

These are extreme examples, but they show “how our habits are continually bubbling up from the unconscious”. It’s just that most of us inhibit the habits sometimes. Not always. Yup, plonk a piece of chocolate in front of Sheila, and the same thing happens every time.

It’s no bad thing that our unconscious can recognise faces, catch balls etc. without conscious intervention. It’s just weird and slightly disturbing that we can’t see the working, even when we think we can. Ask students why they like the drink they’re about to get at the canteen, and they make less accurate predictions about how much they’ll drink. Ask them why they chose THIS poster instead of THAT one, and they’ll be less happy with the poster a week later.

It’s a bit like the fable of the fox and the “sour” grapes, or the smokers who insist that smoking isn’t dangerous.

This makes changing habits very tricky. The habit is down there in your unconscious, which, by definition you don’t understand and don’t control. But recognising the problem is an important first step, and the habit itself is a clue to what’s wriggling down in the murky depths.

Posted by sheila

Sheila came to La Palma with a six month contract and has stayed 24 years so far. She used to work as a software engineer at the observatory, but now she's a writer and Starlight guide.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.