A Walk with William James, Part 2: Habit

I have written a great deal about the volitional capacities of humans. Specifically, I've repeatedly made contrasts between two positions: Weak Volitionalism and Strong Volitionalism. Summarizing greatly:

Strong volitionalism: The view the the human "will" is very strong, it is able to easily overcome genetic and environmental influences.

Weak volitionalism: The view that the human "will" is very weak, it struggles to overcome genetic and environmental influences.

I've often argued in this space that churches need to adopt weak volitional models in their spiritual formation efforts. By contrast, most churches I know of have strong volitional models in place. Basically, the common church formulation is this: If people possess strong volitional capacities then churches need to do very little to change people. I've been arguing just the opposite: Since people possess weak volitional capacities churches will need to do MORE to effect change in people's lives. Schematically,

This is the dominant model in most churches:

Strong volitional people + weak church interventions = Big Behavioral Change

But this is what I think is actually going on:

Weak volitional people + weak church interventions = Little Behavioral Change

What do I mean by "weak church interventions"? Basically, in most of the churches I know the main spiritual formation interventions are rhetorical persuasion (preaching) and pedagogy (teaching). These are weak interventions in that they rely on mere words to effect behavioral change. Revisiting our equations, this is what is going on in many churches:

Weak volitional people + (rhetorical persuasion + preaching) = Little Behavioral change

How to change this? We need to add a stronger piece to the church interventions. What is that piece? I think it is habit formation. And that brings us back to William James.

One of the greatest pieces of psychological writing ever written is James' chapter on Habit in this magisterial The Principles of Psychology, one of the first psychology textbooks ever published. In this post, I'd like to share the wisdom from Habit as I think it presents a very different vision of behavior change compared to the ascendent models in most churches.

James starts Habit with this observation: "When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits." Later, James calls habit the "enormous fly-wheel of society" and "an invisible law, as strong as gravitation." His point is simply this: Despite our feelings to the contrary, from the time we wake in the morning to the time we go back to sleep most, if not all, of our actions are deeply set in the grooves of habit. It follows, then, that much of our happiness and virtue, or misery or vice, is due to the kinds of habits we have acquired over the years. The goal, therefore, is to learn to cultivate habits that lead to virtue and holiness.

How do we do this? James states: "The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy." We do this, according to James, by making small, daily choices that build up a fund or reservoir of virtue: Habit is "to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund."

How do we build this fund of habit? James gives some specifics: "Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall re-enforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know."

In addition, we must practice the habit of saying no to ourselves: "...do every day to two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws neigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin."

Finally, much care should be taken to not lapse while the new habit is being acquired: "Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again." These lapses add up to a failed character-formation project: "The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way."

In all of this, James shows his weak volitional assumptions, dismissing the efficacy of mere words to effect habit acquisition: "No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one's sentiments may be, if one has not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one's character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved."

The big idea here is that habit-formation is a slow, intentional and gradual process. Habits, like coral reefs, accrete. More from the poetic pen of James: "We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar."

This realization means that every little choice counts: "The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson's play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, 'I won't count this time!' Well, he may not count it, and a kind of Heaven may not count it; but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells and fibers the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out." But, concludes James, "Of course, this has its good sides as well as its bad one."

May the church learn to harness the good side.

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24 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 2: Habit”

  1. Hi Richard,

    There is an interesting tension in James' thought that it would be interesting to see you wrestle with. He was comfortable with the "narcotic" or "feel good" motivation for faith: :"...to refuse to cultivate a feeling of security [in adopting one's beliefs] would be to to do violence to a tendency in one's emotional life which might well be respected as prophetic." (Preface to The Meaning of Truth)And yet he chose for himself the "tough-minded" (vs. tender-minded) approach to life.

    That tension got him in trouble with his critics near the end of his life, as they charged him with "making the truth of our religious beliefs consist in their 'feeling good' to us..." (Preface to The Meaning of Truth)
    And he addmitted to having "given some excuse" to his critics for making that charge.

    Yet jettisoning that view, as he seemed to do in The Meaning of Truth, is not so easily done from the perspective of his wider body of work. For instance, his concluding view in The Varieties is that a person's "overbeliefs are the most important and interesting" aspects of their personality. That view does not meld well with perscribing what a person should believe or how a person should come to believe what they believe.

    This is very relevant, I think, to the question at hand in the wonderful chapter on habit from The principles, namely how to "acrete" a good character by making habits our allies.

    This is a very big question, but I thought that it would be fun to watch a very able expositor take a run at it.



