The Formation of Habits

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Dear Dr. Adler,

We hear so much about the power of habit in human life. William James says it is “the flywheel of society,” and Aristotle calls it “second nature.” But what is this powerful influence called “habit”? And why is it so important in our lives?

B. H.

Dear B. H.,

Let me begin by explaining Aristotle’s famous statement that habit is second nature. Habits are additions to the nature with which we are born. We are born with the power or ability to act in certain ways and also with certain innate patterns of action, which are called instinct or reflexes. Our innate tendencies to action can be developed and formed by what we actually do in the course of living. Such developments or formations are habits.

For example, we have an innate capacity for a great many different kinds of action in which skill can be acquired by practice. We learn to talk grammatically; we learn to think logically; we learn to cook or drive a car; we learn to ice skate or play tennis. In each case the learning results in an acquired skill which is a habit. In each case the habit actually gives us an ability which was only potential in us at birth.

That is why Aristotle calls habit second nature. Our original nature consists of capacities which can be developed or perfected by learning or experience. The development or perfection of those capacities supplements our original nature and thus constitutes a “second” — an added or acquired — nature.

Our need to form habits arises from the fact that, unlike the lower animals, we are not born with instinctive patterns of behavior adequate for the conduct of life. What certain animals can do instinctively, we have to learn to do. Instincts are, in a sense, innate or natural habits, just as human habits are acquired or second nature. Our original nature — our innate equipment — is fixed for life, though it is subject to modifications of all sorts. The habits we form, which modify our original nature, also have a certain stability, though they, too, are subject to alteration. We can strengthen our habits, weaken them, or break them entirely and supplant them by others. Like our original nature, our second nature — our repertoire of habits — gives each of us the particular character he has at a given stage of life. If you know a man’s habits, you can predict with some assurance what he is likely to do.

So far we have been talking about the individual. Common habits of thought and action in a community, the “ways” of a people, are usually called customs. Custom keeps things on an even keel in a society. It enables the common life to go on harmoniously. It smoothes the way for interchange between individuals and holds them together. We never feel at home in a new place until we’ve become accustomed to its customs and made them our own.

That is what William James means in calling habit “the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.” (A flywheel by its inertia keeps the engine going at a uniform speed and compensates for torque.)

James applies this insight to social status as well as to personal habits. He says that our occupational mannerisms become so set by the time we are thirty that most of us become perfectly satisfied with our place in life and our function in the social machine. James also insists that our personal tastes, and our habits of speech, thought, and social behavior, are relatively fixed by the time we are twenty, so that we are kept in our social orbit by a law as strong as gravitation.

However, it is important to remember that it is never impossible to shake off an old habit and form a new one. Once a habit has been acquired, it has almost compulsive power over us. But human habits are freely acquired by the choices we make, and can be got rid of and replaced by making other choices. No habit, no matter how strong, ever abolishes our freedom to change it. This is the lesson of Shaw’s Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady), a delightful dramatization of the power to change habits. Liza Doolittle can and does learn to speak like a lady.

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