In common usage, habit designates a person's dress or attire, especially if this is distinctive, as a riding habit or religious habit (see religious habit). It is used also to describe repetitive physical, mental, and moral behavior, such as nervous habits or habits of thought and action, and in this sense is synonymous with custom, wont, use, and practice. Again, it designates a disposition underlying such behavior. In scholastic philosophy, the word "habit" can designate one of the four postpredicaments, or a special category referred to in English as condition (see categories of being).
In its most important sense, habit designates one of the species of the category of quality and is defined as a quality difficult to change that disposes a subject well or badly either in itself or in relation to action. In this acceptation, habit is one of the fundamental realities studied in the psychological sciences, and, as such, is discussed in this article. We here consider the general nature of habit, the different kinds of habits, the effects of habits on life, the causes of habit formation, the causes of habit loss, and the physiology of habits. The discussion is based principally on the psychology of St. thomas aquinas, with additions from modern psychological research.
Nature and Kinds of Habit
As Aquinas observes in his analysis of habit, the word is derived from the Latin habere meaning to have (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 49–54). But the "having" signified by the term habit is not the possessing of some object, as the having of a hat or a coat, but an internal having of oneself in a certain state or condition, as when a man holds himself or has himself ready. This having, an internal disposition or orientation by which an organism is ready or prepared for something, furnishes the fundamental notion of habit.
Habit as Quality. Analyzing this concept further, St. Thomas places it in the category of quality, which is the aspect of a thing by which it can be described as such and such. Color, odor, and texture are examples of sensible qualities; the capacities to walk, to fly, and to burn are examples of power qualities; round, square, and oval are examples of qualities as shapes. Habit is the kind of quality that designates the way the parts or elements of a thing are disposed in relation to each other. It implies that the interrelationships of elements are flexible, and that they can assume different positions or proportions among themselves. These various dispositions constitute the habits of a thing, the ways it has itself.
It is evident, therefore, that habits presuppose certain characteristics on the part of their possessor—the subject of a habit must be plastic or potential to different dispositions; it must therefore have several component parts, and these several parts must be capable of various forms of organization among themselves. Given these prerequisites, habits can be formed. Unless, however, the interrelationships that are formed among the component elements of the subject can be fixed and made stable, no true habit is developed, for habits imply a firmness and permanence in structure. Transitory and labile dispositions are merely dispositions, and remain mere dispositions as long as they lack structural rigidity (see disposition).
This notion of habit, which is abstract and generalized, is broader than the modern understanding of the term. It is broad enough to cover what St. Thomas calls entitative habits, namely, habits that affect the disposition of various elements in the nature of a thing, and operative habits, namely, habits that dispose and develop the powers or capacities of a thing. This latter notion is closer to the modern understanding of a habit.
Entitative Habits. Entitative habits comprise all aspects of a thing resulting from various dispositions of its component parts—physical strength and health are entitative habits resulting from good size, proportion, and function of the various organs of the body; weakness and illness are habits resulting from bad interrelationships of bodily organs. temperament is an entitative habit that results from various proportions of energy, emotionality, activity, passivity, etc., in various organisms. In all these cases, several physical or functional elements can be variously disposed among themselves; if the dispositions are firm and stable, they are called entitative habits, but if they are unstable and transitory, they are designated simply as dispositions.
Operative Habits. Entitative habits are of less interest to psychologists than operative habits, and therefore the rest of this treatment concentrates on the latter. Operative habits are acquired dispositions that prepare the powers of an organism for stable patterns of action (see faculties of the soul). Such habits are theoretically possible in the intellect; in the will and sense appetites; in the imagination, memory, and cogitative sense; in the external senses; and in the muscles and any other organs having a physiological function. In fact, however, not every power has habits, and some powers have many habits; for not every power presents all the prerequisites for the formation of a habit, while some powers have these in abundance.
Habits of Practical Intellect. In Thomistic psychology, the human intellect is the seat of almost numberless habits, which can be subsumed under six general headings: art, prudence, understanding, science, wisdom, and faith.
Art and prudence are habits of the practical intellect, which organizes action and behavior. Art is the right way of making things. It becomes a habit when, after much practice, an individual has tested out the various ways a thing can be made and has learned the right way to make it. The stability of this habit derives from the experience's having proved so successful that the maker would not think of changing his methods. Prudence dictates the right way to behave in order to maintain given moral standards or norms of conduct. Like art, it acquires its stability or fixedness through successful experience (see art [philosophy]; prudence).