  2. "every little choice counts"

    The idea that we can make "little choices", but not "big choices", seems utterly contradictory to me.

    Does James say anything about the mechanism that would allow "little choice" and how it differs from the one that is employed when attempting to make "big choice"?

  3. Hmmmm...this is very interesting. I know nothing of James but he sounds fascinating. But as I read this blog I couldn't help but wonder, what role does the Holy Spirit play in all this?

  4. Richard, as a "preacher" I certainly have a vested interest in this conversation. As a former management consultant, it makes life a little harder for myself because I want to judge how "effective" my work is. So, along with this article, are a few thoughts on where to go and I would love to see what you might add on the "how" of developing good habits through the church organization.

    I think it would behoove (I've wanted to use that word for a while) more preachers to ask the question: did anyone do anything about what I spoke about last month? Were any lives changed? I would love to think about Sunday morning as a life transformation event that incorporates the sermon as the what, why, and how, the worship as the emotional lift towards the Good, and then provide reasonable tools and resources during that time and the following week so that hopefully some will try steps towards change.

    I also plan on doing my next bible class as a life class in which we ask at the end of one period, "If we take this seriously, what are we going to do about it?" And then ask the class members to pair up into accountability partners to call each other during the week. At the beginning of the next class, we would discuss what worked, what didn't, or maybe why it was difficult or easy. Although I was told by a friend that people probably wouldn't attend a bible class in which I asked people to attempt to actually do it...

  5. For "matthew", who I am guessing is using sarcasm about my post rather than constructive conversation, let me clarify a bit - I am not saying that we should tell people exactly how to live their lives, nor expect them to check in with every decision or account for how they spend their money. I want to ask people who wish to seriously look at the scriptures, "What would this mean to you?" For example, we read the passage on praying for your enemies, and then I ask the question, as stated, rather than telling them they should pray every morning at 6:00am for thirty minutes on these issues. I ask them. And then we say, "Let's do it, let's try it, let's make actual attempts rather than show up and pretend like the right knowledge really means squat on Monday morning." I am hoping this means helping people through dialogue and being involved in loving ways that the other person invites into their lives.

    The reason I lay this out is for the same reason - I don't just want to talk about why the church is so shallow, I want to help do something about it. I'm inviting conversation about the how, and I hope people help me change as well.

    "matthew", although I have never participated in the Boston Movement, I know quite a few wonderful people who have, and a minister who is still with them and doing the best that he can with what he knows.

  6. Vaught, you and I as preachers struggle with the same delicate balance. Not, "Is anyone out there listening?" but "Is anyone out there putting this stuff into practice?"

    I do think, Richard, that words are capable of effecting change, but only in the context of more conversation than a speaker-receptor speech act. It is all about training listeners to hear in order to form virtuous habits, not listening to the sermon in order to critique it, or even to enjoy it. After all, how many people come to the sermon with the question, "How is this morning going to help shape my practices in more godly ways?"

    I'm presenting a paper on this in a couple of weeks at the Christian Scholars Conference, so I would love to get into this more, but more directed back to the Willliam James conversation. If weak volitionalism is the problem, shouldn't we start by telling that to our people?

  7. "sarcasm ... rather than constructive conversation"

    Maybe I just don't need as many words to make my point.

    But assuming I do, here are some more:

    The character of an "accountability" plan hinges on who gets to decide whether such an arrangement is necessary, and what people need be to held accountable for.

    Because the church is not democratic, most of the time people in power (like "preachers") make these decisions, and so the accountability plan becomes just another tool that the preachers use to *make* those other shallow people do what the wonderful preachers know is best for them.

    Screw that.

  8. Tracy,
    Wow, big question. I've been mulling it over all day. I get back to you on this. If I don't, ping me again on the last post in the series!

    You are correct, choices are choices. The big or small probably has more to do with the lasting impact upon me than that there is a different suite of volitional machinery needed to make big choices versus small choices. Given that, I think what James is saying is that it is unrealistic to expect character/virtue in the moment of choice (big or small) to arrive ex nihilo. To expect this from ourselves, our children, or anyone else just sets the bar to high. Character, like I said, accretes. It's not a lightning strike.

    I've been wondering along those lines for years: How can spiritual formation be improved in churches? This post is more diagnostic than prescriptive. Part of me wants to throw up my hands and say, "I'm just a psychologist. I can describe the mechanism of habit formation, but I'll leave the implementation to trained church leaders." But that would be lazy of me...

    So, here's two ideas.

