The advantage of instinct is that nothing comes between an animal's awareness of its environment and its own internal states and the animal's behavior. To whatever it is currently experiencing instinct instantly provides the animal the appropriate response, without the animal having to think about it.
For human beings, every action, mental or overt, must be consciously chosen. If every choice a human being made and every action had to be, thought about, evaluated, and then an action chosen, human beings would hardly be able to function at all. Human beings do not have instinct, but they do have a very special attribute which is similar to learning but is not intellectual. It is the ability to develop techniques, methods, behavior, and, skills, which can be performed with little conscious attention and almost automatically—it is called habituation.
Everything from learning to walk to reciting the times tables is possible because of the ability to form habituated behavior. Patterns of behavior like typing, driving a car, playing musical instruments is largely habituated behavior. We also develop mental habits as well, like reciting the alphabet, learning to count, and using language: speaking, reading, and writing, all of which are used almost automatically and with very little attention.
Habits provide a similar kind of function in human beings that instinct does in animals. It enables human beings to carry out routine actions without having to mentally choose each step, thus leaving our minds free to concentrate on those things that require conscious attention.
[NOTE: The word habituate in general usage has three meanings: 1. The process by which habituated behavior is formed, 2. Physiological tolerance to a drug resulting from repeated use, 3. Psychological decline in responsiveness to a stimulus due to repeated exposure. It is only the first meaning and, by extension, the actual habits that are formed, we are interested in.]
While habituated behavior seems automatic it is unlike instinct in that, even when acting habitually, we are always conscious of what we are doing and can immediately take conscious control of what we are doing when necessary, such as when typing and become aware of a mistake or when driving and become aware of an emergency situation. Habituated behavior does not usually initiate itself and only continues so long as we consciously allow it.
By the time we are adults much of our behavior is habituated and we do many things with little or no conscious thought. While habituation is often called learning, is not learning in the intellectual sense. A better word is development. All habituated behavior, before it is developed, has to be performed deliberately. When we are "learning" to touch type, we at first have to pay attention to our finger placement and every character we type. By practicing, that is repeating the same action many times, we eventually develop the habits that enable us to type without even having to look at the keys and are not even conscious of what our fingers are doing. Part of the development is physiological and part of it is psychological. Our main interested is in the psychological aspects of habituation—habits of behavior and thinking.
All habituated behavior has these five characteristics:
Habits have to be developed. There are no inborn habits.
When someone does something they have formed a habit of doing, they frequently say, "that's just me," or, "that's just the way I am." But no one is born with the kind of developed behavior that is, "just me."
In the, "Must Choose, article," I wrote, in the, "What You Are Is What You Choose," section:
"What you are, the kind of person you are at any moment of your life, is the sum of all the things you have done, achieved, and accomplished, or failed to do, achieve, and accomplish up to that point in your life. That means everything from the way you talk, walk, and stand, how you groom yourself, how you interact with others, what you know and what you are able to do are how you have chosen to develop yourself, what you have chosen to learn, and what you have chosen to do."
Everybody, "just is," whatever they have chosen to be and make of themselves. Their habits don't make them what they are, they make their habits what they are.
Must initially be performed deliberately. This does not mean one develops all habits intentionally [see, "Intentional And Unintentional Habits," below], it means before any behavior can become habitual it first must be done deliberately. Nothing becomes a habit that was not originally done by deliberate full conscious choice.
Habit formation requires repetition. Nothing becomes a habit from doing it just once, and in most cases, not even from doing something several times. A behavior only becomes a habit when it seems useful or pleasurable and only when done enough times to be able to be done with little or no conscious attention.
A behavior only becomes a habit if it is comfortable or pleasurable. If something we do is painful and uncomfortable it is unlikely that it will be repeated often enough to become a habit. When something we do is comfortable or accompanied by pleasure it is often repeated often enough to become a habit. By comfortable is meant accompanied by a sense of ease, simplicity, and what one is accustomed to. If pleasure is the primary characteristic of the habit, each time the pleasure of a habit is experienced it, "reinforces," the habit. The pleasure of such habits often becomes the primary reason for their repetition.
