A Practical Psychology Course for High Schools
I first became interested in learning about habit psychology when an author by the name of Charles Duhigg came and spoke at my university, Southern Methodist University, as a part of the Hunt Leadership Scholars program that I am a part of. Duhigg, a New York Times reporter, had recently published his book called The Power of Habit.
After this initial event, I read through The Power of Habit and was immediately interested in how I could practically apply these principles to my life. Part of my initial difficulty was that because my schedule was changing so often with different locations, establishing routines, such as exercising, was difficult without consistency in my day-to-day life. However, after my work California, and knowing that I would be in Vienna in the Spring, I took it upon myself to establish habit routines that could also be applied elsewhere, with different schedules and with different locations.
Since exercise is described as a “keystone habit” (which I elaborate on later), I decided to first establish a strong exercise routine. One of the few high-level consistencies in my schedule (regardless of where I was) was that calendar days are (obviously) split by days/nights. Nevertheless, I established the simple routine that go to the gym every single day. If a day occurred (cue), then I go to the gym, even if it was for 2 minutes (to start, which I elaborate on later regarding the “2-minute rule”).
When I first started the gym habit, given the need to start small, I began with walking on the treadmill with a 15 degree incline at 3.5 mph (5.6 km/h). Even though I was walking, the incline plus the speed makes you break a sweat relatively quickly. Each day, I would slowly increase the time I walked on the treadmill by only 10 seconds. Thus, after a month (30 days), I had added 5 minutes (300 seconds) to my walking time, making each treadmill workout burn at least 200-300 calories. As I established the habit, I also added in weightlifting, while keeping the treadmill each day, increasing by 10 seconds.
In the end, over the course of August - Dec 2015, I reduced my bodyfat percentage from ~23% to 16% (about 14 pounds or 6.4kg fat lost) and increased my muscle mass from ~40% to ~45% (gained about 10.5lbs or 4.8kg of muscle). Along with healthy eating, which I also implemented, I was able to reduce my needed sleep per night from 8 hours to 6.5 hours, while increasing the quality of sleep overall. Needless to say, the principles greatly helped my life, so I decided to teach them to the students as well.
BUNDESREALGYMNASIUM WIEN 19: TEACHING HABIT PSYCHOLOGY
While studying in Vienna, Austria, this spring, I decided to teach English at BG/BRG 19 (Bundesgymnasium & Bundesrealgymnasium 19, similar to a US middle and high school). However, the students' English was already incredible. Thus, I was given a fair amount of free reign in deciding the subject to teach, since regardless of what subject I spoke about (academic or cultural), the students would get experience listening to a native English speaker from America. Thus, I took two weeks (two sessions) to teach about the psychology behind habits and productivity. I personally wished I knew the material earlier in my life, so I reasoned that it would be a great topic for students.
A few weeks after the two Habit Psychology lectures that I gave the students, I gave all of them a survey asking questions regarding the lectures, giving them statements and asking them to rate their responses, with answers being Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree. The statements were as follows:
- I thought the information was useful
- I am going to apply the principles to my own life
- I understood most of the material
- I personally liked the topic
- I think the topic should also be taught to other students in gymnasium (high school)
I then assigned a point value to each response, ranging from 2 for Strongly Agree to -2 for Strongly Disagree (and the rest in between linearly). The results are as follows, with the black line indicating the weighted average of the responses based on point value for the first chart. For example, if all students answered “Neutral” on every question, the black line would be at 50%. To better illustrate this, I created a second graph that represents the survey responses on a scale from -2 to 2. The sample size was 19 and a few students were missing on the day that the survey was given, so I'm not claiming anything near statistical significance, but the data does show useful thoughts from the students.
As shown from the survey responses, the students had an overall moderately-strong positive responses to the practical psychology topic, with the strongest positive responses being "I understood the material well" and "I think this topic should be taught to other students in gymnasium (high school)."
PROPOSED STRUCTURE & CONTENT OF A PRACTICAL PSYCHOLOGY COURSE
In this section, I cover a few of the key elements that I believe should be in a practical psychology course for high schools. These include: Habit loops, identity-based habits, the 2-minute rule, keystone habits, and fixed & growth mindsets.
Based on Dr. Wendy Wood’s research at the University of Southern California, habits are essentially the hard-coding of our brains. Approximately 40-45% of our actions each day are decided by our subconscious and the habits that our brain contains. Thus, only about 55-60% of our decisions each day are conscious. A simple example is brushing your teeth before you go to bed. Many times, you’re in bed before you’ve even consciously realized that you made the decision to brush your teeth – this is also seen in negative instances, such as snacking on junk food while watching TV.
