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Q&A: How Emotions and Identity Impact Habits

October 8, 2015 / Uncategorized

Nearly a decade ago, I woke up one day and decided I was no longer eating meat – and never looked back. My friends and family were skeptical at the start. But as time went on and I continued passing on the poultry and red meat, many people chocked it up to sheer determination.

It wasn’t willpower or motivation that helped me keep giving up meat cold turkey (lame pun intended), though. Instead, that initial driver was the positive emotion I associated with my new behavior (I felt healthier! I had more energy!). And over the long haul, it was the identity shift that kept me going (I’m not just avoiding meat. I’m vegetarian).

A lot of things impact whether or not we’ll stick with a new behavior, but emotion and identity are two key factors that help us kick off new habits and keep them going long-term, according to Dr. BJ Fogg, behavior change expert, Director of Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech lab, and Virgin Pulse Science Pulse Advisory Board. Read on for part two of a three-part Q&A series with Dr. Fogg.


KR: At what point does a behavior shift to a habit?

BJF: There is no moment in time when a behavior becomes a habit. Forget the “21 day” concept. It’s just not accurate. A habit is something you do without thinking. Imagine that each behavior is placed on a continuum of automaticity. The more automatic, the stronger the habit. It’s a matter of degree.

What makes a behavior become automatic? Well, in my research I’ve found a simple and specific answer: emotions create habits. That’s why feeling successful matters so much. If you do the behavior and you feel a positive emotion while doing it (or immediately after), then the behavior becomes more automatic. In other words, it’s going to become a stronger habit

KR: So then what’s the role of motivation in habits?

BJF: When it comes to habit formation, the role of motivation is not as big as most people think. Motivation doesn’t create habits.

Instead, the role of emotion is huge, and that’s different than motivation. If you experience a positive emotion doing a behavior, I believe your brain gets rewired to make you want to do that behavior again in the future. And you’ll do it with less thinking, with the cue or trigger hits next time.

You’ve probably heard me talk about the Fogg Behavior Model, which has three elements: motivation, ability, and trigger.

When it comes to habits, the motivation factor matters in selecting the new behavior. Like I said earlier, you should pick a habit you actually want. Pick a habit you are already motivated to create. Once you do that, then the other two elements – ability and trigger – come into play. At that point, it becomes a design issue: “How do I make this behavior easy, and what’s going to remind me to do it?”

KR: Ok, and what role does intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation have in that process?

BJF: Let’s say you don’t want to do a behavior, like eating kale. Even though you don’t want to eat kale, somebody is giving your prizes for eating it. This incentive might get you started doing that behavior. But it won’t turn into a habit unless something else shifts along the way. For example, let’s say you start eating kale only for the incentive, but over time you actually start liking it, or you see the benefits. Over time another factor emerges that can replace the motivation from the prize. That’s how incentives can work. They get you started. And then, when designed well, the behavior-change system helps you develop other motivators to get the behavior to continue.

KR: We often talk about it as, “I started running because my company gave me $100 a quarter to run. And that was my motivation at first, and now I’m running because I’m a runner.”

BJF: Yes, that’s right on target. The payment or the recognition can get you started. But then, to really make it a true habit, something else needs to come in to keep you going. And that can be, “Wow, I feel great when I run,” or “Wow, I’m now part of a running group.”

You said, “I’m a runner, now.” That statement has an important clue to lasting change. If your identity shifts and you start identifying as a runner, then you’ll start doing behaviors that are consistent with the new identity. That’s what you want to design for when you’re creating a behavior-change system: Help people see themselves in a new way. Help them embrace a new identity.

This post is part of a three-part Q&A series with Dr. BJ Fogg. Read part one to learn what factors help determine whether or not someone will effectively maintain long-term behavior change.


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