No matter how thoroughly habituated a behavior is it cannot override conscious choice. All human behavior is by choice and one may always choose not to allow a habituated action or behavior. When one encounters a situation or circumstance to which one normally reacts by some habituated practice or behavior, one can choose to not act in that way. In such cases the emotional reaction can be incredibly uncomfortable, but the feeling cannot make a choice for us. [See, "Dealing with Bad And Difficult Habits," below.]
The Importance Of Habits
Almost everything we do requires habituated behavior, the kind of things we can do without thinking about them. From dressing ourselves in the morning to preparing a meal, most of the steps can done without thinking about them, but habits that make that kind of automatic behavior possible all had to be developed.
Habituated behavior makes most of human activity possible. A pianist does not have to think about every note when playing. having developed the ability to read music, and having practiced scales and exercises, the playing becomes almost automatic.
Human life would hardly be possible without all the habituated routines that make up daily life.
The Hazards Of Habits
All human capabilities are undifferentiated. That only means what humans are born able to do does not predetermine what they will do. How one develops those capabilities is totally flexible and how they are used must be determined by each individual.
We are born with the capability to learn, but what and how much we learn must be chosen by each individual. We are born with physical capabilities but how we develop and use them must be decided by each individual. We are born with the capability to feel emotions and desires, but each individual's own feelings are determined by their own learning, beliefs, and thinking. We are born capable to developing habituated behavior but which habits we form is determined by each individual's own choices and practices.
Simply put, habituated behavior can be invaluable, but it can also be extremely detrimental and each individual determines which kind of habits they will develop and sustain.
Just as our ability to learn makes it possible to learn what is true and valuable but also makes it possible to learn what is untrue and dangerous, our ability to form habits makes it possible to develop habits that are valuable and useful, but also makes it possible to develop habits that are self-harmful and debilitating.
Intentional And Unintentional Habits
Some of the habits we form are developed intentionally, like learning the times table or learning to play the piano. Of course "learning" in those cases means, "developing the ability to."
Many of our habits are developed inadvertently as part of our living experience. Almost anything we do routinely becomes habituated, just because such activity is repeated and useful and becomes comfortable.
How we develop our habits does not determined whether they are good or bad habits, and most habits are good and useful.
[NOTE: Habitual behavior is so useful that it makes many of the routine things we do pleasurable because we are able to do them efficiently, without much trouble or thought, and are able to concentrate on others things while accomplishing something worthwhile. Those habits become part of our routine. One reason things that interrupt our routines are so disturbing is because they interfere with the well ordered efficient parts of our lives, demanding sudden attention to what we normally perform quite well without.]
Habits Of Thought Most Important
Psychologists describe habits of feeling, but feelings are only the body's physiological reactions to what we are conscious of—what we perceive, what we think, and what we believe. What is mistaken for habits of feeling are actually, "habits of thinking."
Strictly speaking, "habits of thinking," is not correct, because real thinking must be done deliberately and intentionally. Whatever goes on in consciousness that is not consciously chosen is not thinking. That does not mean that it is not legitimate. Habituated, "thoughts," are really mental shortcuts. "When patterns of thought that reach specific conclusions," have been performed often enough that we are certain of them, the deliberate process of thinking required to reach those conclusions is no longer necessary. The process becomes habituated and the, "conclusion," simply replaces the process of deliberate thought in every situation it would normally be required.
The problem with, "habits of thought," is that they will be formed whether the thinking that developed them was correct or not. When "habits of thought," are based on false or superstitious beliefs or wrong thinking, instead of becoming short-cuts to the truth, they become short-circuits that make correct thinking impossible.
It is this aspect of habituated "thoughts" that make it so important to be diligent about what we fill our minds with. In the article, "Own Mind," I wrote:
"Fantasizing about doing or experiencing what one knows would be wrong if actually done or experienced is self-destructive and can lead to choices and behavior that we know are wrong. Fantasizing about doing wrong with the excuses, "nobody else knows it," "it's only in my mind," and, "I'm not really doing it," allows one to develop patterns of thought, and accompanying feelings, which contradict one's own values eventually breaking down one's control of their own thoughts and choices."
