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Beware of the “Decoy Habit.”

Posted Apr 26 2013 10:16am

decoy Lately, I’ve been thinking about “decoy habits” (still pondering whether this is a good name). A decoy habit is a habit that a person claims to want to adopt—but really doesn’t intend to do. Often, decoy habits reflect other people’s values or priorities. “I want to cook dinner every night.” “I want to finish my Ph.D. thesis by the end of the year.” “I want to give up coffee.”

The decoy provides cover—we don’t have to acknowledge the habits that we actually follow, because there’s this other, better habit that we intend to adopt. As an Upholder , who takes all announced aims very seriously, I get very uneasy in the presence of a decoy habit.

I first noticed this type of decoy when I sat next to a man at a dinner party.

“I really should exercise,” he said in an unconvincing tone. He certainly looked like a person who should exercise. He was at least forty pounds overweight, and he looked puffy and uncomfortable. I said, “Why don’t you exercise?”

“I don’t have time, and I travel so much. It’s really not feasible for me. Also my knee bothers me.”

“It sounds like you actually don’t want to exercise,” I pointed out.

“Oh, I do,” he answered. “I need to do it. Periodically my wife and kids sit me down. I’m going to get started.” But he didn’t sound as though he meant it.

Decoy habits are harmful, I think, because they allow us to pretend to have certain aims or values that we don’t really have. Maybe we don’t want to admit what we really want to do, or maybe  two values are in conflict. Ironically, I suspect that if my dinner partner had said, “I don’t intend to exercise,” and accepted the consequences of that habit, he might help convince himself that he should exercise. But by voicing the decoy, by saying, “I plan to start exercising,” he avoided acknowledging his true intentions.

As I said, I’m still pondering this idea. Does it strike a chord with you? Have you recognized this in yourself, or someone else?

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