Speculative Habits. Three categories of intellectual habit belong to the speculative intellect, which comprehends the natures of things and their relationships. The first of these habits is called understanding (intellectus ); this grasps the universal and necessary principles of speculative thought, as, for example, whatever comes to be has a cause. The fixedness of such intellectual understanding comes from intrinsic self-evidence. The second such habit is science (scientia ), which deals with demonstrations of truths from evident principles. The stability of scientific conclusions stems from the rigor of demonstration. Science thus differs from opinion, which cannot be demonstrated, and hence lacks firmness. The third speculative habit is wisdom, which views and orders all truths in the light of ultimate truth. The firmness of wisdom depends on the strength by which the intellect is able to grasp ultimate truths and see lesser truths as subsumed under them.
Faith as a Habit. A sixth habit in the intellect, and this can be both speculative and practical, is faith. Faith is assent to the truth of a proposition on the basis of an authority that is both competent and veracious. The fixity of beliefs held by faith depends on the trust put in the authority whose word is being accepted; if the authority is thought to be indubitable, faith takes on the firmness of a true habit.
Habits in Will and Appetite. Habits that have their locus in the will are, if anything, more numerous than those in the intellect. Wherever there is a stable and firm attachment to some purpose or way of acting to attain a purpose, there is a habit of willing. Devotion to people, nations, and causes can assume the proportions of habits, as can hatreds and fears of them. The determination to be just in all things can generate habits of honesty, fairness in word and deed, truthfulness, patriotism, obedience, courtesy, industriousness, religion, etc. A willingness to take advantage of others can produce habits of dishonesty, cheating, stealing, embezzling, lying, sloth, insolence, disobedience, and so on. A determination to control one's own feelings can lead to habits of continence, by which passions are reined and checked, while an unwillingness to restrain oneself can lead to habitual forms of emotional excess.
If habits such as continence are formed in the will, the passions of sense appetite are restrained within bounds, and new habits are formed in the appetites themselves. Habits of sobriety, abstinence, and chastity are formed in the pleasure-seeking concupiscible appetite; habits such as meekness restrain the passion of anger in the irascible appetite; courage and patience restrain tendencies toward cowardice, softness, and timidity; habits of humility govern urges toward arrogance.
Interrelationship of Habits. These four powers, intellect, will, and the two sense appetites, are the major seats of true operative habits. They are the most plastic of human capacities, and therefore subject to the greatest number of variations, but they are also most capable of being formed into the stable modes of action that constitute habits. As is evident from the examples given above, the numerous habits informing these powers are not developed at random, but are able to interlock with each other in fairly well-defined hierarchies. For instance, a habit of understanding is presupposed to habits of science, for understanding gives science its principles. Wisdom in turn presupposes science, for it orders the verities of the various sciences in the light of ultimate verities. Moreover, a habit of moral science (ethics) is presupposed to habits of prudence, for moral science establishes the norms toward which prudence orders actual behavior. But prudence in turn is ineffective unless the will has a habit of continence, for if the passions are not governed, a man seldom succeeds in behaving the way he would want to behave, and so on.
Senses and Bodily Processes. St. Thomas did not assign any true operative habits to the internal senses, which include imagination, memory, and the cogitative power, nor to muscular power. He did not deny that these powers could be organized so that they would respond with stable patterns of action, e.g., physical skills and well-ordered trains of imagery, memories, and practical estimations. As he conceived them, however, these physical and imaginative activities are assumed into the service of the higher powers, so that the stable modes of action they acquire do not constitute true habits in themselves, but rather quasi habits subordinated to the higher habits of which they are instruments. Thus a good memory of past experiences, a clear imagination about the consequences of a given act, and an accurate estimate of the present situation are necessary components of a prudent act; yet the stable modes of action induced in these internal senses by repeated prudent acts are not so much distinct habits in themselves, as component parts of the higher habit of prudence. Similarly no art can be perfected without some physical skills in handling materials; but these skills are subordinate parts of the higher habit of art, which is essentially a matter of the practical intellect. Another point arguing against the presence of true habits in the internal senses and muscular powers is their susceptibility to disturbances. Habits should be stable and firm; but imagination, memory, and physical skills are subject to disturbances from illnesses, injuries, fatigue, drugs, etc. Contemporary psychology, in treating of habits, treats for the most part of these quasi-habitual dispositions that can be formed in the internal senses and physical powers [Dashiell, 363].
