What is a Trigger?


Ever hear someone referred to as a “creature of habit”? There is a lot of truth in that statement! From our morning routines to specialized mental tasks like playing an instrument, much of our behavior and thoughts can be understood as a series of learned ‘programs’ that we call ‘habits’. But how do these behavioral programs get started? Do we ‘execute’ them like computer programs? How do we select which program to perform — and when? In this post, we’ll introduce triggers, the first step in where habits come from and a crucial element in Behavior Design.

Deliberate decisions are slow and require a lot of attention and control. But as we repeat a behavior — and get occasionally reinforced — our brain develops ‘shortcuts’ that help make certain behaviors (or large sets of behaviors) become seemingly automatic.

When Are You on Auto-Pilot?

When was the last time you paid attention to which route you take to work?

Were you more careful or deliberate the first time you ever took that route?

What activities that you do every day feel like you’re on ‘auto-pilot’? Showering? Making coffee? Typing in the URL of your favorite time waster?

So what activates these seemingly automatic behaviors? Why don’t I try to brush my teeth when I get in the car? In general, why aren’t we activating these automated behaviors constantly? What causes us to start them when and where we do?

Our behavior is a prompted when something happens externally (in the world) or internally (in our brains or bodies). These prompts literally trigger behavior and we call them triggers. Really creative name, right?

What do triggers do? How do they do it?

Everything we sense in the world around us, all of our thoughts, and all of our feelings are continuously processed by networks of neurons in our brain. Some of these neurons only become active when we sense certain triggers in our internal or external environment. These neurons (and their associated triggers) are paired to other neurons that are associated with certain behaviors. The trigger-encoding neurons ‘compete’ to decide how we behave in a brain region called the Basal Ganglia. Their competition determines which behavior we produce to respond to our thoughts, feelings, and environment. The neurons that ‘win’ the competition are the neurons responsible for the trigger-behavior pair that has been most highly reinforced over our lifetime. The behavior that is paired with the winning trigger is the behavior we produce!

When Triggers Compete

Different triggers can have a stronger or weaker connection to behaviors. Some triggers easily pair with behaviors, some are very hard to pair. Simply put, the ‘competition’ between triggers to determine how we behave is not a fair fight, and the trigger that wins is the one that has been most reinforced in the past.

Example: Dinner Tonight

When you open your fridge this evening, you might be presented with two triggers:

  • a jug of healthy skim milk,
  • and a cold delicious bottle of beer

One subconscious part of your brain is screaming for you to pick the skim milk, and another is screaming for you to pick the beer. Since your body can only initiate one consummatory action at a time, you have to pick which one you’ll grab! In a matter of milliseconds, your Basal Ganglia compares the two beverage triggers and their associated behaviors to decide which one you grab. Which trigger-behavior pair has been most reinforced over my lifetime? Without deliberating, you grab the beer.

What happened in those milliseconds? Neurons representing the milk trigger-behavior pair and neurons representing the beer trigger-behavior pair competed in a ‘winner-take-all’ competition to determine which drink you reach for. Since beer had been more strongly reinforced in the past, it has the upper-hand in the competition with the milk trigger. When a weakly-reinforced trigger competes with a heavily-reinforced trigger, the more rewarded of the two wins!

Now that we know what triggers are, how can we use them to design habits?

My next post, will explore the three types of triggers: external triggers, internal triggers, and synthetic triggers — and how we can design habits around each.

What else do you want to know about habits and Triggers? Let me know!