Habit as Prediction13 min read

In a previous post, Mike Strand points to the significant rise of the “predictive turn” in the sciences of action and cognition under the banner of “predictive processing” (Clark, 2015; Wiese & Metzinger, 2017). This turn is consequential, according to Mike, because it takes prediction and turns it from something that analysts, forecasters (and increasingly automated algorithms) do from something that everyone does as the result of routine activity and everyday coping with worldly affairs. According to Mike:

To put it simply, predictive processing makes prediction the primary function of the brain. The brain evolved to allow for the optimal form of engagement with a contingent and probabilistic environment that is never in a steady state. Given that our grey matter is locked away inside a thick layer of protective bone (e.g., the skull), it has no direct way of perceiving or “understanding” what is coming at it from the outside world. What it does have are the senses, which themselves evolved to gather information about that environment. Predictive processing says, in essence, that the brain can have “knowledge” of its environment by building the equivalent of a model and using it to constantly generating predictions about what the incoming sensory information could be. This works in a continuous way, both at the level of the neuron and synapse, and at the level of the whole organism. The brain does not “represent” what it is dealing with, then, but it uses associations, co-occurrences, tendencies and rhythms to predict what it is dealing with.

In this post, I would like to continue the conversation on the central role of prediction in the explanation of action and cognition that Mike started by linking it to some previous discussions on the nature and role of habit in action and the explanation of action (see here, here, and here). The essential point that I wish to make here is that there is a close link between habit and prediction. This claim may sound counterintuitive at first. The reason is that the primary way that habit and practice have been incorporated into contemporary action theory is by making habit, in its “repetitive” or “iterative” aspect, a phase or facet of action that looks mainly backward to the past (e.g., Emirbayer & Mische, 1998). Because prediction is necessarily future-oriented, most analysts think of it as also necessarily non-habitual and thus point to other non-habit like processes, such as Schutzian “projection,” that implies a break with habitual iteration. These analysts presume that there is a natural antithesis between habit and iteration (which at best may bring the past into the present) and anticipation of forthcoming futures.

Rethinking Habit for Prediction

The idea that habit is antithetical to prediction makes sense, as far as it goes, but only because it hews closely to a conception of habit that accentuates the “iterative” or repetitive side. But there are more encompassing conceptions of the role of habit in action that emphasize an iterative side to habit and an adaptive, and even “anticipatory” side. Here I focus on one such intellectual legacy of thinking about habit, which remains mostly unknown in contemporary action theory in sociology. It was developed by a cadre of thinkers, mainly in France, beginning in the early nineteenth century and extending into the early twentieth century. This approach to the notion of habit characteristically combined elements of Aristotelian, Roman-stoic, scholastic, British-empiricist, Scottish-commonsense, French-rationalist, and German-idealist philosophy, and then-novel developments in neurophysiology such as the work of Xavier Bichat. Its two leading exponents were Pierre Maine de Biran (1970) and the largely neglected (but see Carlisle (2010) and Sinclair (2019)) work of Félix Ravaisson (2008). These thinkers exercised a broad influence in the way habit was conceptualized in the French tradition, extending its influence into the work of the philosophers Albert Lemoine, Henry Bergson, and more notably, Maurice Merlau-Ponty (Sinclair, 2018).

The Double Law of Habit

The primary contribution of these two thinkers, especially Ravaisson, was developing the double law of habit. This was the proposal that habit (conceptualized as behavioral or environmental repetition) had “contradictory” effects on the “passive” (sensory, feeling) and the active (skill, action) faculties: “sensation, continued or repeated, fades, is gradually obscured and ends by disappearing without leaving a trace. Repeated movement [on the other hand] gradually becomes more precise, more prompt, and easier” (de Biran, 1970, p. 219)

In other words, facilitation in the realm of perception leads to “habituation,” meaning that experience becomes less capable of capturing attention. We become inured to the sensory flow, or in the case of experience that generate feelings (e.g., of pleasure, disgust, and so forth), the feelings “fade” in intensity (e.g., think of the difference between a first-year medical student and an experienced surgeon in the presence of a corpse). This is an argument that was deployed by Simmel to explain the “deadening” effect of urbanism on sensory discrimination and emotional reaction, generative of what he called the “blase attitude” in his classic essay on the “Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit.”

When it comes to action, on the other hand, habituation via repetition leads to the opposite of passivity; namely, facilitation of the activity (becoming faster, more precise, more self-assured) and the creation of an automatic disposition (e.g., triggered in partial or complete independence from a feeling of “willing” the action) equipped with its own inertia and bound to continue to its consummation unless interrupted. Habituated action “becomes more of a tendency, an inclination” (Ravaisson 2008: 51). This is the double face (or “law”) of habit.

Prediction as Attenuation

Trying to puzzle out these apparently contradictory effects of habituation led to a lot of head-scratching (and creative theorizing) both on the part of de Biran and Ravaisson and subsequent epigones like Bergson, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricoeur. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that a solution to the “double-law” puzzles emerges when the predictive dimension of both perception and action is brought to the fore. The case of “perceptual attenuation” considered below, for instance, provides the mechanism for the “fading” of the vibrancy of experience whenever we become proficient at canceling out the error produced by those experiences via top-down predictions (Hohwy, 2013). Here the “top” are generative hierarchical models instantiated across different layers in the cortex, and the bottom is incoming sensory stimulation from the world (where the job of the model is to infer the hidden causes of such stimulation).