There are no operative habits of any sort in the external senses and simple physiological processes such as digestion and circulation. These operations are simple functions of their organs, without the possibility of being ordered in a variety of ways, and therefore without the need of being organized to operate in one way rather than another. Loosely speaking, one can say that there are habits of visual activity or auditory activity—a doctor naturally notices symptoms, a mother can pick out her baby's cry when no one else can detect it. But such so-called habits are really cases of attention, training, and orientation; they are dispositions of mind and will, rather than developments of visual or auditory powers strictly speaking.
Supernatural Habits. The human soul in its substantial aspect is not the subject of natural habits. Since the soul is the ultimate entity in human nature, toward which everything else is ordered, the soul itself is not ordered toward another, and is therefore not susceptible to being disposed or oriented in various ways. Supernaturally, however, the soul can be oriented toward something else, and thus be the seat of habit. Theology treats of this supernatural habit of the soul under the title of sanctifying grace [see habit (in theology)].
Good and Bad Habits. Because habits dispose their subject in relation to something else—entitative habits ordering the subject in reference to its nature, and operative habits disposing the subject for action—habits can be designated as good or bad. An entitative habit that disposes the nature well is good, for example, that of health, whereas sickness is a bad entitative habit because it denotes a defect in the way the nature is disposed. Operative habits such as science or humaneness are good because they orient the intellect and will respectively toward activities that are desirable; error and selfishness on the other hand are bad dispositions because they organize mind and will toward actions that are negative and undesirable. Moral science treats of good and bad habit under the respective titles of virtue and vice (see moral theology).
Influence and Causes of Habits
The pervading psychological effect of habit is economy of effort. By habit, man performs acts quickly, easily, and with pleasure. He performs acts quickly, because the operative powers are predisposed toward the acts; easily, because habits eliminate false and unnecessary motions; and with pleasure, because successful action without waste of energy gives more immediate satisfaction with less fatigue. Habitual operations become so smooth and effortless that habit is called "second nature." The higher habits, such as art and science in the intellect, and honesty and industriousness in the will, are generally used consciously and deliberately, so that St. Thomas frequently refers to habits as things we use when we want to (e.g., Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 50.5). But physical dispositions in the body, and to some extent, dispositions in the imagination, memory, and sense appetites, tend to become unconscious as they become more and more ingrained; and thus a secondary effect of habituation is that one can execute patterns of action and behavior without adverting to their component parts.
The greater part of man's daily routine, as the word routine indicates, is performed by series of acts of which he is almost unaware. This has the great advantage of freeing his mind for more important matters, but it also has disadvantages. If the habit patterns are defective, they are hard to improve, because one has to re-form, along new lines, patterns of behavior formerly executed without thinking, and it is easy to fall back into the former patterns. Moreover, since habituation makes action easier, a tendency toward laziness realizes itself in a reluctance to re-form old habits. Again, people become emotionally attached to familiar ways of behavior and are uneasy with innovations, and therefore many retain poor habits, even when they realize their defects, rather than experience the uneasiness that novelties engender. There is a kind of "force of habit" that keeps people treading the familiar paths long after these have lost their effectiveness. Habit thus is a great conservator, keeping men in accustomed ways. The deleterious effects of habit formation emphasize the importance of developing good habits early in life, and of developing a "habit" of being flexible about habits.
Causes of Habit Formation. Supernatural habits, such as the infused virtues and gifts, are implanted directly by God, but the study of these pertains to moral theology rather than to psychology. In the natural order, action is the cause of operative habits. The formation of a habit by action presupposes the existence of both active and passive principles in the organism. The active principle moves the passive principle, and in moving it, disposes it to be moved again the same way; after repeated actions, the passive principle becomes completely responsive to being moved. The disposition to respond is the habit.
Generation of Habits. Thus by a deliberate act of will (the active power), a beginner goes through the motions of playing scales and chords on a musical instrument, and his hands (the passive principle) gradually acquire facility in picking out scales and chords; when this is mastered, he goes on to more complex patterns, and gradually builds up the habit of playing the instrument. Similarly, the mind learns the rules of logic, and applies these rules (as an active principle) to various data (the passive principle); as the process of logical thought is strengthened in different areas, habits of science are developed.
If the active principle is dominant in respect to the passive principle, a habit can be generated in a single act; for example, a clear demonstration of a proposition in geometry is so convincing that, once the conclusion has been proved, the mind holds it with the fixity of a habit. But when the passive principle does not receive impressions easily from the active principle, as is the case, for instance, of the concupiscible appetite in relation to the will, habits can be formed only by repeated acts. Hence a habit like chastity is usually the result of a long process of formation. Because the role of the active principle is crucial in the acquisition of habits, the process of learning should be initiated with a strong and decided attack.
