Habits and Reflective Processes in COVID-19 Transmission-reducing Behaviors: Examining Theoretical Predictions in a Representative Sample of the Population of Scotland

Chantal den Daas, Diane Dixon, Gill Hubbard, Julia Allan, Marie Johnston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Downloads (Pure)


Based on theory, COVID-19 transmission-reducing behaviors (TRBs) should become habitual because of their frequent performance. Habits have been hypothesized to develop through reflective processes and, to act in conjunction with them.

We investigated the existence, development, and consequences of TRB habits, for physical distancing, handwashing, and wearing face coverings.

A representative sample of the Scottish population (N = 1,003) was interviewed by a commercial polling company in August–October 2020 and half were re-interviewed later. Measures included adherence, habit, personal routine tendency, reflective processes, and action control for three TRBs. Data were analyzed using general linear modeling, regression, and mediation analyses.

Handwashing was most habitual; only face covering became more habitual over time. Routine tendencies predicted TRB habits, and adherence to handwashing and physical distancing. Those reporting greater habits reported better adherence, for physical distancing and handwashing, and this remained true after controlling for previous adherence. Reflective and habit processes independently predicted adherence for physical distancing and handwashing; only reflective processes were independently predictive for face covering. The relationship between planning and forgetting and adherence was partly direct, and partly mediated by habit.

The results confirm hypotheses from habit theory including the role of repetition and of personal routine tendency in developing habits. They are consistent with dual processing theory in finding that both reflective and habit processes predict adherence to TRBs. Action planning partly mediated the relation between reflective processes and adherence. The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled the testing and confirmation of several theoretical hypotheses about habit processes in the enactment of TRBs.

COVID-19, Transmission-reducing behaviors, Habit, Personal routine tendency, Reflective processes, Adherence
Issue Section: Regular Articles
Lay Summary
During the COVID-19 pandemic we were all asked to adopt protective behaviors, for example, keeping distance from people, wearing face masks, and handwashing. When people do the same thing repeatedly in the same situation, that behavior is likely to become a habit. As habits are generally easier to perform and maintain than planned behaviors, understanding whether the protective behaviors we adopted during COVID-19 became habitual will help us understand how best to support people to adopt infection protective behaviors in future. In this study we examined whether protective behaviors became habitual over time during the pandemic. We found that handwashing was the most habitual behavior. This is likely because hand washing was a behavior that people already regularly performed pre-pandemic. Wearing face masks was the only behavior to become more habitual over time. People with stronger habits were more likely to perform the recommendations about handwashing and physical distancing. When you want people to perform a new protective behavior this can be accomplished by making a plan to do it. Following through on these plans will eventually form habits. Habitually performed behaviors that prevent COVID-19 might also help prevent other infections and could therefore improve population health.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)910–920
Number of pages11
JournalAnnals of Behavioral Medicine
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 16 Oct 2023


  • COVID-19
  • Transmission-reducing behaviors
  • Habit
  • Personal routine tendency
  • Reflective processes
  • Adherence


Dive into the research topics of 'Habits and Reflective Processes in COVID-19 Transmission-reducing Behaviors: Examining Theoretical Predictions in a Representative Sample of the Population of Scotland'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this