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WEEK 10 – What is habituation?

Understand the habituation process

Home > #3 – Practice> Week 10 – What is habituation

A very important component in your virtue education experience involves the practice of habituation. In phase one and two you gained some foundational knowledge about virtue education, self-assessed yourself and identified one virtue on which you want to work.

Now, as we begin with the intentional practice in phase three, we come the first tool of habituation, which a core element in the entire process of virtue education.  You should expect to spend at next 13 weeks practicing habituation.

But first, what exactly is habituation?

Education through habituation

There are many ways in which humans can be educated, and habituation is one of these.

Habituation is easily understood by answering the question of how we get to be good at something. Think, for example, about playing the piano. How do you get good at it? The real secret is in countless hours practising and repetition. Education in piano playing means repeating scales so many times that finding the right notes on the keyboard becomes a built-in habit. Technically speaking, piano players have been “habituated into a practice.” Ability, harmony, rhythm and even the ability to improvise have become natural because of repetition.

Aristotle is one of many who have written about habituation.  He claims that we are educated in virtue in the same way as we are in any technical abilities: by constant repetition and habit building.  Virtue becomes a part of us by repetition of good acts. These, in turn, become “second nature” and shape the habits of our soul. The virtues, claims Aristotle, are made perfect by habit. By practising actions of justice, we become more just. As we face our fears, we become more courageous. As we give, we become more generous, and as we abstain from excesses, we become more temperate.

The statement ‘one swallow does not make spring’ expresses this dynamic. Virtue is shaped by long and continued repetition of virtuous actions.  The Romans used to say ‘Gutta cava lapidem’, indicating that through slow, continual repetition, a small drop of water can eventually wear through event the hardest rocks.  Alcoholics Anonymous have a similar saying: ‘fake it, until you make it’, suggesting that the key to genuine change is purposeful action, even if initially it is only external conformity.

It may seem paradoxical in some ways, but habituation presupposes that doing is a prelude to becoming.  You can shape what you are through the habits of what you do.  Nowhere is this as true as with virtue, and Aquinas went as far as to claim that ‘human virtues are habits’.

Here is a four-point summary of the above: 1) Those who are not yet virtuous can perform virtuous actions and thereby become virtuous; 2) virtue can be perfected through repetition; 3) habituation has to do with the exercise of the will and 4) habituation eventually produces spontaneous action.

Granted, habituation does not guarantee character growth for everyone, and it is possible to dissimulate and simply role play virtuous actions that will do little to shape our character. But for those that are rightly motivated and determined in their will to persevere, habituation is a powerful tool of change.

Practicing habituation

So much for the theory.  What will you actually do?

Here are four basic steps of habituation as it relates to virtue education:

  1. Identify one virtue (habituation works best if you focus on one virtue at a time).
  2. Identify activities that are characteristic of the chosen virtue and name specific opportunities to practice them.  If, for example, you want to habituate the virtue of intellectual carefulness, you might identify activities that involve detailed avoidance of errors and opportunities for practice such as proofreading a manuscript, writing a computer code or verifying the accuracy of a library catalogue.
  3. Plan the repetition of the specific activities that have been identified in step 2. If, for example, you are habituating the virtue of intellectual carefulness, choose multiple manuscripts to proofread, and consciously revise your work multiple times to ensure that you finds and correct even the smallest error (perhaps even keeping a log of errors).  It is important to place a time frame on your plan, normally at least 2-3 months to see results (you can’t ‘speed learn’ the piano 😃).
  4. Reflect on growth at the end of your habituation. This is about closing the loop and consciously focusing on how your character has been shaped

Next week you will take a closer look at points 2 and 3 above and then you will write your habituation plan.

Additional resources

You are working on phase #3 – Practice.  Here is the next activity > Week 11 -Planning for virtue

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