Feb 18, 2012
The New York Times just published this article on how companies use data mining and the psychology of habit formation to effectively target ads.
The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges.
It has some decent depth of discussion, including an example of the author actually using the concepts to stop a bad habit. The article is based on an upcoming book by the same author titled The Power of Habit.
I haven't seen emphasis of this particular phenomenon—habits consisting of a cue, routine, and reward—on Lesswrong. Do people think it's a valid, scientifically supported phenomenon? The article gives this impression but, of course, doesn't cite specific academic work on it. It ties in to the System 1/System 2 theory easily as a System 1 process. How much of the whole System 1 can be explained as an implementation of this cue, routine, reward process?
And most importantly, how can this fit into the procrastination equation as a tool to subvert akrasia and establish good habits?
Let's look at each of the four factors. If you've formed a habit, it means that the reward happened consistently, which means you have high expectancy. Given that it is a reward, the value is at least positive, but probably not large. Since habits mostly work on small time scales, delay is probably very small. And maybe increased habit formation means your impulsiveness is low. Each of these effects would increase motivation. In addition, because it's part of System 1, there is little energy cost to performing the habit, like there would be with many other conscious actions.
Does this explanation sound legitimate, or like an argument for the bottom line?
Personally, I can tell that context is a strong cue for behavior at work, school, and home. When I go into work, I'm automatically motivated to perform well, and that motivation remains for several hours. When I go into class, I'm automatically ready to focus on difficult material, or even enthusiastically take a test. Yet when I go home, something about the context switches that off, and I can't seem to get anything done at all. It might be worth significant experimentation to find out what cues trigger both modes, and change my contexts to induce what I want.
What do you think?
Edit: this phenomenon has been covered on LW in the form of operant conditioning in posts by Yvain.