The "patterns of thought," that "break down one's control," are the hibitualized pleasure-reinforced thinking that contradicts one's own values and beliefs. The most common sources of such thoughts is media, from literature to television. There is no reason the media has to become the source of wrong thinking, but the thinking that accompanies much of it, the uncritical acceptance of what is being seen and heard, and the pleasure one enjoys from those experiences is a potent source and reinforcement of worst kind of habituated thoughts.
Dealing with Bad And Difficult Habits
Though the terms habit and habituation are used for such things as drug tolerance and more frequently for drug dependence, a, "drug habit," is a physiological condition, which is usually accompanied by habit in the psychological sense. The physiological aspects of chemical dependency can only be dealt with physiologically. All other habituation, including that associated with drugs, can only be dealt with psychologically, that is by conscious choice.
A habit is bad only if it is a cause of a problem to one's own life. When a habitual practice interferes with one's own best interest and their ability to be and achieve what they really want, such habits, no matter how simple or complex, are bad habits. They may be as simple as biting one's nails or as complicated as shop lifting, the fact that they interfere with one's own life and success are what makes them bad. A bad habit is not bad because someone else disapproves of the behavior or it is, "unacceptable," to some social group or another. What makes a habit a bad one is that it is a problem for the individual with the habit.
The solution to most bad habits consists of three simple steps: 1. identifying the habit and the situations or circumstances in which one is most likely to indulge them, 2. the determination and choice to undo the habit, paying special attention to when one is most likely to give in to them, and, 3. the intentional choice not do the thing whenever one feels, "tempted," to repeat the habitual practice.
Of course the steps are simple to state; they definitely will not be easy to do. How any individual will accomplish them will be different for every individual, because every individual is different and has different habits and develops them differently. The best advice anyone can give, without knowing the details of one's personal habits, must be generalities. Nevertheless, the generalities may be helpful:
The identification must be precise. It will often help to know why and how the habit was developed in the first place because very often avoiding the things that were the original reason for the habit and what is likely to "trigger" it will help in attempting to eliminate it. Such avoidance will not eliminate a habit, but limiting the number of times one is tempted to indulge the habit will limit the repetition of the impulse, helping to "reprogram" one's habits.
The determination must be absolute. Just wanting to eliminate a habit, or expecting some kind of trick or method (like hypnosis) will not eradicate a habit, especially if deeply ingrained. Determination means deciding you are going to eliminate the habit, no matter what the cost in effort, discomfort or pain, or how long it takes. When that is the choice, most people discover the amount of effort, the actual discomfort or pain, and how long it takes are all less than the worst imagined; but this must not be counted on. Unless one is willing to "beat" their habit, even if the effort, pain, and time are worse than they imagined, it is unlikely they will eliminate the habit.
The Intentional choice to not do a habituated thing is the actual work of eliminating a habit. No matter how determined one is to beat a habit, if one does not consciously choose not to do the thing they want to eliminate, the habit will continue to dominate their behavior. Saying no to every impulse or desire to indulge the habit, every time, is the hard work. It is when refusing not to do what one habitually "desires" to do that all the bad things about beating a habit occur, the discomfort, the pain, sometimes an almost panic-like agitation and sense of, "is this never going to end," is experienced. About all of these I can honestly say, as terrible as they seem at the moment of the experience, you will survive every one, and you will discover when they are over, none of them were as bad as they seemed at the time, and the reward for beating a habit is ten times as enjoyable as whatever you suffer in the process of eliminating your bad habit.
There is no habit that cannot be undone by these steps. The truth is that long term and deeply ingrained habits are always the most difficult and some habits will be impossible to eliminate, just because the steps required to eliminate them will have become impossible. Some habits become so thoroughly a part of an individual's life, it is impossible for them to recognize them, even when one someone else points them out. Even if recognized, there is often no desire or motive to change or eliminate them, because the psychology of those who have them has become dependent on the habits which they will cling to, even in the face of death. Such people cannot even begin the first two steps of eliminating a habit.
No one ever has to let their habituated practices come to dominate their life in such a way, but the choice to take conscious control of one's own life cannot be put off forever, because there will come a time in everyone's life when it is too late.