Why Do We Get Stuck In Bad Habits?

Let’s start with an example (which may or may not be based my own life experiences!)

As you walk home from work you approach your local supermarket. Inside you can see people wandering around the shop and going about making their purchases. You begin to walk into the direction of the store and before you know it you’re at the checkout buying the chocolate that always takes your fancy.

Initially this wasn’t a problem.

Everyone deserves a treat right?! But gradually you started making these trips on more regular basis until now you can’t go a few days without getting your usual choccy fix. You know that you could be saving up your money to spend on better things (a weekend away maybe?) and that this regular sugar intake can’t be great for your health, but you feel too stuck in your ways to do anything about it.

Sound familiar? (Well I hope that someone can relate to this because I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one who’s got a sweet tooth!). So how does a once innocent treat turn into a bad habit?


You could blame the bright lights of the supermarkets for tempting you in to find shelves full of your favourite snacks. And this is definitely part of what keeps your habit going. (Afterall, would you hunt down that chocolate bar elsewhere if the lights of your local shops were off and their shutters where down? Probably not.)

But the major factor which determines whether we do something on a more regular basis is what consequences follow the behaviour that you do.

Going back to the chocolate habit, in the shop you hand over your money to make a purchase (a behaviour). This is then closely followed by you receiving the item and eating it at home Deeelicous! (The consequence). Because you got something nice (the yummy chocolate) after you purchased it from the supermarket, you will be more likely to buy that chocolate again in the future when you next pass by the shop.

And if you do indeed start to buy chocolate more regularly, then you could say that your behaviour is a result of positive reinforcement.

“The behaviour babble”
Positive Reinforcement: something is presented to you after you have completed a certain behaviour. This consequence increases the likelihood that you will do that behaviour again in the future.

Reinforcement: something which makes a behaviour more likely to re-occur again at a later date. 

Beyond the ‘anonymous’ person who is eating chocolate more frequently than they should, what other bad habits do people have?

Online shopping regularly? Gambling? Constantly checking Facebook/Instagram/Twitter? Playing too much candy crush? Watching too much TV?

It’s quite likely that all of these things are heavily influenced by positive reinforcement. It’s something that’s happening constantly in the world around you and you might not have been aware of it until now! (Spooky eh?)

Can you think of other examples of positive reinforcement that are happening right now in your life? Don’t be shy and let me know in the comments section below!

A note about the behaviour babble jargon and how to get through it!
Reinforcement is “positive” because something has been added to your life/environment, NOT because something good has happened. It helps to look at the meaning of “positive” in a similar way to the plus + sign in maths.  There are actually two types of reinforcement, the other type being (you guessed it!) “negative reinforcement”. Because negative reinforcement does not tend to result in bad habits I’ll spare you the explanation of that for another time! But FYI it helps to remember early on that positive = plus/adding something you like.