This 4-step habit loop reveals what makes a habit, and how you can use it to break bad ones and start good ones.
In 2012, Charles Duhigg published a book called The Power of Habit. In it, he identified this 4-step process of what constitutes a habit – good or bad.
The cue, triggers the brain to initiate a behaviour. For example, a gambler hearing the sound of chips in the background (not potato chips). The cue is about noticing the reward.
This then kick-starts the craving. This could be desiring the feeling of excitement in the gambler’s case, or of stress-relief, or satiety. The craving is about wanting the reward.
The response is the actual action or thought that you perform to satisfy the craving. It could be placing a bet in the gambler’s case, smoking a cigarette in the chain smoker’s case, or eating a Sticky Toffee Pudding in the grazer’s case. The response is about obtaining the reward.
The reward is the end-goal of the habit. It satisfies your craving, delivering satisfaction and relief. Rewards teach which actions are worth remembering, which shows how a habit is formed.
This 4-step process is called a neurological feedback loop. You could think of it in terms of the problem phase (cue & craving) and the solution phase (response & reward).
If you’ve seen The US Office, Dwight is offered a mint by Jim which Dwight wants, reaches out for, and the mint provides culinary satisfaction. Before long, when he hears the mints, the sound acts as the trigger and Dwight accidentally reaches out for one even before Jim has offered. His brain has begun to associate the Okay, it’s not quite the Pavlov experiment, but does provide a good illustration.
Another example – Cue: your phone buzzes with a message. Craving: you want to learn the contents of the message. Response: you grab your phone and read the text. Reward: you satisfy your craving to read the message, and grabbing your phone becomes associated with your phone buzzing.
Breaking down bad habits
Eliminate the cue, and the craving won’t start. Reduce the craving, and you won’t be motivated enough to act. Make the behaviour difficult, and you won’t be able to execute it. If the reward fails to satisfy your desire, you’ll have no reason to do it again. This is how we break a bad habit:
Cue: make it invisible. Craving: make it unattractive. Response: make it difficult. Reward: make it unsatisfying.
People often attack bad behaviour at the cue stage, by getting rid of all the cigarettes or chocolate in the house, by banning dodgy websites with their internet provider, or by not allowing themselves to enter a tempting situation in the first place. But there are also other angles to approach bad habits at the craving, response, and reward stages.
Building good habits
Cue: make it obvious. Craving: Make it attractive. Response: make it easy. Reward: Make it satisfying.
This framework doesn’t cover every behaviour in life, but does seem to cover lots of aspects of our lives, whether subtle or significant. So when it comes to changing your or other people’s behaviours, consider this theory.
Notes: find GIFs, featured image,