Habit and the Explanation of Action11 min read

Habits play a double role. They are both a kind of action and a resource for explaining action. This makes them different from other parts of the conceptual arsenal used by people (and social scientists) to explain action. For instance, while the notion of belief is a resource for explaining action (“Sam opened the fridge because they thought there was leftover pizza in there”), belief itself is not a type of action. In this respect, the mentalistic notion that is closest to that of habit is intention. Like habits, intentions play double roles as both a central element in the explanation of action (“Alex swatted at the fly because they intended to kill it”) and as a type of action (“intentional” versus “unintentional”).

Accordingly, it is not a surprise than in the history of the philosophy of action and action theory in the social sciences, habit or habitual action is counterposed, often invidiously, to intention and intentional action (Camic 1986). In the intellectualist tradition in sociology (Parsons 1937; Campbell 2009; Archer 2010), habits are seen as not having equal explanatory status in relation to intentions. In fact, some go on to define action as those patterns of activity that have intentions as the main causal driver (Campbell 2009; Searle 2003). Habit-driven action, from this perspective, does not even deserve to be called action, devolving into mere “behavior” or “reflex” tied to environmental “conditions.” In a previous post, I talked about the criteria of what makes action a habit. Here, I will argue that (lay or scientific) explanations of action using habit as a resource, are as legitimate as those appealing to the mentalistic vocabulary of intentions, beliefs, and desires. They are not only a coherent way of explaining action, but they also have distinctive analytic advantages.

How do habit explanations explain action? According to Pollard (2006b, 57), habit explanations explain by “referring to a pattern of a particular kind of behavior which is regularly performed in characteristic circumstances, and has become automatic for that agent due to this repetition.” The notion of automaticity is doing a lot of work here, and I dealt with what that entails in the previous post referenced earlier. For present purposes the thing to note is that, for Pollard, when we explain action via habit, we are putting a given action in a larger context of previously performed actions in the past. Explaining action by calling it a habit forces us to say something about the person’s previous history, while putting the present action in the context of that history. When we say a person did something out of habit, we imply that they (a) have done this activity in the past many times before, and (b) due to this repetition they have acquired the tendency to perform the action in similar circumstances in the present (and will do so in the future). The conjunction of repetition and the acquisition of automaticity and fluidity in performing the action is sufficient to explain why the person is doing the action in the present.

Note that this type of action explanation differs from the one John Levi Martin (2015: 217) has referred to as “Good Old Fashioned Action Theory” (GOFAT). First, the habit explanation is minimally intellectualistic, as it does not traffic in the usual representational talk of internal mental entities such as intentions, beliefs, desires, and the like (Strand and Lizardo 2015). Second, the explanation is not teleological in the sense of pointing to the causal force of aims, goals or desired future states in accounting for action (Parsons 1937). Instead, it is the past history of repetition that makes the action persevere in the present and that past history of habituation is sufficient to explain the current occurrence of the act (without implying that habits lack goal directedness). Finally, the explanation is causal-historical in the sense that the “habit” can only be thought of as a cause of the action when it is put in the context of the person’s previous history. Habits necessarily make reference to a history of acquisition and “ontogenesis” which itself may be put in the context of a larger social history involving multiple agents, socializing institutions, and so on (Bourdieu 1988, 1996). In this respect, habits explain by taking a given action and putting it in the more encompassing landscape of previously repeated tokens of the same action. The overall “habit” then, is a complex object, is composed of all of those temporally distributed actions.

This type of explanation, in which something is accounted for by pointing to the fact that it is “building block” of a larger whole has been referred by Pollard (2006b) as a constitutive explanation, and isolated as what makes habit explanations of action distinctive from intentional ones. Intentional explanations of action point to the causal role of internal mentalistic constructs, the most important of which (namely, intentions) are also teleological (Searle 2003). Habit based explanations negate teleology, minimize the role of representational constructs, and put the causal mechanisms underlying action in a larger ontogenetic context presupposing a previous history of repetition and enculturation.

