Sunday, September 2, 2007

Sunday Afternoon Reading #3: Habit

is another subject Proust is famously great on. Remembrance of Things Past is full of subtle descriptions on the power our habits to define our experience, whether we like it or not. Here is the one I came across today. His narrator has just received the note at the end of The Captive telling him that Albertine has left him for good:

Yes, a moment ago, before Francoise came into the room, I had believed that I no longer loved Albertine. I had believed that I was leaving nothing out of account, like a rigorous analyst; I had believed that I knew the state of my own heart. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see into my own heart…I was so much in the habit of having Albertine with me, and now I suddenly saw a new aspect of Habit. Hitherto I had regarded it chiefly as an annihilating force which suppresses the originality and even the awareness of one’s perceptions; now I saw it as a dread deity, so riveted to one’s being, its insignificant face so encrusted in one’s heart, that if it detaches itself, if it turns away from one, this deity that one had barely distinguished inflicts on one sufferings more terrible than any other… (Moncrieff, p. 426)
In his long rumination on the subject, the narrator decides that sheer repetition, the habit of a relationship, is the source of a more powerful bond than what we typically think of as the emotionally intense elements: passion, lust, love. The really unbreakable bonds, or the ones that seem difficult to break, have more to do with our rituals of daily life.

In American culture, we tend to be sensitized to the power of bad habits, usually pathologized as an ever-expanding array of “addictions.” (For a great if dense account on the mania of addiction psychology, check out Eve Sedgwick in Incorporations and reprinted in Tendencies.)
But we tend to be less sensitive to the slow, steady usually unconscious development of habits to keep us moving down our well-groomed paths, even though the evidence of habit is all around us.

Anyone who has ever taught a class for a length of time has witnessed the mechanism in action. Even when the seating is totally voluntary, students tend to return to the same seats over and over again. And if someone decides to change their seat for some reason, you can almost hear the machinery creaking, as students walk around, readjusting their world-view.

Most serious disciplinary regimes--the military, AA, religious programs—already understand these psychological facts. It’s why their programs have so many stages and steps and forms of social reinforcement.

One of my old coaches used to say, “I don’t care if you run every day; just once a day, put on your running shoes.” He understood the power of habit. So do health clubs and personal trainers. They know that paying money and making social obligations are often far more effective ways to motivate action than communicating even a really good benefit (e.g. live longer, look better, feel better).

Whenever we want someone to buy one brand instead of another, we are essentially asking them to break one habit and start another. And as many in the business have realized, telling them that it will be really good for them often isn’t as powerful as creating a pattern of behavior.

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