Habits are broken down into three main components: the cue, the routine, and the reward. James Clear, a blogger who writes about psychology from recent research (website in sources), prefers to phrase this as the 3 R’s: the Reminder, Routine, and Reward. Packaging content in 3’s is easier for students to remember, so I stuck with naming the loop the 3 R’s: reminder, routine, and reward.
A habit is initially triggered by a reminder, such as “I am going to bed,” which triggers the routine of brushing one’s teeth, which then grants the reward of having clean, smooth teeth. This habit loop is how habits are constructed in our brain: actions can happen with a reminder and a routine, but if there is no reward, the brain has no reason to continue doing it. The opposite is true too: if an action brings a reward, then the brain may crave it; however, given that there are many rewards that the brain can crave, without the reminder, this specific routine and reward will die off.
Practically, this habit loop is seen often in everyone’s daily lives. A simple example is getting out of bed (reminder), showering (routine), and feeling clean and ready for the day (reward). Other simple examples include brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, going for a jog or working out/training, driving to work, snacking while watching TV, eating when stressed, and eating when bored (both with stress and boredom being reminders for the eating routine to take place).
A strong tool with implementing new habits is to first focus on building one’s identity. A common example used by James Clear is someone who remembers peoples’ names well. When asked how someone remembers names so well, such a person will often reply “I’m just the type of person who’s good at remembering peoples’ names.” The key here is that her belief that she is the type of person that remembers names well is how she has constructed her identity. If she believes that she is the type of person who remembers names well, then her mind will subconsciously act that out. The opposite is also true: If a person thinks that he is terrible with remembering names, then his brain will have no impetus to improve, since that’s where he has constructed his identity. Thus, the identity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in both scenarios.
Thus, establishing the identity first is the key to building solid habits. For myself with my treadmill example, while I started with only going to the gym for 2 minutes everyday, I was constructing the identity of “I am the type of person that goes to the gym everyday.” Even though I was only on the treadmill for 2 minutes, then 2 minutes 10 seconds, then 2 minutes 20 seconds, etc., I was validating my identity in that I go to the gym everyday. Even though it was for such a short time, after ~21 days, I had constructed the identity and the habits of being the type of person that goes to the gym everyday. Then, the results follow.
Focusing on the Process vs. the Results
Often, when people set out to achieve goals, they focus wholly on the results. As with fitness, common examples are: “How much fat have I lost? How much faster was my mile run time? How much weight was I able to bench press today? Do I have six-pack abs yet?” Mentally, however, this breeds constant dissatisfaction with one’s self. It is important to give oneself small victories. Going from being overweight to being lean and having a six-pack can take a tremendous amount of time. If someone focuses solely on the result of losing 50lbs of fat, then every single day that he isn’t 50lbs leaner will be sad and self-destructive, constructing a negative image of one’s self. This is why solely focusing on the results can be dangerous.
The solution, then, is to focus on the process, not the results. By starting small and establishing habits, such as going to the gym for 2 minutes, then one can celebrate the small victory that she went to the gym that day, irrespective of the results. If she continues to increase this everyday, as with the treadmill example in increasing the treadmill time by 10 seconds, then three months from the start date, she will be on the treadmill for 17 minutes per day, effectively burning roughly 800 calories every workout – only by focusing on the constructive process of establishing the identity of going to the gym everyday, rather that beating herself down for not having lost 50lbs of fat yet. This gives a psychological boost to the mind, by celebrating the process. This removes the need to compare oneself to others; it doesn’t matter that someone else is 50lbs leaner that you are: you continued the process today, which you should celebrate. Enjoy this small victory, and over time, the results will follow. Altogether, the methodology is to build the identity by focusing on the process, and the results will follow.
The 2-Minute Rule
In loose terms, “anyone can do anything for 2 minutes” – and that’s true. That’s how good habits can begin. Instead of deciding to go to the gym every single day for 2 hours as a New Year’s resolution, start with going to the gym for only 2 minutes every day, and then slowly increase it from there (as I did with walking on the treadmill for only 2 minutes at first, and then increasing it by 10 seconds everyday). The reason for this is that, as mentioned, the priority is not for quick results, since achieving quick results is often idealistic and impractical. The purpose, instead, is to establish the habit. By starting with 2 minutes for a new routine, there is no way that the brain can make an excuse that one doesn’t have time for a routine, such as working out/training. 2 minutes is so short that the routine won’t cause any anxiety, knowing you only need to do something for 2 minutes.
