The Ultimate Behavioral Science Playlist: Habits
By Aline Holzwarth
Illustrations by Matt Trower
We have joined together with other behavioral scientists to compile a playlist of over 5 hours of songs from a diverse range of genres that each, in some way or another, exemplify the principles of behavioral science. These songs are organized by the categories of the BEHAVIOR Framework (a mnemonic for remembering different behavior change strategies: Bias, Ego, Habits, Appeal, Visceral, Incentives, Others, Reminders), and will be released with their descriptions in the coming weeks, one category at a time.
Much of human behavior runs on automatic, as we are drawn to the status quo and resist the smallest of frictions. This is precisely what makes defaults so powerful, and why the path of least resistance dominates our decisions. Habits, or automatic behavioral programs that are the result of repetition and associative learning, can be deeply entrenched behavioral patterns, and are paradoxically as hard to make as they are to break.
Habits are illustrated in Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” where, as Samuel Salzer observes, “a relationship stands at the brink of falling apart due to the breaking of a ‘chain,’ a promise not fulfilled. We know from research on habits how motivating a chain, or streak, of repeated behaviors can become.” When the chain breaks and the streak is undone, the relationship is at risk. (Pro tip: you can use emergency reserves to keep the feeling of a streak intact, even when it is broken.)
The powerful mindlessness of routine is illustrated in “Woke Up New” by The Mountain Goats where the protagonist is, according to Zarak Khan, “so used to the habits they established with their former partner that not only do they accidentally make too much coffee, but they drink it all anyway.” The consequences of making too much coffee may be trivial, but that’s not always the case. Kurt Nelson notes how in “Change,” NF raps about how difficult it is for us to break our habits and how willpower isn’t always enough to change behavior.
Gotta have it, it’s a habit I’ma break though
I just wanna take a hit, keep sayin’ I’ma quit
Keep sayin’ I’ma leave, but I stay though
Takin’ the wrong turns, actin’ like I know where I’m headed
Waitin’ for somethin’ bad to happen, I can snap any minute
I need change
Yeah, that’s kinda easy to say, right?
These displays of habits in music (and more) appear in the ultimate behavioral science playlist, a compilation of songs that demonstrate common behavioral principles. These songs are organized by the categories of the BEHAVIOR Framework (a mnemonic for remembering different behavior change strategies: Bias, Ego, Habits, Appeal, Visceral, Incentives, Others, Reminders).
In collaboration with behavioral scientists from eight cooperating organizations (Action Design, Behavioral Grooves, Habit Weekly, behavioraleconomics.com, ideas42, Behavioral Scientist, PeopleScience and Betterment), we are pleased to share the ultimate behavioral science playlist with you. We hope you enjoy it, and share it with one other person!
Listen to the Ultimate Behavioral Science Playlist:
Songs About the Behavioral Principle: Habits
"You just brought together
Didn't seem to have the heart
Wheels, they're coming off now
Knew that it would fall apart
Take one for the team
You're a cog in the machine
It's like a default"
We tend to think of ourselves as intentional agents, aware of our surroundings and constantly making deliberate decisions. But in the world illustrated by Django Django in “Default,” we are less cognizant and purposeful than this illusion would suggest. Going with the flow, we behave like defaults.
New Person, Same Old Mistakes
"But you'll make the same old mistakes
(I don't care, I'm in love)
Stop before it's too late
(I know, feel like a brand new person)
But you'll make the same old mistakes
(I finally know what it's like)"
Tame Impala explains in “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” how even when we feel we have changed, there can be some still basic, possibly unconscious, parts of us that keep us going. It is a good message for those in the new year as we may feel different, have more resolve, and in many ways be different, but if we don’t interrupt our unconscious habits, much of our behavior may remain the same.
"We have built a foolish world
Busy fighting, full of lying and denying
My ghosts are not gone
They dance in the shade
And gives the black core of my heart
Making words making sounds making songs"
In “Ghosts,” Ibeyi is not only singing about trying to establish a fresh start (“I want to write a new beginning, let go of the ghosts…”) but about the difficulty and limits to those efforts (“My ghosts are not gone”).
"And if you don't love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain (Never break the chain)
Chain keep us together (running in the shadow)"
In this iconic song “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, a relationship stands at the brink of falling apart due to the breaking of a “chain,” a promise not fulfilled. We know from research on habits how motivating a chain, or streak, of repeated behaviors can become. The streak provides motivation because it becomes a representation of the habit itself, which is also why we feel like the habit has fallen apart just because we missed a day and broke our streak.
"Yeah, I been on it for a while, dunno how to put it down
Gotta have it, it's a habit I'ma break though
I just wanna take a hit, keep sayin' I'ma quit
Keep sayin' I'ma leave, but I stay though
I just want a little fix, I don't wanna take a risk
I don't like it when I drift from the safe zone"
In “Change,” NF raps about how difficult it is for us to break our habits and how willpower isn’t always enough to change behavior.
Ready to Start
"Now, I'm ready to start
I would rather be wrong
Than live in the shadows of your song
My mind is open wide
And now I'm ready to start"
The song “Ready to Start” by Arcade Fire demonstrates the difficulty of starting anew, but characterizes a fresh start as a more than worthy endeavor.
Breaking the Habit
"I don't know what's worth fighting for or why I have to scream
But now I have some clarity to show you what I mean
I don't know how I got this way, I'll never be alright
So I'm breaking the habit, I'm breaking the habit
I'm breaking the habit tonight"
This classic from Linkin Park puts words on something we can all relate to; the feeling of life not going as planned and the need to break some bad habits. However, making a verbal commitment is only the beginning, and research suggests that for bad habits like smoking, it can often take more than 30 attempts to quit before the habit is broken. Look at it another way; Harris Dickson famously said, “”It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it a thousand times.””
My Morning Jacket
"We're just spinning around
Out on the circuits
Over the hollow grounds
Out on the circuits
Over the hollow grounds
Heading right back in the same place
That we started out"
My Morning Jacket’s “Circuital” emphasizes the inertia of the status quo bias; we tend to stay in the same place, even when we wish we were moving forward.
Woke Up New
The Mountain Goats
"On the morning when I woke up without you for the first time
I felt free and I felt lonely and I felt scared
And I began to talk to myself almost immediately
Not being used to being the only person there
The first time I made coffee for just myself I made too much of it
But I drank it all just 'cause you hate it when I let things go to waste"
The character in “Woke Up New” by The Mountain Goats is so used to the habits they established with their former partner that not only do they accidentally make too much coffee, but they drink it all anyway to live up to expectations that are no longer there.
"Tired and wired, we ruin too easy
Sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave
And I'll be with you, behind the couch
When they come on a different day, just like this one
We'll stay inside till somebody finds us
Do whatever the TV tells us
Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days"
In “Apartment Story,” The National describe the ease with which we let ourselves become numb, and the acceptance of such a drone-like state.