    1.) Christian colleges need to develop training/certificate programs to seed churches with certified spiritual directors. If you don't like the educational model, then churches could select from amongst themselves people who display the fruits of the spirit. Either way, each church has spiritual directors or coaches available to the congregation. Then people in the church could voluntarily approach these people to work on a discrete piece of time-limited spiritual work. The work would need to have some specific virtue-based behavioral outcome. Let me unpack this a bit:

    1. Voluntary. To prevent coercion.
    2. Discrete. This keeps the process focused and out of murky mental-health issues.
    3. Time-limited. Another protective measure, but one that also keeps the activity focused.
    4. Behavioral. This keeps the focus on virtue and less on therapy.

    2.) This same process could also be done in group/class settings where adult faith classes are on a rotating schedule when they engage in virtue acquisition project. An informed preacher/pastor could write up a 4-6 week curriculum where a class selects (collectively or individually) a virtue to practice/acquire. The same ideas above apply here.

    To keep all this away from abuse, the goal is on a particular virtue (e.g., kindness, patience, self-control) and not about global Christian commitment. That is, your "commitment" as a Christian is not being evaluated or pushed. You're just volunteering to do 4 weeks of self-directed intensive work on a particular virtue you would like to do better at.

    I agree with you. All this begins with words and is supported with words. Words of motivation, support, rebuke, and encouragement support it all. I'm just saying that is a mistake to ONLY rely on words.

    Yes, this can all look very agent-oriented, pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. But I do think we can see the HS moving in this process, shaping us and aiding us in the process of acquiring virtue. I'd only add that appeals to divine support cannot replace the hard work.

  9. Richard,

    Your last post sounds like a model for implementin 2 Peter 1:5-11. However, it will bring about additional and fasteer and more permanent change if the spiritual disciples for drawing closer to God and Christ are part of the mix.

    Perhaps our biggest problem in the church is that we do not really expect change. If the member is attending regularly and giving and is a member of the "right" church that is sufficient.
    If fact if the member gives enough--no accountability at all.

    Those churches who implemented a seeker service are now abandoning them because they cannot transition the attenders to the deeper more spiritual worship and level of living. Cannot move from expecting little to expecting much. [just like the classroom--expectations must be high from the start]

    David D.

  10. Richard:

    "Given that, I think what James is saying is that it is unrealistic to expect character/virtue in the moment of choice"

    This is what confuses me. If we shouldn't expect virtue in the moment of choice, we also shouldn't expect the virtue necessary to choose to acquire virtue.

    There's a bootstrapping problem here, unless you suppose that everyone starts with the desire to be virtuous, which seems dubious.


    Sorry, didn't mean for that to come out so bitchily. I guess today is my day for banana pudding. =P

  11. matthew, thanks for the apology. I'm always up for conversation, even disagreement. I share your concern about authority. It may not seem like it in these posts but I am generally about as anti-authority as it gets - I really don't like people telling me what to do (it has shown up in multiple personality tests and used to be the joke among my colleagues). My main concern is two-fold: making sure that there is an expectation of personal growth, however that is done by the individual; making sure that the resources, including communal, are available. I know that we are wary of cultic-like overtures, but shouldn't this problem still be done through a community rather than just hoping it happens individualistically? Communal development still seems to me to be the Christian way of going about things, and the NT writers had no qualms about griping to the local churches about the diet of baby food.

  12. I did not mean for my question to suggest that you are pulling your own boot strings, I whole heartedly believe that one needs to "work" out their salvation. I was just wondering lately about the HS and the role He plays here in these kinds of situations...

    I have been thinking a lot about this blog and my perspective does not come from a leadership point of view or a preachers point of view but I think that little behavioral change is occuring because of what we are being fed via preaching and teaching. I tend to think that these forms of intervention are very crucial it's just that instead of it being used to help and encourage us its being used to abuse us and neglect us. You don't have to tell me twice that the church is in desperate need of change and in fact she down right needs resurrection, and it is clear to me after reading blogs such as these and comments from other people that we are aware of the problems that the church is facing. So I don't think the solution is habit fromation because it is this habit formation that perhaps has lead to the complacency and laziness that has got us in this mess in the first place. It can become a habit to just show up to church and so we forget why we go, we just go out of habit, and then we wonder why so many of us have lost passion and desire. The truth is that the church wants us to be tamed and "nice" kind of people. The church leaders want us to just sit still and shut up and not rock the boat. The church tells men not to be men because men are dangerous and wild, and they tell women they can not be women because they are too emotional and too messy. What if we gave permission to let the people be who they are. Let the birds do the flying and the fish do the swimming, instead of trying to make eels out of everybody. God is not a "nice" guy, God is not predictible, God is full of firey passion, and since we bear his image as humans we too should burn with passion and desire. I think the last thing God wants is us to love him out of habit.

