Habits are nasty, and nice. Nasty, because the habit cueing mechanism – which enacts the entire sequence of behaviour – does not require the original supporting ‘goal’ to be remembered, or even exist. Nice, because the habit cueing mechanism – which enacts the entire sequence of behaviour – does not require the original supporting ‘goal’ to be remembered, or even exist.

A paradox, surely?

No. Not really. The nastiness or niceness of the characteristics of a habit depends on the view-point.

  1. If one wishes to relieve oneself of habitual behaviour then habits are nasty, trigger happy, pervasive behaviours that happen unawares and a difficult to break
  2. If one wishes to afford our limited cognitive capacity as much free space to think, observe, engage, and interact with the world around us, then habits are lovely, automatic, stress-free behaviours that happen unawares

How are habits formed?

We tend to repeat experiences that are rewarding. And repetition affords us a knowledge-bank. A knowledge-bank of rewarding experiences allows us to be confident in the outcome, and allows us to defer the process to instinctive behaviour. We are free to ‘think’, once more. This grab-bag of packed, folded, and wrapped behaviours accrued slowly over time would be at risk if we could simply forget them, or ignore them. So we don’t. Change is slow with habits. It has to be.

So slow, in fact, movie buffs will eat stale popcorn.

How are habits perpetuated?

Our popcorn eaters were asked to rate some movie trailers. They were given free popcorn and a fizzy drink. The popcorn was either fresh, or seven days sold. Those that were self-reporting occasional popcorn eaters ate less of the stale version. However, those that self-reported as habitual popcorn eaters liked the stale corn less but ate as much as they did when it was fresh.

Wood and Neal (PDF) tell us this captures an essential component of habits:

When people frequently have performed a response in stable contexts, the context can come to trigger the response directly in the sense that it does not require supporting goals and intentions.

Once embedded, they’re triggered by any part.

How are habits broken?

Wood and Neal tell us that

“habits are broken through the strategic deployment of effortful self-control”

but they forget one factor that Tim Cotter elevates (in conversation with Greg Foyster),

‘Fixed conditions hold habits in place, so if you change those conditions, you can help change the habit.…”

That’s how habits broken: change the conditions. How do you use this insight in marketing?

Conditional change and marketing

We tend to choose products such as cars instinctively (and consequently quite quickly) and then spend ages hunting for rational reasons to agree with [rightcol]
‘ourselves’. There’s a whole world of posts to write on this (particularly about how we think a brand reflects on us), but I don’t want to go there here.

However, it is clear once our decision is made we don’t have to make the decision ‘as new’ every time we do something – such as getting into our car. In fact, as long as our car performs as expected, we build a knowledge-bank of rewarding experiences allowing us to be confident in the car, and the manufacturer. Breaking this lock-hold is tough.

Too tough?

Chevrolet and Argentina

Chevrolet ‘rescue drive’ is an Argentinean campaign brought to my attention by Katie Allen through her new twitter account AdPitchBlog and her wonderful companion blog.

Of the campaign, she says;

“To get people to test drive the new Chevrolet Cobalt, they sent one to the point when people are most likely to think about changing their car: when they’ve broken down.”

Certainly those with breakdowns are forced to consider fixing or replacing their car, but the crux is that their habitual behaviour is under forced examination. This isn’t a home-run yet, though, because our knowledge-bank of rewarding experiences is accrued slowly over time, and while breaking down is not such a good experience, the research suggests it’s not enough alone to break behaviour. Indeed, Maréchal tells us of habits that, along with a change in environmental cues and induced deliberation (which is clearly in place with Chevrolet ‘rescue drive’),

‘ . . . time and repetition will be needed to promote alternative habitual behavior’.

This is not part of the campaign, as far as I can tell.

How long for a habit?

It is common to think a habit needs about twenty-one days to form. It seems this is a corruption of the time taken for bones to mend perpetuated clumsily. Phillippa Lally’s study into habit forming at University College London showed test subjects needed somewhere between almost twenty and over two hundred and fifty days to form a habit that could be repeated every day. The average was about seventy days.


Why not lend the Chevrolet Cobalt to the rescued drivers for two months (which approximates the seventy days Lally shows)?

Even better, do some lend-testing and give group A the car for a week, group B for a month, and group C for two months. (Or other variations more desk research would suggest.) Now you’re using some insights into behaviour to get some behavioural insights. That would make a robust piece of behavioural communication.

Not bad from Chevy in its current form though – well done them.

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• Oliver (LinkedIn) is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
• Member of the Influence Advisory Panel
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network Meetup group
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network on Facebook


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