William James and habit technology

In a world addicted to behavior change (and marketshare), we are bombarded by ways to build habits, track habits and drop habits.  The key to survival, and self-destruction, the mighty habit is now in the spotlight. We turn to the original habit psychologist, William James, to help us disentangle our modern addiction to habits.

The notion of habits in relation to technology inescapably points to Heidegger and the way tech disappears from experience when you become habituated to it.  So the question is…

When tech use becomes so habitual that it takes no attention, is that good or bad for our mental health?  Psychology superhero, William James, would say: “It depends…”

While Freud is the celebrity when it comes to famous historical psychologists, it was William James who provided the first systematic account of habits (and experience, and emotions, and many other highly important tech-related things) back in 1890 in his textbook The Principles of Psychology.

William James Wikimedia commons

The founder of American Psychology, he was a doctor, philosopher and Harvard professor, who did a gap year in the Amazon jungle and overcame severe depression.  The mere list of his writings is 47 pages long and he saw philosophy itself as “the habit of always seeing an alternative”1.

Also “the father of American philosophy” (via pioneering work on Pragmatism & radical empiricism) he has influenced scholars, politicians, artists, and religious leaders for 150 years.

His family friends included Walt Whitman, Emerson, Thackaray and Thoreau; his brother was the renowned novelist, Henry James, his sister, a witty diarist, and his father a progressive critic of the church who believed the source of all evil was in attachment to self  – all of which would have made for scintillating dinner conversation.

In The Principles of Psychology, James starts by highlighting the importance of habit to our daily lives:

“Habit simplifies our movements, makes them accurate, and diminishes fatigue.”

We need habit to survive.  Walking, talking, playing, and reading, are all activities that first required our careful attention until learning transformed them into habit, and we’d be in trouble if it hadn’t.

“All our life, so far as it has a definite form, is but a mass of habits… the teacher’s prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him throughout life. Education is for behavior, and habits are the stuff of which behavior consists.” – William James in Talk to Teachers

As we grow up habits, good and bad, get ingrained and are hard to change. In fact, James explained how:

  1. habits change our brains (as later confirmed by neuroscience),
  2. maintain social and organizational structures (confirmed by sociologists)
  3. fuel consumption (confirmed by marketers daily.)


Most people wouldn’t allow just anything into their brains yet we allow habitual patterns to be set down and yanked on by software and media every day. While the average person’s understanding of habit psychology is pretty rudimentary, others experiment with it incessantly in order to change our behaviors.  Product designers and entrepreneurs work to build habit-forming products, teachers work to change children’s antisocial habits, and governments invest in healthy nudging or tax incentives to reduce habits related to ill-health.

But it’s the new concept of “digital habits” that has millions turning to self-help and detox retreats just to cope with the new breed of habit monster.  Digital habits are hard to kick because you carry the trigger with you whereever you go, your work and social life are packaged in the same box, and the hooks are scientifically calculated to hack your reward system to optimize effect on your mental habit machine.

“A habit is at work when users are a tad bored and instantly open Twitter. They feel a pang of loneliness and before rational thought occurs they are scrolling through their Facebook feeds.” Nir Eyal in Hooked

William James describes different types of habits. Those that are simple reactions or behaviors, and complex sequences with many steps. What makes habits useful, and risky, is that even the complex ones, once they’ve been learned, can be triggered just by the first event. We then move inro ‘automatic’ mode.

Once I left my dog tied to a pole at a gas station because my autopilot routine didn’t include him. (Don’t worry, I realized it 10 minutes later and went back for him, although he did look unstable from the experience.)  If you’ve ever tried to drive on the “wrong” side of the road abroad, you’ll understand. You were trusting to habit and that’s a form of efficiency and mindlessness.

“Habit diminishes the conscious attention with which acts are performed” – James, Psychology: The Briefer Course

James believed in the importance of virtuous habits, and that habits are created young and hard to change afterwards. So what do you do when you want to change one of these hard-coded habits?

James’ tips for habit wrangling:

  1. “Launch yourself with as strong and decided an initiative as possible”. For example, remove all the apps or notifications driving behaviors you do not condone; take a public pledge (eg. to not read email or Tweet holidays or weekends).
  2. Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is rooted in your life. In other words, continuity is critical. Don’t fall for your own tricks, like “I’ll just do it this once” or “It’s different in this case because I really need to know what the president has just said on twitter, it’s a matter of national security and me being an informed citizen!” kind of self-deception.
  3. Seize the very first opportunity to act on every resolution you make and on every emotional prompting in the very direction of the habits you aspire to learn.  Look for ways to build, practice and feed your new habit.

Of course the modern complication lies in the new active, interactive and concealed intentions of our digital environment.  Our artefacts are working against us.

To my knowledge, James did not have recommendations for how to recognize, and wrangle habit forming intentions imposed by others via interactive products.

The moral implications of how habits are formed and changed were a concern for James in 1890 as much as they are today. Some will justify creating habit forming products by arguing that they improve people’s lives. Nir Eyal equates the work of marketers and product designers to the Libertarian Paternalism of Thaler, Sunstein and Balz:

“Ultimately, though, the practice should be used to “help nudge people to make better choices (as judged by themselves)” – Nir Eyal in Hooked

Perhaps the key moral issue is in the sentence “as judged by themselves”.  Judgement requires effort of attention. No one can consent to something they do not notice. Attention is a topic also discussed by James – but more on that next week.

Is there a way to differentiate ethical habit-forming products from manipulation?  How does support for conscious attention play a part?

We’d love your thoughts…


[1] The writings of William James by John J. McDermott, (p. XV)


The writings of William James by John J. McDermott

The Principles of Psychology, volumes 1 &2, by William James (paperback) | free digital file at project Gutenberg (vol 1, vol 2)

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