A long long time ago, around the same time as Spanish-American War that ended Spain’s colonial rule in the Americas in the late nineteenth century, there was a cage. Not Nicolas Cage! but a cage in which you kept animals. In that were a few cats that were held in captivity. The cats scratched the cage, tried to bite the grills, poke their nose into corners, stick their paws through openings, and do all sorts of tricks to escape from it. The cats were so busy clawing, scratching and snarling that they hardly noticed a lever which when pressed would open the door of the cage. As they tried to explore ways to escape it, they jumped around and some of them accidentally pressed that lever. When the door swung open the cats escaped. Observing their behaviour from outside was a gentleman who would then get up, put all the cats back in and close the door of the cage. Again they would scramble and go about doing whatever it is that they did to escape, till they accidentally pressed the lever and cage door would open and some or all cats would escape. Gradually the cats begin to gauge this pattern and learned that when the lever was pressed, the door would swing open. This process (or trials as they call it) would be repeated twenty to thirty times and the gentleman who was observing the cat behaviour was an American psychologist called Edward Thorndike. He would go on to make a note of one of the following observations –
‘Cat no. 12 took the following times to perform the act (of pressing the lever to escape) – 160 seconds, 30 seconds, 90 seconds, 60, 15, 28, 20, 30, 22,11, 15, 20, 12,10, 14, 10, 8,8,5,10,8,6,6,7.
He observed that during the first three trials, the cat escaped in an average of 1.5 minutes. By the last three trials, it took them an average of 6.3 seconds to escape the cage.’
Slowly the act of pressing a lever became a habit.
“I am not a morning person”
“I am not disciplined”
"I can't live without cheese"
"I have to eat pizzas"
“I need something sweet to eat at night”
“I have to drink cola”
“I need my drink”
“I need to smoke”
.... et al, are some of the hundreds of variations I get to hear from my clients often. These can sometimes be nonchalantly passed off as mere excuses by most of us however, I have been a firm believer that the foundation of all human behaviour rests on our habits - which are nothing but a sequence of behaviours that we perform repeatedly. Most of the actions or routines that we follow on a daily basis can be categorised into our habits, whether they are good or bad, is for another discussion.
We are often inclined to think that habits get forged or broken at the juncture of a dramatic event and are under this illusion of ‘one radical event’ to be the cause for all change. But in this way, we have the disposition to ignore the little consistent effort that goes behind performing a repetitive behaviour day in and day out over time. Moreover, it is easy for us to say that ‘oh, you are disciplined that’s why...’ and underestimate the drudgery of the repeated effort put in by that individual on a consistent basis over time to be where he or she is today. Even in my own struggle to break bad habits and forge good ones, I have realised that it’s less to do with motivation and discipline but more to do with repetition. You build endurance in the gym by doing repetitions with weights. You build flexibility by stretching yourself. You build pulmonary fitness by pushing yourself cardio-vascularly. You build character endurance in life by repetitions of strong actions. Skills get sharpened by practising the art repeatedly. Courage gets built by facing your fears repeatedly.
Repeating any behaviour is known to cause changes in the brain. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” was quoted by Donald Hebb in 1949, and is commonly referred to as Hebb’s Law. When scientists analysed some taxi drivers in London, they found that the hippocampus region – a region involved in spatial memory – was significantly larger than non-taxi drivers. When you exercise you build strength in your muscles and once you stop then the muscles atrophy. Kind of like that, it was noted that the hippocampus region of the tax drivers decreased as they retired. Repetitive behaviour is known to establish a neural path in the brain, and as you go on repeating that behaviour the neural path gets forged – and gets its own protective sheath around that path, as the behaviour becomes automatic.
However, in this era where we are on the prowl for ‘life hacks’ our focus has gotten somewhat shifted to getting something quickly rather than on performing repetitive behaviour. For example, we constantly focus on hacking our way to get a great physique, losing ten kilos, going on a crash diet, subscribing to some new diet fad, et al. As convenience has sneaked its way into our lives we are constantly on the lookout for such quick fixes avoiding the little consistent efforts that go into building strong habits. We prefer not to do the cooking instead grab that pack of chips and munch on them. Our innate tendency has shifted to finding shortcuts in not only our daily behaviours but to even achieve desired personal outcomes. We tend to look for '5 things to get a boyfriend' instead of consistently working towards dealing with the little frictions involved in forging any healthy relationship. We wish to quickly subscribe to get-rich-quick trades without realising that wealth requires constant patient piecemeal efforts on a daily or monthly basis.
This tendency to look for hacks is bolstered by our inherent need to steer away from what’s hard or painful to do. Doing the same thing in the same fashion regularly is kind of hard to do. Getting up every day in the morning and going for a jog without fail is hard to do. Sticking to the timings of your diet plan is a hard thing to do. Reading something good on a daily basis for 30 min before sleeping is a difficult action to perform.
Practising daily to refine a skill is an arduous task. Looking at whatever we do from a long term perspective and from the lens of habits can work to our advantage. And even though Thorndike’s cat experiments may be perceived as borderline sadistic, the key inference that lays the foundation of understanding how habits have formed in us, whether good or bad and for us to reflect upon in our own lives can be summarised below –
That we tend to repeat behaviours that are followed by satisfying consequences and we are less likely to repeat behaviours that produce unpleasant consequences.
Also, it is illusory to think that one gets habituated because one is disciplined. It is because one is habituated at doing something repeatedly that one can become disciplined at anything.