  13. Jeff:
    You said, "It is all about training listeners to hear in order to form virtuous habits, not listening to the sermon in order to critique it, or even to enjoy it. After all, how many people come to the sermon with the question, "How is this morning going to help shape my practices in more godly ways?"

    But what if the preacher brings a sermon that is hurtful and harmful rather than something that does edify? Are preachers even aware of their audience? Do they even know when they look down on those sitting in pews what kind of burdens they are carrying? Do they even know what words to bring them so that they can edify them, or are they only preaching the latest "stuff" are they preaching to satisify the leadership instead of satisfying the whole? In my experience there are too many bitter preachers out there preaching the same old things using the same old verses not having a clue who is listening and not even aware of the "sensitive" believer and pouring out abuse and hate in the opinion of the sensitive believer but not caring because they are "preaching truth out of love." I call this preaching out of habit. Laziness, because they won't take the time to know the people because they are too busy getting the sermon just right.

    Sure we can train people to listen in a way that will help them shape into more godly people but if the message isn't going to do that, what's the point? I would rather people not listen at all to that kind of garbage. Feed people garbage and they are going to be garbage.

  14. In my mind, habit=learned behavior. Learning behavior via experience is precisely what I think God wants us to be doing here. In fact, I would go so far as to say that that is the main purpose of our existence. So I have to take issue with your point, Roxanne. If you were God, what would you rather have: someone who was passionate about changing the world but ineffective, or someone who was actually changing the world, even if they were indifferent about it? I just don't think God is terribly concerned about our "feelings" but rather our behavior. Jesus didn't come so that we could be "buring with passion and desire" but rather in effort to change our behavior.

    Salvation, in my mind, is the process of becoming like Christ--of our nature becoming "Christ-like" instead of "evil." Another way of putting it is that in forming Godly habits, we are instinctively becoming like Christ. Doing the Godly thing is second nature, becuase it is our nature.

  15. Matthew,
    I'm going to second Pecs on this. I don't think there is anything paradoxical or bootstrapish about this. It's a really simple idea.

    Say I want to play tennis really well. I can't just wander out onto a court and play like Roger Federer. I have to practice. Over and over. In James' metaphor, I need to pay my "tax." Later, in a close game, I can make a "choice" (i.e., execute the shot I want) that wins me the match. But hours of work went into that moment. I'm arguing that character-formation is an analogous process. You just can't wander out into life and play the game the way Jesus did. You have to pay the "tax."

    I can see your frustration with the word "habit." It isn't very sexy and its connotations make it seem very dreary, like rote learning. It doesn't feel romantic or adventurous or free.

    But, if you look at my comment to Matthew, I hope you can see how habits/practice actually create the platform for true artistry and adventure. If you want to climb a mountain or paint a great picture or cook an amazing meal or preach a sermon that moves people to tears, or anything particularly transcendent, then you have to put in the time and practice. Sheer enthusiasm doesn't get very far in most cases. That enthusiasm must be matched with skill.

    In fact, Buddhists speak of holy people as "skilled," and spiritual training as "practice." I think Christians can learn from this tradition. I'd like to see us adopt a vocabulary where we see skilled versus unskilled Christians, rather than "bad" or "good" Christians. Such a change gets us out of a moralizing mode and focuses on the habit/skill acquisition at the heart of spiritual artistry.

  16. I can understand what you are saying Pecks and Richard. In fact I commented on anothe blog about how I did hurdles in highschool and when I was starting off I wasn't good at it. I had to practice and practice, compete and compete. I failed and lost many races before I started winning. So your examples make perfect sense. I just want to add quickly Pecks that God would want someone who is passionate and ineffective. You speak as if God only wants those who are good at "hurdling" on his team. I disagree. Everyone has to start somewhere and we all know when we are getting started we are not effective. In fact doesn't the desire and passion drive the person to keep going even though they are not effective? If a person didn't have desire and passion then they probably would give up. "Forget this, this is too hard." Hence a bunch of quitters. Lets just do whats easy, show up and punch in our time card. I think the church lacks tons of passion and desire, and that's why we don't want to change, thats why we refuse change, and that's why we are lifeless.

    Richard, I think you are spot on when you say that the word "habit" is not attactive because the first thing that comes to my mind is robot. I know what you are saying and I think it is true to an extent, but I may also be misunderstanding you, but I don't think giving the church a list of habits they should posses will do the trick. People don't want to conform, although it's easier and it keeps us in our comfort zone, people want to be set free, they want to have permission to be who they are. I believe that that is why Jesus came to die on the cross, so that we may be liberated from our sins so that we may live and be who we truly are.

