You will hear that habits are loops. The idea is that a cue triggers a response which results in a reward. The circle is complete when the reward links back to the cue. This easy to understand concept is quite popular. There is no evidence that it is true. Or at least, it is not that simple.
We tend to automatically jump to Skinner’s reinforcement theory. We assume rewards or dopamine stimulation account for all of our behaviors. But let’s not rush to that conclusion. There may be another explanation.
Since habits are thought to be learned, explanations of what causes behavior go back a long way. Aristotle, about 300 years before our calendar begins, proposed three principles of learning. These laws of association are similarity, opposites and contiguity.
Aristotle noted that we are good at making connections between similar things. We are also able to easily identify contrasts. Remember Sesame Street’s “One of these things is not like the others”? Essentially, we quickly identity positive and negative correlations. We track things that move together or things that go in opposite directions. We are gifted at pattern recognition.
Aristotle’s third law of association, contiguity, says that we notice thing that are close to each other physically or in time. We notice when objects are physically placed close to each other. We associate pies with the window ledge they are set on to cool. Planets close to Earth are thought as a single unit (solar system) because they care close together. We think of countries bordered by their neighbors as being similar.
Contiguity of time helps us associate events we believe go together. find a coin and meet an old friend on the same day. We say “now” and the traffic light changes. We run the can opener and the cat appears. Two events that occur about the same time are associated together.
Six hundred years after Aristotle, Edwin Guthrie (1886-1959) made contiguity the center of his theory of learning. Guthrie maintained that when a stimulus and response occur close together in time or space, bonds are formed. These bonds (associations) is all that is needed to explain learning. No other conditions are required. Once the association between a stimulus and a response has been established, the same sequence of movements is repeated.
Guthrie modified and extended Thorndike’s work with cats. Guthrie used the latest technology of the day to study cats in puzzle boxes. In addition to observing the cats, Guthrie film the entire process. He photographed the exact movements of the cats, using a glass paneled box.
What Guthrie discovered is that while the cats learned to release themselves faster, they repeated the same sequence of movements on every trial. They repeated the entire chain of responses, including all of the unsuccessful attempts. Some components were executed faster than others but all of them were still present. Guthrie called this process stereotyping.
Stereotyping, says Guthrie, proves that a chain of movement was learned, not simply a single response. Cats repeated all of the behaviors. They didn’t eliminate any. Skinner called them superstitious behaviors and said they were caused by reinforcement. Guthrie called them stereotyping and said they were caused by association alone. There was no need for reinforcement.
For Guthrie, learning occurs without reinforcement. It occurs at full strength or not at all. This all or nothing formation of bonds initially sounds contrary to our experience of getting better incrementally. If it is one-shot learning (all or none), how is it that we get better and faster at performing behaviors?
Guthrie’s solution has to do with the size of bonds. We tend to think of learning bonds as being large. Guthrie thinks they are extremely small. Do you remember Gulliver’s Travels? He was tied down by the Lilliputians with many tiny strings. Each was small and easily broken, but together they formed a strong chain.
For Guthrie, we learn by forming millions of bonds, each very small. We repeatedly break some and make others. Improvements in our behavior come from breaking some of the irrelevant bonds and strengthening more of the relevant bonds. These tiny bonds stay in place until they are replaced. Forgetting is due to interference. Some of the bonds are broken.
Guthrie proposed that there are three components of learning. We can use the acrostic HAM to remember them: habits, acts and movements. Backward chaining them, movements (M) was the smallest bonds. They are the tiny strings. Each muscle and tendon movement produces proprioceptive stimuli, which, in turn, help produce the next movement. Movements are small S-R combinations that form a chain of associations. Learning occurs in movements.
The A in HAM is for acts. Acts are collections of movements. They are the observable behavior that we see. Any act can be composed of thousands or millions of movements.
The H of HAM is for habits. Habits are well-established acts. The strength of the habit (habit strength) is determined by the number of stimuli which can produce a response. The more stimuli involved, the stronger the habit.
Clearly, the way to change a habit is to change the movements. More precisely, the way to change a behavior is to change the stimuli of that cause the movements chains. These stimuli are called movement produced stimuli (MPS). They are the key to change. You replace old behaviors with new behaviors by doing them. By responding differently to the same stimuli, you form new associations in the chain.
Guthrie was an advocate of learning by doing. His theory is pre-cognitive. You don’t need to change your thinking. You need to change your behavior. You need to practice your behavior where the triggering stimuli are present. Consequently, a theater director should add more dress rehearsals. A coach should add more games and exhibitions.
The emphasis is on doing the desired behaviors. If you want to teach children, spouses or yourself a behavior, do it over. If you enter your house and dump your stuff on the floor, Guthrie recommends you practice the whole sequence. Go back outside, come in again, and hang up your things.
This is not punishment, says Guthrie, though it might feel like it. It is practice. The only way to learn is to form the tiny bonds between muscle movements. Unlearning bad habits is learning to do something else in the same situation (stimulus conditions). Practice new behavior when old cues present.