Essay: On Habits -A Response to William James’ “Habit”

Welcome to the new year! This is the time when so many people are trying to form new habits, and break old ones. So I thought it appropriate to include a brief paper I wrote in response to William James’ Habit (for a psychology class, of course).

William James begins his discussion of habit by stating that habits cover a large part of life, ranging from instincts to acts of reason. As such he feels it is quite necessary to define the limits of habits. He begins his definition by making the assertion that “the habits of an elementary particle of matter cannot change…because the particle is itself an unchangeable thing” and clarifies that things made of compounds are, by their nature, changeable and therefore their habits can be changed. This possibility of changing he describes as “plasticity” –the ability “to yield [to] an influence” in small amounts and not all at once. James quotes M. Leon Dumont to describe how outer influences create habits. Specifically, he (Dumont as quoted by James) says “the impressions of outer objects fashion for themselves in the nervous system more and more appropriate paths.” In this way, a reaction that happened once is more liable to happen again.

James goes on to compare this to injuries such as sprains and dislocations; that once injured they are in more danger of being reinjured than a non-injured joint is to sustain a new injury. By this logic, James reasons that one can deduce “what outward influences, if…any, the brain-matter” is affected by. He explains that the only things that can act upon the brain are the blood and the sensory nerve-roots. The currents then, that enter the brain through these methods, must find a way out and in doing so create the pathways that lead to the formation of habits. By his reasoning then, habit is “mechanically, nothing but a reflex discharge” regardless of whether it is simple or not.

He goes on to theorize that the building of habits works better in living things due to “the incessant nutritive renovation of which the living matter… tends often to corroborate and fix the impressed modification, rather than to counteract it by renewing the original constitution of the tissue that has been impressed.” James also states that “during the period of growth and development, the formative activity of the brain will be most amenable to directing influences.” By this he means that it is easier to learn new habits young than in later years, which he mentions again later in his paper.

James theorizes that the reason for habit is to simplify movements, making them more accurate and causing of less fatigue. He states that “the more often the process is repeated, the more easily the movement follows.” He then goes on to compare that observation to learning to play the piano and how at first the player uses their entire body, but a master moves only the absolutely bare minimum number of muscles to play. He does remark though that during times of heightened excitement even the master will begin to show movement outside of the confines of their fingers.

He also theorizes that there are so many habits of man that “most of them must be the fruit of painful study” when compared to the much less number of automatic habits that are possessed by animals. James also cautions that while continued practice and repetition of an action makes it habitual, by trying to focus consciously on the effort used to perform the task will cause the original fatigue from before the habit was formed. As such, he shows that habit makes it so that a series of actions can be performed without conscious attention to any but the first step in the chain. The following steps will automatically be started and completed by the habit of doing that sequence of events previously. James states that “a strictly voluntary act has to be guided by idea, perception, and volition, throughout its whole course. In an habitual action, mere sensation is a sufficient guide, and the upper regions of the brain and mind are set comparatively free.”

James goes on to talk about how habit is “the enormous fly-wheel of society,” whereby it is the method by which people’s actions are constrained. He talks about how it is also what “dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture,” or in other words, that habit is what resigns each person to the life they were born and raised in. He talks about how a poor man can be given all the wealth in the world and will still not be able to live like a rich man, never sure of how to acquire the expensive clothes and possessions because he was not raised to know how or where to get them. Through this, James argues that education should make an ally of the nervous system instead of an enemy. He recommends starting as early as possible to instil good habits, and cautions against falling into bad ones.

James talks about the best way to acquire a new habit or break an old one are to start immediately and not put it off for another day. He recommends putting oneself in a position so as to better reinforce the change of habit being attempted. From this follows a second “maxim,” that one shouldn’t ever let an exception occur. Especially not until after the new habit has been firmly formed. He compares making a slip to dropping a ball of yarn that you had been winding –that single drop unrolls far more than had been rolled up in the same amount of time. He stresses the need to succeed the first time because “failure at first is apt to dampen the energy of all future attempts.”

