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Habit Pattern Errors: A Demonstration

This brief but intriguing activity, a modification of the Stroop Test, is a demonstration of the powerful interference effect caused by prior learning.

Exactly what it means for you personally will become clearer after you have done the two short tasks and you interpret your scores.



You will need a watch to record how long it takes you to finish this task. Record the time to the nearest second.

Read each word aloud as you normally would when reading. Start at the top, go left to right, line by line, as quickly as you can and correct any mistakes. For example, the first word is "green", the second is "brown" and so on. Remember to record how many seconds you take to finish.

Stroop Test 1


Again, use your watch to record how long you take to finish this task.

This time, instead of reading the word, you have to name the colour of the text in which each word is written, going left to right, line by line, as quickly as you can and correct any mistakes. Speak up and say it aloud for greater effect. For example, the colour of the first word is "pink" so you have to say "pink" instead of "green". The second is "red", not "brown" and so on. Do the whole list from top to bottom. Don't forget to record how many seconds it takes you to finish.


Stroop Test 2

Interpretation of your scores

By doing this adapted version of the Stroop Test you experienced proactive habit interference, also known as the proactive inhibition (PI) effect. Prior learning/training, i.e., the meaning of a word, interfered with your attempts to learn the new, conflicting knowledge, namely the colour of the word.

From the point of view of a pilot who is trying to convert to another aircraft type or convert from analogue to digital instrumentation, the explanation of how proactive habit interference blocks or slows down learning and adaptation is like this:

  • The new technique, concept or attitude feels strange having done it the other way for so long
  • Because the new technique differs from the old familiar accustomed way there is a conflict or tension between them
  • The brain detects this conflict and instantly activates proactive inhibition (PI for short) or proactive habit interference, a well researched knowledge protection mechanism
  • PI protects all learned knowledge and skills, right and wrong, and strongly resists and slows down any attempt to change or improve prior knowledge and skills
  • We all have this knowledge protection mechanism but it is stronger in some people. It is an unconscious mechanism and we have little or no control over it
  • The level of PI a person has is not associated with their intellectual ability or "IQ"
  • PI is why old knowledge, skills, habits and techniques die hard and why self-improvement is so difficult, slow and frustrating under conventional training methods
  • PI causes accelerated forgetting (within minutes or hours) of the new way and this is why you revert to your old incorrect technique or understanding (mental map) when you are placed under stress
  • You know what you're doing wrong and what you should be doing and you're highly motivated to improve but your brain (force of habit, i.e., PI) won't let you change
  • Forget about "muscle memory" and such things because there is no real research support for those explanations—the real cause of your technique problems is PI
  • Negative transfer, then, is caused by what you already know, not by what you don't know
  • It is a sobering fact that with conventional methods it can take many, many practices over months, even years, before you are comfortable and competent with the new technique or new understanding and it permanently replaces your "old" way.

Proactive habit interference is a major cause of a wide range of negative transfer and other training problems. In flight training, for example, habit interference from prior training negatively impacts on:

  • glass cockpit CRM skills, e.g., not cross-checking; no callouts; not calling out cockpit actions; lack of assertiveness; poor communication skills
  • situational awareness, e.g., poor instrument scanning behaviour
  • adherence to SOPs, e.g., not adhering to checklist procedure
  • monitoring and vigilance, e.g., failing to detect and announce incorrect settings in flight systems.

Now you know what the problem is and what it feels like, you are ready for the solution. Being aware of PI and it's effects, however, is not enough to overcome it. Simply re-teaching a skill or action, even when supported by specific videotaped feedback to improve awareness, is unlikely to work quickly and sometimes not at all. You need an alternative training method that bypasses habit interference altogether in order to accelerate learning and skill development. This training method is called Old Way/New Way®.

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