New quarantine, new me: The neuroscience of habit change

Optimise yourself during the societal demise

Writer: Alexandra Gilbert 
Editor: Elly Chaw
Artist: Lia Bote

In times of uncertainty, anxiety, and crippling boredom, we face the prospects of using this period of isolation to improve our daily routines, garner new habits, and reform the old, menacing ones. Maybe start yoga, get back into art, or finally enforce a healthier sleep routine?  

After all, if there’s ever a time to nurture healthy habits, it may as well be during the most devastatingly tedious apocalypse of our century.

How habits and goal-directed behaviour function in decision-making

Our decisions are informed largely by two distinct habitual and goal-directed systems.

Habits have the capacity to shape who we are as people. Alcoholism is one example, and so is that daily morning run we all aspire to, and so is uselessly opening the fridge when walking into the kitchen. 

Although habits extend their influence at different levels in our lives, they are all formed, reinforced, and moulded over time. When a stimulus is coupled with a voluntary response that leads to a reward, we tend to repeat these behaviours. The more we repeat them, the more reinforced the behaviours get, until they’re almost automatic despite the action being voluntary; like brushing your teeth in the morning when you enter the bathroom.

Based on the inflexibility of habitual control, Prof. Nathaniel Daw and his group at UCL Computational Neuroscience Unit in 2005 proposed that habits fall under a “model-free” system that encompasses the dorsostriatal and dopaminergic reward circuits of the brain. Their premise is that over time and reinforcement, habit sequences become cached so that future information doesn’t immediately affect the built-up sequence of events seen in habitual behaviour. 

Are we then trapped by the inflexibility of habits? This is where goal-directed behaviour comes in. As a “model-based” process occurring mainly in the prefrontal cortex, goal-directed behaviour is constantly updated when the world presents us with new information. It is also highly influenced by the predicted value and predicted cost of an outcome. For example, you know that if you study, you’ll get a better grade. You also know that if you choose to binge watch Netflix, that your grades will be at the detriment, but not enough to compromise your entire degree since you’ve already revised a little. You predict the value of the outcome, and you make a choice based on your current circumstance. Where habits rely on previous information, goal-directed behaviour is constantly subject to new cues.

Despite traditional stances positing that our decisions are either made using a model-free (habitual) or model-based (goal-directed) process, recent evidence suggests that people use both strategies on a decision-to-decision basis. Using both classical and Bayesian statistical approaches, Prof. Daw’s team found that human decision-making is a hybrid of both model-based and model-free systems. This is based on the assumption that decisions are sequential in nature, and follow a Markov chain logic. 

Nonetheless, the potential for habitual plasticity presents itself when both models are exploited to your personal advantage.

Using your goal-directed behaviour to drive decisions

Armed with a new perspective of habit change, the greatest challenge is using your goal-directed behaviour and learning to decide on what behaviour will predict the best outcome for you. It is also to become doggedly aware of the habit you’re trying to change or form. 

How much do you value the outcome of your desired habit? How much does it cost for you to achieve the outcome of the desired outcome? 

Making sure the value of the outcome outweighs its cost is vital. If a new habit causes you pain, let’s say, stiffness after going all-out on a new workout routine, you are less likely to reinforce it consistently over time. But the pain needn’t be so intense to keep you from running and turning it into a habit! Limiting the intensity of a new venture and scheduling it in a way that doesn’t profoundly alter your everyday life is a great way to introduce a habit that you’d like to stick and build up over time. 

Our immediate environment provides stimuli that can elicit a response, so we can also actively change them to suit our needs using goal-directed behaviour. Anatomically, habits are modulated by sensorimotor input: the more sensory and movement information associated with the habit, the more reinforced the habit will become. Thus, your environment and the specific way you interact with it can trigger a habit sequence. If that action is repeated over and over again using the same environmental triggers, in the same sequence, you’ll likely end up with a reinforced habit. It’s no wonder that habit is so closely associated with the concept of keeping a daily routine. 

Of course, since habits eventually become somewhat independent of the goal in mind, the battle of willpower is in initiating the habit sequence of choice, by valuing the outcome of your actions and using goal-directed behaviour to improve yourself.

What are the habits you’re trying to break, change, or form during this pandemic?


Daw, N., Gershman, S., Seymour, B., Dayan, P., & Dolan, R. (2011). Model-Based Influences on Humans’ Choices and Striatal Prediction Errors. Neuron, 69(6), 1204-1215. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.02.027

Daw, N., Niv, Y., & Dayan, P. (2005). Uncertainty-based competition between prefrontal and dorsolateral striatal systems for behavioral control. Nature Neuroscience, 8(12), 1704-1711. DOI: 10.1038/nn1560

Hardwick, R., Forrence, A., Krakauer, J., & Haith, A. (2019). Time-dependent competition between goal-directed and habitual response preparation. Nature Human Behaviour, 3(12), 1252-1262. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0725-0

Robbins, T., & Costa, R. (2017). Habits. Current Biology, 27(22). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.09.060

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s