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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Illusory Feelings, Elusive Habits: People Overlook Habits in Explanations of Behavior

Mazar, A., & Wood, W. (2022).
Psychological science, 33(4), 563–578


Habits underlie much of human behavior. However, people may prefer agentic accounts that overlook habits in favor of inner states, such as mood. We tested this misattribution hypothesis in an online experiment of helping behavior (N = 809 adults) as well as in an ecological momentary assessment (EMA) study of U.S. college students' everyday coffee drinking (N = 112). Both studies revealed a substantial gap between perceived and actual drivers of behavior: Habit strength outperformed or matched inner states in predicting behavior, but participants' explanations of their behavior emphasized inner states. Participants continued to misattribute habits to inner states when incentivized for accuracy and when explaining other people's behavior. We discuss how this misperception could adversely influence self-regulation.

General Discussion

In two studies, participants’ attributions overemphasized inner states and underemphasized habit. Participants’ actual willingness to donate time in a laboratory task as well as their everyday coffee drinking were determined as much or more by habits than by inner states (mood and fatigue, respectively). However, participants’ attributions for why they acted the way they did emphasized inner states more than habit. Thus, participants appear to be both undervaluing habit compared with its actual influence on behavior and overvaluing inner states such as mood and fatigue. This pattern is understandable given the  disproportionate value people place on personal introspections (Pronin, 2009) as well as general information- and motivation-based tendencies to interpret actions as goal-directed (Rosset, 2008). Through these forces, people may form socially-shared lay theories about behavior that inform their attributions. This lure of phenomenology not only biases lay theories but also may have oriented psychological theories to overvalue salient, motivational determinants of behavior (Duckworth et al., 2016).

The combination of experimental manipulation in Study 1 and naturalistic observation in Study 2 provides evidence for the causal role of habits as well as the relevance of this attribution bias in everyday settings. Furthermore, the results replicated across the different measures of habit strength appropriate in these different tasks: Study 1’s manipulation of practice along with a reaction time measure; Study 2’s self-report measures of behavioral repetition in a given context (a determinant of habit formation) and experienced automaticity (a consequence of habit formation); and Study 2’s exploratory within-person, context-specific habit measure tapping participants’ history of repetition in specific situations.  

Editor's note: Important data with direct implications for psychotherapy.