In addition to basic, healthy habits, Duhigg, in The Power of Habit wrote about “keystone habits.” Keystone habits are healthy habits that also affect other habits, and have a powerful, positive cascading effect. Though keystone habits may differ for different people, a general keystone habit applicable to everyone is fitness. When one goes to the gym, afterward he may reward himself with junk food since he burned calories working out. However, keystone habits cause other habits to exponentially stack. Often, when someone works out, he no longer desires junk food, but instead craves wholesome, healthy foods. When someone acts on that reminder to eat healthier and begins to eat healthier, then sleep also improves, which further leads to more productivity and room for positive habits. By harnessing a keystone habit like going to the gym, one can positively change nearly every area of her life.
2 Common Bad Habit Triggers
Since the habit loop applies to both good and bad habits, it is important to be able to spot common bad habit triggers in order to eradicate bad habits. Two of the most common ones are stress and boredom, and these are common to many people because they are not reliant upon a specific event that may differ with each person’s lifestyle (like driving to work versus walking versus taking public transport), and instead are feelings that can be triggered by numerous situations. Thus, two of the most common bad habit triggers are stress and boredom, and many of these routines are harmful for one’s health, such as eating junk food, biting one’s nails, drinking excessive alcohol, and spending money.
Eradicating Bad Habits
Eradicating bad habits is no simple task. Many times, people try to change their bad habits simply by forcing it and hopefully having enough willpower. Unfortunately, willpower and motivation eventually runs out, and then the hard-coding of our brain takes the wheel and starts making our decisions for us, although subconsciously. The better (and actually easier) way to fix a bad habit is to substitute it instead of completely fighting it. Instead of not snacking at all when watching TV, replace the junk food with a bowl of vegetables. Instead of biting one’s nails when stressed, replace the routine of biting nails with taking three deep breaths to calm down.
Beyond Habits: Growth & Fixed Mindsets
Based on Dr. Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford University, peoples’ mindsets usually fall on a spectrum between two categories: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset generally believes that intelligence is static and innate, and that one’s intelligence is fixed at birth. The growth mindset, contrarily, believes that things such as intelligence and achievement come from hard work, instead of natural innate talent. Below is a comparison that illustrates the differences between the two mindset (credit to @sylviaduckworth for the graphic).
To illustrate this, Dr. Dweck did a study on 400 fifth graders in New York with a relatively easy nonverbal IQ test. Because the test was easy, all performed relatively well. The fifth graders were then split into three groups: After giving the first group back their test scores, the researchers said “You must be smart at this” to each of the students. After the researchers gave back the test scores to the second group, they said “You must have worked really hard.” For the third group, the researchers simply gave the test scores back with no comment (this was the control group). The researchers then gave all of the students a hard test designed for the students to fail. Naturally, all three groups performed worse due to the difficulty. Lastly, the three groups were given a moderate difficulty test designed for their grade level. Using the 3rd “no feedback” group as the control, the first group (the “You must be smart at this” group) performed 20% worse than the control group, and the second group (the “You must have worked really hard” group) performed 30% better than the control group on the moderate difficulty test, resulting in 50% better performance due to complimenting children on their innate talent versus their hard work (or 30% better performance for no comment at all). The “You’re Smart” comments weren’t simply brushed off – they were actually harmful.
The study has many implications, notably that it is extremely important for teachers to compliment their students based on hard work, and not based on being smart or being born with a skill or certain level of intelligence. This can tangibly lead to improvement in ability. The reason for the first group (the “You must be smart at this” group) not performing as well on the moderate difficulty test is that many of them gave up when receiving difficulty questions, saying “I just must not be smart enough.” However, the second group (the “You must have worked really hard” group) saw the difficult questions as a challenge that could be conquered through hard work.
Applications of this Course
Constructing a course based off these principles would be useful in almost every area of students’ lives, from study habits, to fitness, to socializing, to sports, and to business in the students' future careers. By helping students implement a habit loop with actions like studying, grades could greatly improve and stress could be reduced as a whole. Students could learn to eat healthier and make better choices, knowing that their lives aren’t based simply on how much willpower and motivation they have, but on their subconscious, disciplined, and ultimately malleable habits.
For socializing, and especially since school is such a formative time for social habits, people often think that they are born a certain way, such as being an introvert or an extrovert, and that that is “just the way they are” (recall the fixed mindset). However, as with the principles of the growth mindset, students can improve their social skills simply by believing that socializing is a learned skill, practicing it, and continuing to try, even in the face of failure.
Change your habits, change your life.