He then goes on to talk about how, once the habit is formed, it should be practiced every couple of days to keep it fresh in the mind. He explains the need by warning that without the practice “the hour of dire need [may draw] nigh, it may find you…unnerved and untrained to stand the test.” For this reason it is important to keep the habits exercised just as one would a muscle. He ends his arguments by reminding the reader that you can’t say it won’t count this time because “down among [the] nerve-cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we ever do is… wiped out.” His final thought is towards the teaching of these principles to the younger generation so that they will not be in ignorance of how the habits they are forming will affect the rest of their lives.

Reaction to Text

I found William James’ discussion of habit to be interesting. For being written in 1890, many of his ideas and theories seem to be quite close to what is understood about habits and behaviours today. He did seem to view habits to be much more unchangeable than I think they are thought to be by modern thinkers. Especially his thoughts on how a poor upbringing, or mistakes made early in life doom an individual to a repetition of those bad behaviours all their life. I don’t think modern research supports that view; and I certainly wouldn’t want to hold it. It seems quite depressing actually.

Summary of Class Discussion

For the group discussion, the first question we addressed was to explain how James saw habit as having a physical basis and how that differed for living and non-living matter. We discussed that James said the brain is only affected by impressions in the blood and neural pathways while other things are affected by mechanical pressures and thermal changes. It was also discussed that his view of the nervous system was like water flowing, creating a deeper and easier path after each pass. Finally we discussed his view that habit is easier for living matter as it continually repairs itself while non-living does not and so can’t learn new habits as easily.

The second question addressed the practical effects of habit in terms of skillful performance, fatigue, conscious awareness and attention. The group talked about how, with habit, performance increases but fatigue, conscious awareness, and attention decreases. We discussed how this results in the ability to multitask increasing, though we also discussed how, from a cognitive psychology standpoint, there is a limit to the ability to multitask. We also discussed James’ idea of ballistic motion.

For the third question, we addressed the question of what James identifies as the positive and negative moral consequences of habit for an individual as well as for society. My group had some difficulty with this question as there was some confusion over what, in his paper, was the discussion of moral behaviour. We discussed how some of the positives for an individual was the increased ability to multitask. Primarily we discussed how for society, habits were about keeping the status quo; how habits formed within the norms of society are usually pro-social things and thus keep the individual within the bounds of approved societal actions. We also discussed James’ view that there are no second chances; once a habit is formed it’s formed.

The fourth question was of whether the moral implications of habit were still applicable to contemporary life. We discussed and agreed that by knowing his theory it can help prevent a bad habit from forming. We also discussed how with new therapies it’s easier to change bad behaviours and that by getting too focused on things that can’t change we stop trying to change the things that can. We agreed with James’ view that habits grease the wheels of society.

The fifth question was to list James’ four maxims for regulating one’s life in terms of habit. The maxims were, first: “launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible;” second: “never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life;” third: “seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of habits you aspire to gain;” and fourth: “keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.” The sixth question asked whether we agreed with James’ maxims. For the most part the group agreed with him, though we were all convinced that making and breaking a habit are not quite as difficult as he makes them out to be.

For the general question, we were asked to think of how James’ notion of habit relates to the behaviourist notion of conditioning. The group discussed Watson’s theory that he could raise a dozen infants to be whatever he chose at random. That statement, though Watson never did the experiment, seemed very close to James’ view that the way one was raised directly resulted in how their life would turn out. We also discussed how his ideas seemed very similar to Watson and Skinner’s ideas about how you acquire a habit and keep a behaviour.

Reaction to Class Discussion

While the class discussion didn’t spark any new ideas in me, it did get me thinking more about how James’ ideas are similar to more modern ones. The general question especially got me thinking, where the group discussed James in direct comparison with behaviourist thinking. I didn’t find most of James’ ideas to be as bleakly depressing as I find some of the behaviourist ideas –like that we are nothing more than a collection of conditioned behaviours. Yet he seemed to agree very much with them about the ways to form new behaviours; with repetition and reinforcement. It certainly makes James seem like a very forward thinker and again I am amazed at how closely his 1890 ideas relate to our modern ones.


James, William. Habit. 1890.


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