Why are habits important?
Habitual behaviours are simple actions that are typically performed frequently and in a constant context, so they come to be performed relatively automatically when the relevant cues are encountered. Much poor health is caused by unhealthy behaviour or lack of healthy behaviour (e.g. not washing hands with soap, purifying water, or thoroughly reheating food). Once healthy behaviours become habitual, they are performed without the need for conscious deliberation, and so are more likely to be sustained, as opposed to behaviour gains following an intervention being lost over time. Therefore, habit formation has been cited as an effective way to get sustained changes in healthy behaviour. Despite this, little research has been conducted into how habits are formed.
Listen to Gaby Judah explain her work on habit formation in the video below.
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Our key contributions and research in this area:
Forming a flossing Habit
We conducted a study to see whether placement in a routine (flossing before or after brushing) had an impact on development of a flossing habit, and found that people who flossed after brushing were likely to form a stronger habit to floss.
The use of electronic sensors to document habits
We have developed an electronic system which can monitor use of various items. This allows us to measure behaviour over the long term (which is necessary for investigation of habit formation) without the need for self report which has been shown to be biased. The system comprises sensors worn by people and affixed to objects. These electronic sensors are shown in the picture to the right.
Current work in this area:
Gaby Judah is conducting research into habit formation in the UK, using the unobtrusive electronic sensors to track hygiene behaviour. The study has tracked over 100 people for four month each, and aims to identify factors (beyond repetition of behaviour) which increase the rate of habit formation.
We are planning on conducting studies to investigate the effects of reminders on the uptake of new behaviours and subsequent habit formation.
You can listen to Gaby presenting her results on the effects of rewards on flossing behaviour in the webinar below. This was presented at the 2014 Water and Health Conference at the University of North Carolina.
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Full list of publications related to habit formation:
- Forming a flossing habit: An exploratory study of the psychological determinants of habit formation. Judah, G.; Gardner, B.; Aunger, R.; Br J Health Psychol, 2013; 18(2):338-53
- Aunger, Robert (2007). ‘Tooth-brushing as routine behaviour.’ International Dental Journal 57 (5): 364-376.