That is, as experience is repeated and the distributed, hierarchical generative models tune their parameters to effectively figure out what’s coming before it comes, we begin to preemptively cancel out prediction error. Cancelation of prediction error leads to subsequent perceptual attenuation, such that incoming sensory information no longer commands (or requires) attention. The result is that attention is freed to concentrate on other more pressing things (e.g., the parts of the experience that are still producing precise error and thus demand it). In this respect, sensory and feeling attenuation is the price we pay for becoming good at predicting what the world offers. Prediction is at the basis of “passive” habituation (the first face of the double law).

Prediction as Facilitation

But what about the facilitation side? Here prediction, in the form of what is known as active inference, is also at play. However, this time, instead of prediction in the service of canceling out error from exteroceptive signals, the acquisition of skill turns into our capacity to cancel out prediction error emanating from our action in the world, for instance, via proprioceptive signals that track the sensory consequences of our activity. Repeated activity leads us to form increasingly accurate generative models of our action (the dynamic motor trajectory of our bodies and their effectors) in a particular environment. This means that we can anticipate what we are going to do before we do it, leading to the loss (via the mechanism described above) of the feeling of “effort” or even “willing” at the point of action initiation (Wegner, 2002), which is a phenomenological signature of habitual activity.

This is consistent with the idea that Parsonian “effort” rather than being the sine qua non of truly “free” action partially unmoored from its “conditions” (as the Kantian legacy led Parsons to implicitly assume) actually points to poorly performed (because badly predicted) action, in other words, action that is driven by generative models that are not very good at anticipating our next move. This is action that is at war with the environment not because it is “independent” from it, but because (due to lack of habituation an attunement to its objective structure of probabilities) is partially at war with it, and thus disconnected from its offerings (Silver, 2011).

The connection between habit and prediction becomes clear. On the one hand, repetition results in the attenuation of sensory input. While this was usually referred to as the “passive” side of the double-law, we can now see, drawing on recent work on predictive processing, that this is only a seeming passivity. At the subpersonal level, attenuation happens via the successful operation of well-honed generative models of the environmental causes of the input, working continuously to cancel out those incoming signals that they successfully predict. These models are one set of “habitual tracks” laid out by our experience of consistent patterns of experience.

On the “active” side, which is more clearly recognized as “habit,” proficiency in action execution also comes via prediction, but this time, instead of predicting how the distal structure of the world, we predict the same world we “self-fulfill,” as we act. Moving in the world feels like something to us (proprioception), and as we repeat activities, we become proficient in predicting the very sensory stimulation that we generate via our actions. The two sides of the double-law, which show up in contemporary predictive cognitive science as the difference between “perceptual” and “active” inference (Pezzulo et al., 2015; Wiese & Metzinger, 2017), are thus built on the predictive capacities of habits. This was something that was anticipated by Ravaisson when he noted that

[A] sort of obscure activity that increasingly anticipates both the impression of external objects in sensibility and the will in activity. In activity this reproduces the action itself; in sensibility it does not reproduce the sensation, the passion…but class for it, invokes it; in a certain sense it implores the sensation (Ravaisson 2008: 51).

Habit is thus the confluence of what has been called perceptual inference (predicting incoming signals by tuning a generative model of their causes) and active inference (self-fulfilling incoming signals via action so that they conform to the model that already exist), in other words, prediction as it facilitates our engaged coping with the world, is the nature of habit. More accurately, to the extent that we can predict the world, we do so via habit.


Carlisle, C. (2010). Between Freedom and Necessity: Félix Ravaisson on Habit and the Moral Life. Inquiry: A Journal of Medical Care Organization, Provision, and Financing, 53(2), 123–145.

Clark, A. (2015). Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind. Oxford University Press.

de Biran, P. M. (1970). The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking. Greenwood.

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? The American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962–1023.

Hohwy, J. (2013). The Predictive Mind. Oxford University Press.

Pezzulo, G., Rigoli, F., & Friston, K. (2015). Active Inference, homeostatic regulation and adaptive behavioural control. Progress in Neurobiology, 134, 17–35.

Ravaisson, F. (2008). Of Habit. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Silver, D. (2011). The moodiness of action. Sociological Theory, 29(3), 199–222.

Sinclair, M. (2018). Habit and time in nineteenth-century French philosophy: Albert Lemoine between Bergson and Ravaisson. British Journal for the History of Philosophy: BJHP: The Journal of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, 26(1), 131–153.

Sinclair, M. (2019). Being Inclined: Félix Ravaisson’s Philosophy of Habit. Oxford University Press.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press.

Wiese, W., & Metzinger, T. (2017). Vanilla PP for Philosophers: A Primer on Predictive Processing. In T. Metzinger & W. Wiese (Eds.), Philosophy and Predictive Processing.


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