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Old habits die hard

Even a power cut doesn't stop Tim from watching TV...

Even a power cut doesn’t stop Tim from watching TV…

The phrase ‘old habits die hard’ is often used to excuse some behaviour that people wish they could stop. Though is there any truth behind this common phrase? I will discuss whether it is possible to break our old habits or whether they do indeed die hard.

When talking about habits, or habitual behaviour, I am referring to behaviours that are insensitive to reinforcer devaluation. By this I mean that an action, such as pressing a lever to gain a reward, continues even if the reward is no longer present or of value.

Many of our actions in typical daily life consist of habits such as washing our hands after going to the toilet. A lot of these behaviours are ‘neutral’ though they can be positive or negative actions. The phrase ‘old habits die hard’ is often used in conjunction with negative behaviours that can be detrimental to the individual or just no longer necessary. For example, smoking or biting their nails and laying the table for someone who has recently moved out, respectively.

Another type of behaviour that occurs on a frequent basis is goal-directed behaviour which is a behaviour where you have the representation of the final output in mind, i.e. you’re performing a particular action to achieve a certain goal. Goal-directed behaviours can evolve into habitual behaviours and this difference between habitual and goal-directed behaviours is represented by a change in the circuitry of the striatum, a part of the forebrain.

The question of whether old habits die hard is really a question of how difficult it is to break your habits, if even possible. To know if it is possible to break a habit it would help to know how the habit was formed in the first place. As behaviour moves from goal-directed to habitual there is an equivalent shift from the ventral (goal-directed) to the dorsal (habitual) part of the striatum. There are many studies that have demonstrated these functional differences between different regions of the striatum.

In terms of brain connectivity, to break an old habit, the brain connections should be from the ventral striatum as opposed to the dorsal striatum. Though how is it possible to do this? There is a wealth of research on the formation and maintenance of habits though I have not found any papers that have studied, in depth, the breaking of habits. There are papers however which suggest that it is not an irreversible single path leading from goal-directed to the habitual circuit but rather that there is ongoing competition between the two circuits. The behaviour is then controlled by which ever circuit is stronger at that time. So perhaps when people say that old habits die hard it means that their behaviour is controlled by their dorsal striatum and therefore their habitual brain circuit.

This idea of competing circuitry does suggest that it is possible to break old habits and return the behaviour to a goal-directed response. The competition between circuits is adaptive in most situations as the behaviours can be altered under changing situations. These changes in behaviour though are probably slower than if the habit circuit had never developed dominance over the goal-directed circuit. But there is a huge advantage to us that we can develop habitual behaviours which are automatic and therefore do not take up our limited cognitive power.

The competition between the two circuits could also explain the individual differences between how easy different people find it to kick a habit. You probably know someone who tries to give up smoking every month and maybe also someone who just decided one day that they would stop and haven’t smoked since. It may be that these individual differences in the ease with which people can give up habits is due to a difference in the dominance of the different circuits and therefore the ease with which someone can change their behaviour back from habitual to goal-directed. In conclusion, it seems that the phrase ‘old habits die hard’ is an over simplification of the difficulty some people find in changing their habitual behaviour back to the voluntary, goal-directed behaviour controlled by their ventral striatum.

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