In Brief

College students' daily routines for reading the newspaper, exercising and watching television remain the same when they transfer to a new university--as long as performance triggers such as location and social cues remain similar, according to a study in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 6).

However, when the triggers for performance change, habits often do as well, the study indicates. For example, if their new dorm-mates don't read the newspaper regularly like their old dorm-mates did, students might cut down their newspaper reading, notes the study's principal investigator, Wendy Wood, PhD, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology at Duke University.

Wood and doctoral students Leona Tam and Melissa Guerrero-Witt investigated the transfer of habits of 115 college students transferring to Texas A&M University. Students filled out questionnaires--one month before the transfer and one month after--about their intentions, behaviors and performance contexts when exercising, reading the newspaper and watching television.

The study found that moving to a new environment removed automatic guides for performing habits and spurred students to make new or different decisions about their daily routines. For example, students were likely to ask, "Should I really be watching television?" or "Am I actually enjoying this exercise?" If the answer was "no," they quit the behavior.

"Most people think behavior is fairly goal-oriented--and it is when you first perform a behavior," Wood says. "But the more it's repeated, the more it's guided by stimulus cues, and goals become less important."

As such, Wood posits that the sustainability of habits is highly dependent on where you perform them, how you feel, the time of day and the presence of other people. For example, if students had a routine of exercising with others in the afternoon, but they now go to the gym in the morning alone, they might think twice before going. In fact, Wood notes that when performance contexts change, habits can be brought under intentional control.

"This is the first study that demonstrates change in everyday behaviors through unplanned change in performance contexts," Wood notes. So to change habits, she says, people might look for serendipitous changes that occur with travel or a move to a new location, which can lead them to think about the habit, instead of merely repeating it.