Note also that it is important to clarify what sort of causal relation we are talking about here. In common parlance, it is natural to imply that having a habit is a cause of the present action. But note that if a habit explanation implies that the present action is constitutive of the temporally extended entity we are referring to as a habit, then habits are not causes of a given action. Instead, a given action that is identified as a habit is explained by being part of a larger ensemble of similar actions that form part of a given individual’s previous history. While habits don’t cause actions a given habitual action may have it’s efficient subpersonal causes each time it is performed (Pollard, 2006a)

Habit-based explanations also imply a different relationship between the agent and the resources used to explain action than intentional explanations. In the latter, the relationship between the agent and the mental constructs (beliefs, desires, intentions, and so on) used to account for action is one of possesion. That is, an agent is said to have beliefs, desires, intentions, and the like (Abelson 1986). This possessive relation also implies a theory of change, that is just like one can abandon a physical possession, one can also “drop” a belief, desire, or intention. The theory of change implied by GOFAT makes these “changes of mind” something that people can also do intentionally, and which thus requires effort and control. In a habit-based explanation as noted by Pollard (2006a), the relevant relation between person and explanatory resource (habit) is not one of possession but of also constitution.

Although the Latin root of habit (habere, to “hold” or “have”) does invite the possessive interpretation, and although we normally speak of people “having” or “kicking” a habit, the relationship implied is stronger. Rather than having habits, people are their habits. As Pollard (2006a: 245) notes “if one acquires a habit of Φ-ing, one thereby makes Φ-ing one’s own, and Φ-ing is quite literally, part of who one is.” The (social) self, as noted by the American pragmatists, is just such a bundle of mental and emotional habits.

As such, “kicking” or “dropping” a habit is a different matter than changing your mind about a belief. For one, the timescales are different; one can happen in the span of seconds, but dropping or changing a habit can take years and only be partially successful. While both belief and habit change qualify as intentional actions, the role intentions play in each is different.

In the case of belief change the link between intention and action is more or less direct; confronted with evidence controverting a belief, a controlled act of belief revision can take place. In the case of habit, having the intention of changing does not necessarily result in the habit disappearing. In fact, the intention to drop a habit may be a necessary, but is hardly a sufficient condition for change. In this respect changing habits imply a fundamental retooling of the self, changing who the person is in a more fundamental way than changing a belief or an intention. Habits can decay, and new habits can replace them, but the timescale of change is slower. Ontogenetically the accumulation of habits constitutes a perduring self, with its own “inertia” that is resistant to change even in the face of environmental disruption (Strand & Lizardo, 2017).



Abelson, R. P. (1986). Beliefs Are Like Possessions. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 16(3), 223–250.

Archer, M. S. (2010). Routine, Reflexivity, and Realism. Sociological Theory, 28(3), 272–303.

Bourdieu, P. (1988). Homo Academicus. Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1996). The state nobility: Elite schools in the field of power (L. Clough, trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Camic, C. (1986). The Matter of Habit. The American Journal of Sociology, 91(5), 1039–1087.

Campbell, C. (2009). Distinguishing the Power of Agency from Agentic Power: A Note on Weber and the “Black Box” of Personal Agency*. Sociological Theory, 27(4), 407–418.

Martin, J. L. (2015). Thinking Through Theory. W.W. Norton, Incorporated.

Parsons, T. (1937). The Structure of Social Action. New York: Free Press.

Pollard, B. (2006a). Action, Habits, and Constitution. Ratio, 19(2), 229–248.

Pollard, B. (2006b). Explaining Actions with Habits. American Philosophical Quarterly, 43(1), 57–69.

Searle, J. R. (2003). Rationality in Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Strand, M., & Lizardo, O. (2015). Beyond world images: Belief as embodied action in the world. Sociological Theory. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0735275115572397

Strand, M., & Lizardo, O. (2017). The hysteresis effect: theorizing mismatch in action. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 47(2), 164–194.







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