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What are habits that a lot of people have and don't tend to have ever questioned?

by Mati_Roy 1 min read20th Apr 202015 comments


Beside social norms, like shaking hands, and survival needs, like eating.

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  • Habits of thought that manifest as a deep gut feeling...
    • "The narrator in my mind is always right, especially when it tells me how wrong or bad I am"
    • "My mind is confined to my brain"
    • "My body is bounded entirely and always by my skin"
  • Reactions [1] to common social situations...
    • My kid is yelling "NONONONONO", I should feel [EMOTION] and say [UTTERANCE]
    • My boss is coming this way, I should sit [POSTURE] and be doing [ACTIVITY]
  • The way I hold my body when I type, drive, walk, run, stand, &c.
  • The appropriate volume for speech
  • The procedure for tying shoes
  • The way we cook and eat certain foods: specifically foods like eggs where there are plenty of options, and plenty of local variation, but we still routinely default to over-medium or whatever

... I sense this list could get very long if allowed. Basically every skill or pattern we have acquired since birth is comprised of at least one habit. If you can do a thing without having to think it out step-by-step, it's a habit (or a series of consecutive habits) triggered by some context(s). If you have a cached default established well enough that it's useful, that's a habit. Are any of the examples I or others have listed like what you were looking for? Which items seem to more centrally match your needs?

  1. To clarify: Any behavior that looks like a "reaction" from the inside is a habit. Non-habitual actions are "response"s. ↩︎

The thesis of Secret of Our Success (summary and review by Scott Alexander here) is that adaptive habits discovered by accident and passed down through generations account for the majority of human behavior; it has dozens of specific examples including taboos, food preparation, etc. In highly traditional cultures people may never question these habits. When Tukanoan women asked why they spend multiple hours a day processing manioc that tastes fine when only boiled, they would simply say it's their custom rather than appealing to reason or myth. (It actually reduces cyanide that would otherwise cause chronic poisoning.) Note that I may be conflating examples here.

Wastebasket taxon. Eg where your 'junk' drawer or container is and how you relate to it. Going to the same dozen places repeatedly and talking to the same dozen people because going somewhere new introduces variance and cognitive overhead. Not thinking of lots of things as a skill rather than a personality factor if not introduced as a skill during the personality formation stage eg extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism are highly influence-able from learning specific sub skills.

The ways we use the toilet.


Tying shoelaces.

Sitting down. Standing up.

Cleaning glasses.

Culture-specific habits like eating with hands in India or with chopsticks in other South Asian countries. Could be considered a social norm but I don’t think they are, as these are mostly a matter of preference that can be changed without violating any social agreement.