Stress and exhaustion may turn us into zombies, but a novel study by USC researchers shows that mindless behavior doesn’t just lead to overeating and shopping sprees — it can also cause us to stick with behaviors that are good for us.
Across five experiments appearing in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, the researchers provide an important new twist to the established idea that we have finite resources for self-regulation, meaning it’s harder to take control of our actions when we’re already stressed or tired. Turns out we’re just as likely to default to positive habits, such as eating a healthy breakfast or going to the gym, as we are to self-sabotage.
Led by USC Professor Wendy Wood and David Neal, a former assistant psychology professor at USC, the research shows that lack of control doesn’t automatically mean indulgence or hedonism — it’s the underlying routine that matters, for better or worse.
“When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control. But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits. Habits persist even when we’re tired and don’t have the energy to exert self-control,” said Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC, who holds joint appointments at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Marshall School of Business.
Wood, who serves as vice dean for social sciences at USC Dornsife, is one of the world’s leading experts on habit, the automatic behaviors that make it possible for us to function every day (imagine if we had to relearn every morning how to brush our teeth or what route to take to work).
Learned habits also play a big role in our health; research has shown that lack of exercise, overeating and smoking are significant risk factors for major diseases. Indeed, obesity and smoking are the two primary reasons Americans die before people in other high-income countries, according to a recent National Academy of Sciences report led by Professor Eileen Crimmins, holder of the AARP Chair in Gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology.