Background: Social cognitive theories on behaviour change are increasingly being used to understand and predict healthcare professionals' intentions and clinical behaviours. Although these theories offer important insights into how new behaviours are initiated, they provide an incomplete account of how changes in clinical practice occur by failing to consider the role of cue-contingent habits. This article contributes to better understanding of the role of habits in clinical practice and how improved effectiveness of behavioural strategies in implementation research might be achieved.
Discussion: Habit is behaviour that has been repeated until it has become more or less automatic, enacted without purposeful thinking, largely without any sense of awareness. The process of forming habits occurs through a gradual shift in cognitive control from intentional to automatic processes. As behaviour is repeated in the same context, the control of behaviour gradually shifts from being internally guided (e.g., beliefs, attitudes, and intention) to being triggered by situational or contextual cues. Much clinical practice occurs in stable healthcare contexts and can be assumed to be habitual. Empirical findings in various fields suggest that behaviours that are repeated in constant contexts are difficult to change. Hence, interventions that focus on changing the context that maintains those habits have a greater probability of success. Some sort of contextual disturbance provides a window of opportunity in which a behaviour is more likely to be deliberately considered. Forming desired habits requires behaviour to be carried out repeatedly in the presence of the same contextual cues.
Summary: Social cognitive theories provide insight into how humans analytically process information and carefully plan actions, but their utility is more limited when it comes to explaining repeated behaviours that do not require such an ongoing contemplative decisional process. However, despite a growing interest in applying behavioural theory in interventions to change clinical practice, the potential importance of habit has not been explored in implementation research.