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Sending your life into an identity loop

New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg speaks at the Ohio State University Center for Operational Excellence in 2013. FISHERCOE/FLICKR VIA CC BY-SA 2.0
The New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg speaks at the Ohio State University Center for Operational Excellence in 2013. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Duhigg says that forming habits allows the brain to put less energy into decision making. FISHERCOE/FLICKR VIA CC BY-SA 2.0

Decisions, decisions, decisions. We make thousands a day without even realizing it: Should I roll out of bed now or in five minutes? What am I going to wear? Do I want to actually buy this album? (no, it’s always no).

So how do we do it? In my Intermediate Microeconomic Theory class, a simple utility function was taught to understand decision making, but it’s more complicated than that. A utility function is a concept in economics in which a certain equation, which differs from person to person, gives the expected utility output of a good, or in this instance, a decision. We then assume in economics that a person will pick the good (decision) that gives the highest utility. In reality, the utility function is more prescriptive than descriptive – it’s what people should decide to do, not what they actually do.

How do we explain when students (*cough* me *cough*) sleep an extra half hour knowing they’ll be late for class? This decision clearly does not produce the most utility. No one is suddenly charged with so much extra energy from that snooze that missing class is worth it. Still, everyone does it.

When we make decisions, we reflect on our vast lake of experiences and knowledge. How we act upon our knowledge and experiences is generally voluntary, variable and flexible from person to person, but what isn’t necessarily voluntary is the fact that we have them. I believe these experiences can give us a skewed view of ourselves, which in turn make us react in a skewed way. This skewed reaction reinforces our skewed view of ourselves creating a feedback loop. This feedback loop is what I call an identity loop. This identity loop can work in either a positive or negative way, reinforcing views of ourselves that we like or that we dislike. We must be wary in our lives to be not caught in this loop negatively.

Have you noticed that when you’ve been doing something often, such as sleeping in, it is much harder for you to stop doing it? We tell us ourselves that we are going to wake up early this weekend for once, but we never do it. Why? As we’ve all heard before, humans are creatures of habit. Charles Duhigg is a journalist for The New York Times and author of The Power of Habit. Duhigg says that a habit is a way for the brain to devote less mental activity to that decision, and the decision-making part of your brain actually shuts off. Habits are formed through cue and reward – we begin associating certain situations with that reward which pushes us to perform our habit.

Even when we aren’t making a “decision,” because it is a habit, we still like to do things that are familiar to us; this is called cognitive inertia. Once humans have formed an assumption, we are reluctant to change those assumptions. Cognitive inertia is the basis of decision theories you have heard of, such as confirmation bias and belief perseverance. If you know you like chicken alfredo, when you look at a menu you’re drawn to it, even though the other unique items might be just as good or better. This is cognitive inertia.

If you see yourself as a person who sleeps in, when it is time to decide whether to sleep in or wake up early, what else will you do but sleep in? This identity loop can be harmless but it can also be a dangerous fuel for addiction. The habit formation is one obvious part to addictions, but so is cognitive inertia. It’s so much harder for an alcoholic to quit drinking when all he or she sees themselves as is an alcoholic. When a vice becomes part of your identity, it makes it one of the hardest things to break.

Don’t worry though. I said hard, not impossible. Just as this feedback can cause serious harm, it can be used for a cause of serious good. That’s why it so easy for people to go to the gym every day when they have been already doing it. As I said, how we appropriate knowledge is voluntary. You need to remind yourself this vice is not part of your identity and fight that urge, slowly incorporating good habits into your life until they instead become part of your identity. It’s a hard battle, but you can definitely win it. Good luck!

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