    Ask Paul why he preached gospel. Was it out of habit? Or was it out of love and desire? Is it not love that compels all of us to really step out and change. To admit when we are wrong and make it right? We underestimate the power of love and desire and passion. I am tired of hearing that desire is not enough. If it is true desire that desire will help in that transformation process. That desire will drive the person to listen to new point of views so that they can learn, it will drive the person to learn the skills needed. Ask anyone who has ever beat the odds and became successful if desire did not play a crucial role in their success. God is very concerned with our feelings as he is with our behavior. Why are we so fast to dismiss our feelings? Why do we want to deny our desires? I am not talking about our sinful desires....

  17. Roxanne,

    I think what you are saying is that we have to get our attitude right before our behaviors will be transformed. There may be something to that, but I think it also works the other way around: act as if you are feeling such and such a way, and the feelings will come later. Act as if you like someone, and eventually you will start liking them.

    On the other hand, if you are trying to lose weight and you start running, even though you don't like running, you are unlikely to stick with it. It is better to find something you like to do or some sport you like to play. In other words, have the desire in place before you start acting on it.

    Maybe Richard, being a psychologist and all, can weigh in on this.

  18. Roxanne,
    We should probably not put passion over against habit. The two mutually support each other. Your example of Paul is illustrative of this. Passion and love for God were the prime movers in Paul’s ministry. But he was also clear that he had to, in his words, daily buffet his body in the habit formation process. He compared his own spiritual formation efforts to rigorous athletic training and endurance running. Finally, in his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul preaches the virtues of training and practice in the formation of young Christians. The point is, habit and passion go hand in hand. It would be unwise to decouple them or elevate one over the other. Many young Christians start strong with lots of passion, but many fail to do the hard work of forming their moral character. Thus, the moral crashing and burning we see almost daily among Christian leaders and congregants.

  19. "Say I want to play tennis really well. I can't just wander out onto a court and play like Roger Federer."

    My questions are:

    First, do most people *want* to play like Roger Federer?

    Second, do most people have the genetic makeup they would need to play like Roger Federer?

    (Depending on your opinions about volition, the answer to the second question may imply the answer to the first.)

    And third, would you be skeptical of an organization that professed to be able to make everyone into a Roger Federer?

  20. Matthew,
    I knew using Federer would lead to misunderstandings:-)

    Replace "Roger Federer" with "want to play tennis better." Then we see that, yes, people really do want to learn how to play tennis and play it well. And, yes, tennis lessons and practice really do help people learn to play and play well. It's happening in summer camps all over the world today. No big paradox, mystery, or contradictions.

  21. OK, fine, let's suppose that the church doesn't claim to make people as good as Jesus, but that it claims to make them virtuous.

    So why isn't it working?

    Your answer is: because people want to be virtuous but we don't have the systems set up for them to acquire the habits that add up to virtue.

    My answer is: because people don't really *want* to be virtuous enough to acquire the habits that add up to virtue. And so far as I know, there is no way for them to acquire this want.

    I'm not saying that any of this is paradoxical, mysterious or contradictory. Most people just don't feel like being virtuous. They, like Google, are content with "don't be evil".

  22. Matthew,
    Okay, I see what you are getting at. Yes, the habit formation process is presupposing a motivation to enter into that process.

    To quibble a bit, for the sake of conversation, I think a desire for virtue many be more ubiquitous than we think. True, I doubt many people keenly crave being "good" in a kind of Puritanical sense. (As H.L. Mencken famously quipped, Puritanism is "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.")

    But I do think many, if not most people, crave virtue in the Greek sense. That is they would like to lead the "good" life. A life full of purpose and meaning, a life of arete and eudaimonia. Hence my focus on virtue, those traits conducive to the good life.

    My sense is that many people want this life but often find it hard to acquire. Hence the conversation about habit formation. All good things require a bit of work. As Spinoza said, "If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

  23. "But I do think many, if not most people, crave virtue in the Greek sense. That is they would like to lead the "good" life. A life full of purpose and meaning, a life of arete and eudaimonia. Hence my focus on virtue, those traits conducive to the good life."

    I agree, although the virtue the church advertises generally has a puritanical flavor.

    And I wonder if the desire for "the good life" is fairly high in some hierarchy of desires ... I think you and I might share this desire, but people who are hungry would trade virtue for food ... and would be justified in doing so.

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