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

by Mati_Roy1 min read20th Apr 202015 comments

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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. ↩︎

2Mati_Roy7moYes, most are. Thank you! I don't know if "volume of speech" counts as a habit, but that's a good example. I suppose most people never fully asked themselves what volume of speech was optimal, yet that's something they act on regularly. Other examples that are central to what I was asking: use of toilets, showering, tying shoelaces, posture. The most specific ones are the most useful. I hadn't thought about verbal and mental habits, but those seem like really important categories too!

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.

1ErickBall7moWhat do you mean about junk drawers? Is this a metaphor?
2romeostevensit7moA literal cabinet or drawer that accumulates objects that don't fit anywhere else.

The ways we use the toilet.

Showering.

Tying shoelaces.

Sitting down. Standing up.

Cleaning glasses.

3Tem427mo"The ways we use the toilet" is particularly relevant right now, with many countries seeing an increase in toilet paper shortages while maintaining the standard level of bidet shortages. If more people knew how to use a bodna/lota, people would be a lot less stressed now.

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.

1Mati_Roy7moI agree! I didn't mean to include this kind of example in "social norms".
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The standard appliances. For example, most people in developed countries have a dishwasher, which may or may not be worth the cost and room used. Most people probably would want a refrigerator, microwave, stove, and washer/drier if they thought about it.... but most people probably haven't thought about it. I personally do not have a dishwasher, microwave, or dryer because they are not worth the room they take up. I know some people who would do just fine with a chest freezer but no refrigerator, and/or with a microwave but no stove; I lived for a year without a refrigerator with no troubles (but I was in a part of the world in which no one had a refrigerator, which helps a lot).

This is particularly interesting habit, since many people spend a few years in college with few if any of these appliances, but automatically assume that they need them once they get a apartment/house.

(FWIW, I am not a radical minimalist nor particularly efficient; I have a rice cooker, electric kettle, and toaster oven, which are technically redundant since I also have a stove and oven.)

"Ethics", and things like it.

can you elaborate / give an example?

I misread your question as being about beliefs, rather than habits. It's harder to come up with habits rather than non-habits. (Buying lottery tickets is probably an action.* Not buying lottery tickets is more a non-action.)

*Subscription, and regular payment systems, mess with what is and isn't an action.

For the low hanging fruit right now, I'd say "Hand shakes, and touching door knobs."