Habits: The theory


What are habits?

For those of you who did not have the chance to be at the Service Experience Camp 2014, we would like to quickly summarize the theory of habits. (The presentation can be found here)

Habits are actions that have come to be autonomously triggered by situational cues. So habit formation is the process by which behaviour, through regular repetition, becomes automatic or habitual. This process is divided into 4 parts: Trigger, Action, Reward and Investment (Eyal, 2013), which is called the habit circle.


Trigger and Action

Every action starts with a trigger. Triggers are the factors that cause our habits: these can be for example special locations, time, signs, thoughts or feelings. As you can see, triggers can be external (for example somebody invites you to go for a jog) or internal (you want to loose weight and therefore decide to jog).

Action is the behaviour itself. A behaviour can only be shown if three factors are present: the already discussed trigger, the ability to show the behaviour and motivation.

 The habit circle, various stages that help create a habit.

The habit circle, various stages that help create a habit.


Motivation is the external (e.g. money, chocolate or your boss’ pressure) or internal (e.g. will, fun or the prevention of unhappiness) force that makes you act.


Once a trigger is there and you are motivated, you still need to be able to show a certain behaviour. For example a handsome, good-looking guy asks you for a date for tomorrow (trigger). Of course you would like to go (motivation), but unfortunately you have to go to the 80th birthday of your grandmother tomorrow (no ability).

To implement habits, two psychological facts are helpful. First: In the long run, internal motivation is stronger than external. And second: Keep the parameters of judging your ability very simple/low. In real life, this means: If you want jog regularly, don’t set “losing 20 kg” as a goal. Keep it simple and stick to: I will go running on Wednesday. And you will stick to the behaviour for longer time if you are convinced that running is something you want to do than if your doctor forces you to go.



We do many actions every day, why do some turn into habits and others don’t? Well, one thing is the rewarding function of our dopamine system. Of course not all behaviours get rewarded by our brain, but those that do can be categorised into different types of rewards: Tribe, Hunt and Self. Tribe can be described as our social nature and our need for belongingness. Experiencing empathy or partnership lead to a secretion of dopamine. Hunt here represents enrichment, for example reaching our goals or getting money, but also collecting knowledge and experience. Lastly a reward in terms of “Self” refers to confirming ourselves in who we are or want to be, thus obtaining control or competence can cause a rewarding dopamine-ejection.

Having connected a trigger to an action to a reward is a big step towards a habit. But what really enforces a habit loop at this point is a so called investment. Investments are the part of the action that prepares a new trigger or stores value into the habit. In the case of jogging every morning, an investment could be to set a regular alarm or putting your shoes in front of the door. Setting an investment by storing value is for example one of Facebook’s success strategies, where each new added person makes Facebook more valuable for the user.


Investing in a habit

No matter if by the help of an investment or not, as soon as our brain connects a trigger to an action which then causes a reward the habit loop has begun. The more often or the more positive this connection is experienced, the stronger the habit becomes. After repetitively going through habit circles, we stop thinking actively about what reward we will receive and how our motivation is to show the action. This is what makes you really caught in a habit loop: Even if thought or motivation is absent, you will show the action as soon as the trigger appears.


Lastly, concerning habits one thing counts: First to mind wins. If you want to break a habit, you have to interrupt this automatism between trigger and action. And an action is successfully transformed into a habit, when the action is the most automatic reaction to a trigger. Putting it short: first to mind wins.

Would you like to try and implement a new habit or break an old one? Try for yourself on this template and create your own habit circle.

For further reading we recommend Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked: Hot to Build Habit-Forming Products” (2013) or “Designing for Behavior Change: Applying Psychology and Behavioral Economics” by Stephen Wendel.

Contributed by: Johanna Werz, Carolin Thiem, Vaatika Dabra.                       

Picture credit: Biking in snow