Kicking the Hookup Habit

March 20, 2012

Timothy Wilson’s review of  THE POWER OF HABIT: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, begins with this quote:

Human consciousness, that wonderful ability to reflect, ponder and choose, is our greatest evolutionary achievement.

It’s something we tend to forget when we talk about sexual imperatives and the competing mating strategies of the sexes. Regardless of your genetic predispositions, your life experiences, or even the culture you live in, you have the freedom to consider your options in nearly every aspect of behavior.

Recently, I was talking with Emileigh, a female college student who’s gotten into the habit of hooking up at school. Freshman year she had a regular hookup that eventually turned into an official relationship, though it was fraught with drama and suspicion of his cheating. Looking back on it, she said, “I know he didn’t love me.”  

When that relationship burned and crashed over the summer, she returned to school figuring she’d follow the same path. This wasn’t entirely insensible – hooking up is the pathway to relationships in college, though it happens only 12% of the time. (Hayes, Allison, McManus, Brian and Paul, 2000). Two and a half years later, she’s had many hookups, none of which made it to the relationship stage this time around. She’s a senior now and feels miserable about it. I asked her why she kept doing it. Her answer had several elements. 

  • Guys give her attention knowing she hooks up on the reg.
  • The girls who don’t hook up get zero attention from guys, which she fears would be even worse.
  • Her number has gotten so high she doesn’t see why it matters anymore. :(
  • It’s awkward to say no.
Regarding that last point, 12% of women say that it is sometimes easier to have sex with a guy they don’t know than to make conversation (Glenn, Norval and Marquardt, Elizabeth, 2001).
Emileigh was clearly wrestling with the fact that she’d become one of the most promiscuous girls on campus. Hooking up was a habit, and she no longer gave any thought to the decision before making it. She had forfeited her power to reflect, ponder and choose. She feels terrible about her choices – she was very upset while telling me this – and she wants to stop. She’s not sure how. It was clear to me that just telling her to get a grip was not going to help. I asked her to think about a hiatus, starting now. No sex. I asked her to say no this weekend to hooking up. If she could make it one weekend, she could try again next week. I realized I was basically advising Jerry Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” method of forming a new habit. I sensed that Emileigh would find it challenging to stop doing this thing that makes her feel so badly, and that it might help to break it down into small steps.


Back to Duhigg’s book, Wilson continues:

This is not a self-help book conveying one author’s homespun remedies, but a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.

One way behavior can become habitual is through repetition. If we acquire a bad habit this way it is very hard to change, because its grooves are so well worn in our minds. We have to painstakingly practice a better response that wears a new groove.

Duhigg is optimistic about how we can put the science to use. “Once you understand that habits can change,” he concludes, “you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.” He also suggests that by understanding the nature of habits we can influence group behavior, turning companies into profit makers and ensuring the success of social movements.

As you can imagine, that last sentence really caught my eye – if we think about hooking up as a habit, and we understand how that habit gets formed and how it can be broken, then perhaps we really can influence the culture for young people.

Social psychologists have shown that an effective way of changing many habitual behaviors is to change people’s perceptions of the norms that govern them, resulting in reduced drinking on college campuses, for instance.

…Other behaviors are habitual because they obey social norms — norms that we rarely question or think about. We shake hands when we greet people, wear socks of the same color and eat with a fork because these are the customs we have learned. Such behaviors are not well-worn grooves in our minds, but actions we could easily alter if the laws or customs that governed them should change.

Wilson refers here to the success colleges have had in curbing binge drinking by exposing pluralistic ignorance: not nearly as many kids are getting wasted as you think, and not nearly as many kids want to get wasted as you think. We know that pluralistic ignorance plays a role in hookup culture as well, so it stands to reason that exposing it might prove beneficial to the majority of students.

Finally, Wilson addresses what I believe is going on with Emileigh, and certainly with many more young women like her:

There is another type of habitual behavior that involves more cognitive activity, namely people’s interpretation of a situation according to what it means for them and how it fits into the narratives they tell themselves. These behaviors are habitual in the sense that people have chronic ways of interpreting the world.

We need to decouple self-esteem and validation from casual sex. Emileigh has a narrative that she replays in her head whenever she goes out. Because her experience rarely departs from the narrative, it’s worn a very deep groove in her mind. She is stuck in a rut, literally. Perhaps if we can decipher what stories people tell themselves, and explore where the narrative reinforces behavior, we can interrupt the chronic cycle of choosing without reflecting or pondering.