Introduction to Concept:
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains something advertisers have known for quite some time: human beings can be trained to respond to cues with routines as long as there is a reward. He calls this the habit loop. It looks like this:
The idea is that when we have a cue, we usually will follow a certain routine that leads to a reward and if this cue occurs enough times it becomes a habit and is very difficult to break. Many habits have no particular reward but are still hard to break. Think about things Americans do not eat (cartilage, fat, and animal skin) that are good for you and if you do not eat these things, think about how gross it feels to try eating them.
Anyway, Duhigg’s book is very interesting but because he’s a journalist and not a brain scientist, psychologist, or philosopher, he probably leaves a lot to be desired, but what interests me is the model for habits.
The habit formation model is especially interesting for the Christian who wishes to use spiritual disciplines, start performing some virtue, or to overcome some particular sin.
Keep in mind this line from James:
Jas 1:13-15 ESV Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. (14) But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (15) Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
James’ rhetorical point is concerning the go to guy for blame when we sin. But for this thought experiment, I think we should focus on one piece of his argument: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” Desire is the cue, this or that sinful action or constellation of thoughts and actions is the routine, and desire fulfillment is the reward.
Personal Case Study
I have a tendency to struggle with acedia. It’s essentially a feeling of weird existential boredom and sloth. The best cure for it, in the moment, is to pray, do something physically productive, and move on with life. The thing about acedia is that it never really happens at work, but it can happen after a really productive event or series of events at work. Now, coupled with acedia, I love information. My grandfather used to think it was weird how I always had “factoids” that seemed to have no practical use. He’s right. I remember, though I can’t place the story, when Holmes told Watson, “I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles.” This love for knowledge coupled with a periodic lack of motivation to exert effort causes what the medieval scholars called “curiosity.” Not the good kind that leads to scientific discovery, but the waste of time kind wherein you simply search for novelty. I suppose that if I were less conscientious it would be the sort of feeling that makes one easily addicted to drugs (and I am susceptible to binge playing video games when I cannot sleep).
- Cue: Feelings of lack of motivation coupled with a constant desire to know things.
- Routine: The internet now exists: follow links, listen to music, and read pointless articles.
- Reward: Dozens of silly facts rather in the same time it would take me to read one sustained argument concerning an important truth, perform one satisfying repair to part of my home, or write one chapter of a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount I am trying to finish by the end of the year.
Here it is in habit-loop format:
Duhigg notes that there are two main ways to change the habit loop: keep the cue and reward the same, but change the routine or remove the cue. To change the routine, Duhigg notes that we must come to understand precisely what craving is set off by the cue. For instance, a shopping addict might have the desire to accomplish something, but the routine (buying something on credit) is so easy that it is the only option that comes to mind until the loop is further examined by the obsessive clothing buyer. Removing the cue only goes so far, but it is better than nothing. For instance, one would no longer be able to binge watch The Office instead of studying their Bible if they cancelled the internet for a month.
For the Christian who wishes to overcome a particular temptation, the question must be asked, “What good desire is being warped in my mind and body that finds its satisfaction in sin?” In my case, the desire is for productivity or mental stimulation, but it is warped into a desire for immediate satisfaction of desires that are meant to be satisfied through hard work and communication with other human beings. So, how can I change the routine? Well, there are several options available when acedia kicks in:
- I could do a household chore.
- I could recite Bible memory verses out loud.
- I could exercise (walk, squats, punching bag, push-ups, juggle, and so-on)
- Email/call an old friend
- Pray for specific people
Once I complete one of these tasks, I normally feel up to studying, writing, or meditating in silence and solitude without wasting my time surfing the internet. From this personal evidence as well as Duhigg’s book and the Christian soul-care tradition I infer that such a reworking of the “habit loop” can be very helpful for Christians who struggle with habitual sins like impulsive buying, pornographic use, laziness, or being quick to anger.
Two Necessary Things to Keep in Mind
There remain two other elements to changing the habit loop:
- The role of belief
- The education of desire
As to the first idea, Duhigg observes that belief plays a crucial role in long term habit transformation (82-86). In the case of athletes, they have to believe that the new habits will help them succeed. Similarly, AA members who commit to the steps and the whole program are more successful when they actually believe in the higher power (84). In the case of Christianity there is a cluster of beliefs that are important for manipulating the moral habit loop:
- Sin really is disgusting and bad for you
- The way of Christ is meant to give you joy (often now, but infinitely so in eternity)
- You are dead to sin (in other words, it is not your master and you always have a way out)
- God will help you
The second element, the education of desire, is implied by Duhigg, but made explicit in Scripture and ancient philosophy. This should not be news to us. Many people grow to love the routine of exercise no matter how grueling, people start to enjoy the food of a new diet For instance, I can only drink one or two types of soda now since I went about four years without a sip of the stuff. Soda, even a sip, burns my mouth and is so sweet that it makes my teeth hurt. So, if Christianity is true, it stands to reason that this reality applies to the moral life we see in Scripture as well. And we do see this. Paul speaks of being transformed by the renewing of the mind. This implies that one does change for the better over time. Similarly, Peter speaks of growing in grace and knowledge. It is also the case that John and James speak of love and faith being perfected in us, respectively. The author of Hebrews says that we should strengthen our weakened joints in our quest for holiness, and so-on. In other words, God shapes our wants through the habits we develop.
 In order to fully change our character, eventually our choices and then habits, must result in an incremental change of desire toward the good. Jesus talks about this difference of orientation in several places. For instance, he observes that the Pharisees do their religious rituals in order to hide their sin from others rather than as acts of faith, hope, and love toward God (which obeying the Law was always meant to be, see Psalm 19:7). So, when one begins to put to death sinful habits and to put holy habits into practice in their place out of sincere trust and hope in God, ones desires start to change.