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Changing sticky habits and making the subconscious conscious

Technology & Data

Changing sticky habits and making the subconscious conscious


In this three-part series, Crawford Hollingworth and Mike Daniels from The Behavioural Architects will examine cutting-edge behavioural thinking around habits to tackle the big questions facing marketers, researchers and anyone interested in behaviour and behavioural change.


A huge portion of our lives are dictated by our daily habits. In fact, social psychologists estimate almost half (45%) of our daily behaviour is habitual – this can be behavioural, emotional, linguistic, and even our thought processes.

Yet we have very little understanding of our habits and routines, many of which are so embedded we rarely even think about them. Which means they can be hard to stop and even if we know it’s bad for us, our habits can be difficult to break – just ask a smoker. Our habits can become fixed in our neurological patterning and sometimes are so embedded in our subconscious that we complete them on autopilot, like driving the same route to and from work every day.

Habits serve an important purpose and certain behaviours become automatic to make us more efficient. When our habits are so deeply engrained that they become automatic, we are able to carry out the action with minimal awareness, in parallel with other activities and without actual conscious intention or desire (this is where we find our less attractive habits such as nail biting, nose picking, and rearranging underwear in public.

Our habits help to make our lives smoother and more fluid, freeing up our minds so that we can do other things at the same time. Scientists say that once we master a new task or skill, our brainwaves slow down and we become more efficient at carrying out the task and have less need to think consciously about it.

It is thought that habits are formed through the interaction of three elements:

  • Triggers – a signal to carry out the habitual routine,
  • routines – an act of repetition which embeds in our muscle memory, and
  • rewards – these can be tangible like receiving a prize or physiological with the dopamine ‘feel-good’ release, or even the subconscious sense of achievement from completing a routine task.


Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit, provides a great example of these elements at work through a ‘bad’ habit that he struggled to kick. Every afternoon Duhigg would go to the cafeteria and eat a chocolate chip cookie, which caused him to gain weight. He identified the trigger was time: between 3pm and 3.30pm each day he walked to the cafeteria. The routine behaviour was the cookie consumption – but he realised the cookie wasn’t the reward. The actual reward was the chance to socialise with his colleagues. Once he realised this, it was much easier to kick the habit and create a new routine: to simply walk over to his colleagues’ desks and have a cookie-less chat.

As Duhigg shows, there are strategies we can apply to help to break habits and change our ways once we understand the trigger, routine and reward looping of our habits.

India’s notorious traffic provides another illuminating example. Drivers in India use their car horns excessively, which not only renders them useless it also creates a noisy environment. Unsurprisingly, hearing problems are increasing with reports finding 75% of traffic officers in Southern Indian cities have permanent damage to their hearing caused by their daily exposure to traffic.

Anti-honking campaigns to raise awareness had failed so Honda tried a behaviourally orientated solution, working with agency Briefcase. A red button with a frowning face was added to a set of Honda car dashboards, this button would bleep and flash continuously when a driver pressed the horn, stopping only when the horn stopped.  The buttons were tested over a six-month period and the system reduced honking by 61% on average.

The designers speculated that this removed much of the indiscriminate, unnecessary honking from the driver. It was effective in changing behaviour because it brought the act of honking to the drivers conscious attention and disrupted it with the flashing and bleeping button.

The presence of the frowning face also made use of injunctive social norms – things we know we shouldn’t do in society – to remind drivers that honking their horn was

It is only through making people more conscious of their habits and behaviours that you can begin to address behaviour change.

Researchers examined the ingrained habit of mindlessly eating popcorn at the cinema. Participants were each given a bucket of stale popcorn to eat and while all agreed the state popcorn gave limited satisfaction (as opposed to fresh popcorn) this alone did not determine how much popcorn they ate.

One group was told to eat the popcorn normally by using their dominant hand while the second group were asked to eat using their non-dominant hand (right-handers ate with their left-hand and vice versa). The researchers found those using their non-dominant hand ate significantly less popcorn than those using their dominant hand. By switching hands the behaviour was no longer automatic or habitual behaviour and so required conscious attention.

By awakening our conscious mind to our habits and defining the triggers for behavioural routines we can see how habits can be made, as well as broken by changing the environment or the design.


See Part Two next week, where we will explore ways of creating new habits in our lives.


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