Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Habits, part 1

In this article, I asserted that your skill can be defined in two ways.  First was a broad definition which meant "fitness," or "capacity to win in a given environment."  The second definition was a more nitty-gritty breakdown, referring to the habits and knowledge that you collect as you play and practice.

I'm going to focus a bit more on the habit element today.  I recently read a book called The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.  Saying it was a very enlightening and interesting read would be a bit of an understatement.  If you are AT ALL interested in improving your life and understanding forces and feelings that seem beyond your control, find a copy and read it.  It's pretty well-written with easily applicable lessons.  Duhigg's definition of habit made me re-examine the habitual elements that make up skill, so I'm going to spend this post talking about it.

First, Duhigg breaks a habit down into three parts: cue, routine, and reward.  First comes the stimulus that initiates your habit.  It can be nearly anything, from hearing a bell ring to stepping outside your apartment.  Then comes the routine, which is what people normally refer to when they say "habit": it's the action that you take as a result of the cue.  Then comes the reward, which is why the habit exists in the first place; it's something you perform the habit for.

An example of a habit (like you need one) would be setting your keys down in the same place every time you come home.  You close the door to your house, and that acts as a cue to put your keys on a hook near the door.  The reward is the feeling of no longer having your keys in your pocket, along with feeling secure that the keys are in an easy-to-remember, easy-to-reach location.

The purpose of forming habits is so we don't have to concentrate on things.  We don't have to spend mental energy determining what to do with keys when we get in the apartment.  When driving, we don't have to consciously remember to check our left side-view mirror followed by the rear-view mirror, then the speedometer, then the right side-view mirror, then back to the middle, with alternating glances to the road ahead of us... because we're juggling that with making sure we push the gas pedal down far enough, staying in a lane, and listening for directions from the passenger because we haven't been to this restaurant before.  The more things you do habitually, the more you can accomplish in a small amount of time while consciously focusing on something else.

The thing is, habits can continue to exist even when you will no longer get the reward.  The cue will cause your brain to assume the reward is coming, so it goes through the routine whether or not the promised reward comes.  If you are thinking about something else at the time, you may find yourself executing a habit without noticing, only to see you did it for no good reason.

Skills, when it comes to sports and games, are very similar.  You square up into an optimal stance without thinking about it, or you automatically perform a certain blocking motion when somebody throws a certain punch at you.  These things are designed to reward you (better balance, not getting punched in the face, etc.), so when the appropriate cue occurs, you will get the reward while expending no mental energy.  For this reason, bad habits can develop if you compete too frequently against low-level opponents; you will cement practices that help you win against inferior players, then discover that they're quite exploitable when your opponent has more skill.  But you keep doing them anyhow, even as you get punished for the error, especially if you're trying to watch for something else.

Mental habits exist as well.  You can create mental habits to optimize the efficiency of your brain, to generate and retrieve information unconsciously.  A cue will trigger a certain question in your head, or line of thought, or series of associations.  Mental habits, particularly bad ones, can be the trickiest to discover and correct because they don't happen out in the physical world where everybody (including you) can see and correct them.  They happen internally, extremely quickly, and what's more, you have to use mental processes to fix them.  So you are trying to use an inefficient tool to fix itself.

A mental habit means responding to a cue with one of the following: asking a certain question, or looking for a specific piece of information.  This also reflects a belief I've held for some time, which is that intelligence is mostly a matter of software, not hardware.  Assuming your brain is not actually damaged or missing important bits, your intelligence is decided mostly by your mental habits.  If somebody else seems more insightful, more attentive, more clever, more anything, it's not always some ingrained part of their soul that makes them a better human being.  It's likely because, over a long period of time, they have solidified certain habits of thinking that give them certain skills.  Usually, this happens without them noticing (habits are designed not to be noticed!) so they think they "just have a knack" or "that's just how I look at things."  But with time and effort--sometimes a lot of both--you can start thinking like them too.  This isn't to understand physiological and genetic differences; however, studies show that repeatedly activating a certain part of the brain strengthens and enlarges it.

Unfortunately, the older we get, whether as people or as competitors, habits become more solidified as they continue to get used.  Mental habits particularly occur all the time, whether we notice.  We must endure more failure and hardship to defeat and replace those habits, and it doesn't always seem worth the effort.  A lot of scientific literature in the study of habits does have promising things to say in this regard though, so just for the purpose of making yourself a better human being, I recommend reading up on it.

On Friday I'm going to go into more detail on how I think these apply to video games, and how we can use and change habit loops to become better players.  Thanks for reading!

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