Monday, September 11, 2023

Jordan Peterson on the Difficulty of Breaking Habits

 From Peterson’s Exodus series, episode 5, beginning here:

When you make a habit, what happens…there is a neuro-physiological process.  When you first encounter something novel, so you don’t have habits in that domain, a large part of your brain is metabolically active. 

I have never seen this before.  I have to figure out what to do.

It’s because you’re not very good at it and there is no specialized system developed to deal with that anomalous occurrence.  Then as you practice, less and less of your brain is involved; it moves from the right to the left, then from the left frontal backwards until you build a machine – but it’s not a machine – in the back that automatizes that. 

It becomes a habit.  The interesting thing is that we must do this if we are to function at all in society.  We cannot function by approaching every event or episode as if we had never encountered it before.  In other words, without habits, we couldn’t survive.

So, if you practice a sin, let’s say, you build a machine. 

And this is the point.  Not all habits are good habits (thank you, Captain Obvious mosquito).

But it’s not a machine, because it’s alive.  It’s more like a sub-personality.  And then when you want to take that thing out, it’s not particularly happy.  It will respond in many ways.  The habit couldn’t animate you and shape your perceptions if it wasn’t a spirit.

Our habits allow us to function, so why wouldn’t they fight back if attacked?  Our habits have protected us from harm; our habits have made it easier to manage life.  Our habits believe they are doing us good, and therefore will not go away very peacefully. 

And you build in those habits and you allow the spirit that constitutes those habits to not only inhabit you – its more than that.  Because that little neuro-physiological mechanism, in order for it to grip control of your perception and action, has to shut down all the rest of your brain. 

How often do we not remember what we just did?  An easy example is something like a regular drive to the office.  We arrive, and suddenly realize we remember nothing at all about the drive.

Because otherwise you would do something else.

Well, you might do something else.  But if the habit has been found to be beneficial, you might not.  In other words, if the habit serves its purpose (even if it occasionally causes harm), why would you do something else?

If it didn’t have the capability to shut down the rest of your brain, it couldn’t implement itself.  So then when you go to battle against it, not only is it alive – and it causes pain to kill it – but it also is capable of shutting down the rest of the brain or it wouldn’t have gotten purchase on you to begin with.

It wouldn’t have gotten purchase if it wasn’t deemed of value.  This doesn’t mean that it is a “good” habit; just that it is useful.  We have habits of sin; we have habits that we apply to situations that seem similar to others in our past but are not really similar. Either way, such habits can cause harm.

Which leads to the problem, the problem of dealing with harmful habits:

Then – it’s even worse than that!  Because you can’t kill the damn thing once it’s in there.  The best you can do is build another machine to shut it down. 

Per Peterson, you can’t kill the habit.  You can only try to build a habit that sits over the harmful one.  In other words, we don’t break habits; we just cover them.

But when you get stressed, the new machine that shuts it down is most likely to collapse first, and then [the underlying habit] will pop back up.

And this gets to why, no matter how much we work at it, we will often relapse into harmful habits.


  1. A bit of a black pill, but sounds true according to my experience. The description also makes me think that the principle of sin is wired into our brains or the machine could be deconstructed not just covered up. If not that the covering machine could be more powerful or permanent. Also the language Peterson uses about spirit sounds a bit like demonic influence.

    1. Ephesians 6: 12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

      I am OK with Peterson's use of "spirits."

  2. Habit plays a major role in F. A. von Hayek's political philosophy, the beginning chapters of The Constitution of Liberty, for example. And then there is Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics. As far as I remember, Henry Veatch's Rational Man is an excellent venture in exploring Aristotelian ethical thinking. The title was intended as a reply to William Barrett's Irrational Man. Barrett, by the way, was, like Veatch a political conservative. Veatch's breadth of knowledge, and his ability to render difficult thinking accessible to a popular, but intelligent, audience, puts him on a par with C.S. Lewis, in my opinion.