Development of Habits. When habits have been begun, they can develop further in two distinctive ways. In one way, they can become more extensive. A person who has learned a dozen demonstrations in geometry has the science of geometry, but can develop it further by learning more demonstrations. One who is friendly with five people can become friendly with five more. Again, habits can retain the same extension but become more intense. A student who knows some demonstrations in geometry, but is slow and awkward in presenting them, can develop facility and ease, and thus the habit becomes more deeply rooted; or a person who is mildly friendly with some people can become more friendly with the same people.
Natural Dispositions. Action is required for the formation of all operative habits, but in some cases, natural dispositions toward such formation are so definite that the habit can be said to be partly from nature. The habit of the understanding of first principles is one such habit. The intellect is so disposed to see self-evident truths that, when they are first presented, they are immediately recognized for what they are. Some people have calmer and more reflective dispositions; for them the acquisition of science is easier, since their memory and imagination tend more naturally to orderly thought. Some have natural dispositions to courage that make it easier to face dangers and develop a habit of courage. Physical dispositions that facilitate acquiring arts and skills also vary greatly in different individuals, giving those with natural tendencies toward dexterity and speed a special advantage. Since people tend to do the things that come easily and naturally, they tend to develop the habits toward which they have a proneness. Conversely, to develop a complete life, most people must take special pains to develop the habits toward which they have no natural leanings.
Time and Habit Formation. Habits are most easily developed early in life, partly because a person then has greater quantities of energy at his disposal, and therefore his active principles are more effective, but principally because he is more plastic and capable of receiving impressions quickly and deeply. In his first few years a child acquires a vast number of highly complex habits, even though he is still too young to undertake habit formation consciously and deliberately. To learn to speak a language, to walk, to eat, to dress and wash oneself, to handle simple tools, to read and write, to do arithmetic, to be familiar with the routine of home, school, church, playground, etc., are only a few examples of the habits children acquire before they are 8 years old. Moreover, deep-seated emotional attitudes, which can persist almost unchanged throughout life and profoundly affect character and moral development, can be formed in the earliest years, sometimes in the first year or two. Habits of trustfulness or suspicion, of greediness or generosity, of selfishness or cooperation, of timidity or courage, and many others, are grounded in the experiences of the earliest years. One of the major contributions of modern depth psychology has been its unearthing of such early stages of habit formation.
After the earliest years, habit formation becomes more and more a matter of deliberate choice. Man begins consciously to develop habits of skill, knowledge, attitude, etc. By persistent effort, various actions or modes of behavior become fixed; in typical cases, the improvement is rapid at first, and then gradually tapers off as a given level or plateau of achievement is reached. For the most part, the rate of habit development is a function of the amount of practice and the accuracy of practice. One curious anomaly in habit formation, not satisfactorily explained to date, is that a given amount of spaced practice (i.e., practice with periods of rest in between) is more effective, all else being equal, than an equal amount of uninterrupted practice. It is almost as if the habit becomes fixed in the periods between practice sessions.
Habitual Behavior. Besides operative habits strictly speaking, certain quasi-habitual components of human behavior can loosely be called habits. Psychiatry speaks of "habit spasms" such as tics and bed-wetting, which are acquired modes of behavior that serve somehow to release psychological tensions. Some varieties of neurotic symptoms also are fixed modes of action stemming from unconscious psychic factors. Certain drugs, such as alcohol, morphine, and phenobarbital, are called habitforming because they produce physiological and psychological changes that result in almost uncontrollable cravings for more. These "habits" are caused by physiological and psychological factors other than simple repeated actions.
Loss of Habits. Habits can be diminished by the performance of actions contrary to them; for instance, a habit of honesty is corrupted by dishonest actions, and a habit of science by careless observation or reasoning. Habits diminish also by cessation of the actions that generated them, especially if natural tendencies oppose the habit. A scientist who ceases for many years to consider his subject will find he has lost some of it when he returns to practice, but a man who does not restrain his appetites by continence will find he has lost the habit of continence in a very short time. However, it is remarkable how habits of learning and skill can be retained even if neglected for long periods; some psychologists, impressed by this, hold that once formed a habit is never entirely lost [Dashiell, 420].
