60-Second Science

Strong Habits Kick In under Stress

Stress may not necessarily make you reach for that candy bar, as much as it influences you to fall back on your ingrained habits--which may be to go for the candy. Cynthia Graber reports

When we’re stressed out, self-control can flag. And so we might, say, reach for a candy bar instead of an apple. But California psychologists wondered: what if when we’re stressed we fall back on habits, whether good or bad.

The researchers conducted a battery of tests. In one, students rated the strength of their habits regarding breakfast choices and whether they read a section of the newspaper. And they reported their actions during stressful exam weeks. In another test, MBA students were offered healthful or sugary snacks before or after exams. And they rated how frequently they usually ate those types of snacks.

The scientists found that when the subjects’ willpower was depleted, they fell back on habits. If they usually read a section of the newspaper or ate cereal, they clung to their default during the exams. If they usually ate a doughnut, they did so even more frequently when stressed.The research is in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. [David T. Neal, Wendy Wood and Aimee Drolet, How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits]

The finding could mean that if you habitually grab fruit for a snack, you’ll likely keep doing so, especially, when stressed. One less thing to get stressed about.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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