The psychology behind students’ ‘bad’ habits, why they are easy to fall into

By Nicole Littlefield, Contributing Writer

The pandemic threw common perceptions of time out the window. Days were easily confused, hours felt like minutes and days felt like weeks. On top of the temporal confusion of the past few years, the transition to college has caused some students to rethink how they make time management decisions.

However, the transition has also made students sink into the comforting arms of bad habits, such as staying up till 3 a.m. on school nights or compulsively spending $180 at Target on Green Street.

Researchers at the University answer the question many students struggle with: If bad habits are so “bad,” then why are they so easy to slip into?

Jessica Fornek, freshman in LAS, has been transitioning into college life for the greater part of the past year. This is her second semester on campus.

“I have a bad habit of napping every day, so this semester I have made an effort to stay out of my dorm to avoid the temptation of just getting in bed and falling asleep,” Fornek said. “I’m also a huge procrastinator, but have found that organizing every assignment for the semester in something, like Notion or Google Calendar, helps a lot with staying on track and not falling behind.”

According to Howard Berenbaum, a professor in LAS, the way people make decisions is on a costs and benefits scale that weighs different aspects like accomplishing goals or how much energy will be expended. That is why students like Fornek find themselves debating whether to sleep past their 9 a.m. class or go to it. 

“People have failed at certain goals in the past,” Berenbaum said. “They’re likely to want to avoid thinking about them or attempting to engage in them again. So if someone feels guilty, or embarrassed or ashamed about something, usually those things are not very good motivators. Those are things that usually lead to avoidance.”

Although everyone experiences negative emotions, many people will go out of their way to avoid having those negative feelings again. So, the habits that one creates may be a way to protect themselves from those emotions.

“The reason people may eat a triple bacon cheeseburger instead of a tofu sandwich and go to the gym is the same reason they may drink,” Berenbaum said. “It’s probably a habit and habits are hard to break. New habits are hard to form. Short-term gains will usually win out over long-term gains, especially if the person is not confident that they can succeed at the long-term endeavor.”

Habits can provide comfort and routine, which is part of the reason they can be so hard to break. Although one may want long-term gain, short-term gains can be distracting and discouraging. When scheduling something in advance, the plans are abstract. However, when the date approaches and the plans are solidified, the idea is concrete and a lot harder to romanticize. 

Michel Regenwetter, a professor in LAS, discussed this idea in a research paper describing human decision-making. The Cumulative Prospect Theory attempts to explain how humans make decisions with uncertainty, which is typically by weighing the costs and benefits of the options.

“Any theory of decision making, CPT or other, if applied too narrowly, may end up properly representing or serving nobody,” Regenwetter wrote in his research. “Everyone may well be an exception to Cumulative Prospect Theory. The same may apply to the reader’s own personal favorite decision theory, whatever that might be.”

Since humans are so complex and make many decisions throughout the day, it can be difficult to determine what specifically causes someone to make a certain decision. 

“Rather than conceptualize individual differences as a mere add-on to a schematic decision theory of central tendencies, decision scholars should recognize heterogeneity as a major theoretical primitive when proposing new theories,” Regenwetter wrote. 

Heterogeneity is defined as the quality of being diverse. Since human behaviors are so distinct, it can be hard to distinguish certain reasoning behind specific behaviors. However, humans will weigh the pros and cons of their decision before choosing their course of action, which is how Fornek decided what the best way to study was.

“I know I like to workout in the morning, so I try not to have classes until 10, the earliest,” Fornek said. “I know that if I come back to my dorm I will lose motivation, so I stay out of there until I’m ready to relax. It was a learning process of figuring out what works for me and how I can maximize my motivation and energy.”

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