Injuries that destroy powers destroy also the habits in the powers; athletic skills are lost when muscles are crippled, science may be lost when the brain is injured, and so on. Physiological factors such as use of drugs and fatigue can interfere with the use of habits, as can psychological factors such as repression. In old age there are certain typical patterns of habit deterioration. As perceptiveness and flexibility are diminished, ambition decreases, and more time and effort are required for ordinary activities, an insistent repetition of habitual movements sets in, and the aged person settles down into the use of fewer and simpler behavior patterns. These become crystallized so that even small changes of routine provoke discontent. Similarly mental processes decay, not so much because the component elements are lost— for these seem to remain intact, especially those learned earliest—but because alertness and the energy to activate and sustain the higher, controlling habits are gone.
Physiological Aspects of Habits. The physiological aspects of habit formation constitute a special area of inquiry. The development of physical habits, for example, involves acquired modes of neural organization in the motor parts of the brain and spinal column; the formation of mental habits implies the opening and fixation of new paths of neural communication in the higher parts of the brain; the establishment of emotional and drive patterns involves changes in the brain centers and perhaps also in the nerve systems innervating the viscera. Much research has been done to isolate and specify the parts of the nervous system that are affected by habit formation and the kinds of changes involved, but much remains to be done. Many modern psychologists tend to define habits in terms of their physiology: J. B. Watson considers them as complex, conditioned responses whose basic explanation belongs to physiology [Behaviorism (New York 1930) 207]; William james, as "nothing but a new pathway of discharge formed in the brain, by which certain incoming currents ever after tend to escape" [Psychology, Briefer Course (New York 1908) 134]; and Karl A. Menninger, as the set patterns by which impulses or stimuli entering the brain are resolved into impulses going to muscles and organs [The Human Mind (second edition, New York 1937) 164]. The exact delineation of the nature of these neural changes and the modes of path formation constitute the physiological approach to the study of habit formation.
See Also: human act; personality.
Bibliography: r. e. brennan, Thomistic Psychology (New York 1941). g. p. klubertanz, The Philosophy of Human Nature (New York 1953). American Handbook of Psychiatry, ed. s. arieti, 2 v. (New York 1959). w. d. commins and b. fagin, Principles of Educational Psychology (2d ed. rev. New York 1954). j. f. dashiell, Fundamentals of General Psychology (3d ed. New York 1949). w. james, The Principles of Psychology, 2 v. (auth. ed. unabridged, New York 1962). c. t. morgan and e. stellar, Physiological Psychology (2d ed. New York 1950). f. l. ruch, Psychology and Life (6th ed. New York 1963). j. b. watson, Behaviorism (rev. ed. Chicago 1958).
hab·it / ˈhabit/ • n. 1. a settled or regular tendency or practice, esp. one that is hard to give up: this can develop into a bad habit | we stayed together out of habit. ∎ inf. an addictive practice, esp. one of taking drugs: a cocaine habit. ∎ Psychol. an automatic reaction to a specific situation. ∎ general shape or mode of growth, esp. of a plant or a mineral: a shrub of spreading habit. 2. a long, loose garment worn by a member of a religious order or congregation. ∎ short for riding habit. ∎ archaic dress; attire. 3. archaic a person's bodily condition or constitution: a victim to a consumptive habit. • v. [tr.] (usu. be habited) archaic dress; clothe: a boy habited as a serving lad. PHRASES: break (or inf. kick) the habit stop engaging in a habitual practice. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French abit, habit, from Latin habitus ‘condition, appearance,’ from habere ‘have, consist of.’ The term originally meant ‘dress, attire,’ later coming to denote physical or mental constitution.
A. apparel, dress XIII;
B. mental constitution XIV; settled disposition, custom XVI. ME. (h)abit — OF. abit (later and mod. habit) :- L. habitus, f. habit-, pp. stem of habēre have, hold, refl. be constituted, be. The range of meaning (in modF. distributed between habit dress and habitude custom) was fully developed in L.
So habit vb. A. †dwell (cf. INHABIT) XIV; B. dress XVI. — (O)F. habiter — L. habitāre. habitation XIV. habitat XVIII. — L. ‘dwells’, 3rd pers. sg. pres. ind. of habitāre dwell, inhabit; from its use in floras and faunas to introduce the place of occurrence of a species (e.g. ‘Common Primrose. Habitat in sylvis’). habitual. †pert. to the inward disposition XVI; pert. to habit, customary XVII. — medL. habituālis. So habituate XVI. f. pp. stem of late L. habituāre. habitué habitual visitor. XIX. — F., pp. of habituer, habitude constitution, temperament XIV; disposition, habit XVII.
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