How You Get Hooked On Coffee

And how to break the habit

About a decade ago, a pair of researchers taught a computer to make a cup of coffee. Over a series of lessons, the machine learned to execute specific coffee-related actions in response to certain coffee-related cues. When the computer processed a cup with clear liquid, for instance, it knew to target an instant-coffee packet; when it registered a cup with brown liquid near a torn packet, it was time to reach for a spoon. The sequence continued all the way through adding cream, scooping sugar, and taking a sip.


All right, so it was a virtual sip–a “drink” outcome posted by a simulator program after an initial “make coffee” command. Still, it worked. In 100 trials, with varying subtasks related to sugar (from the bowl or a packet?) and cream (before or after the sugar?), the computer made 100 drinkable cups and no errors.

The lesson is not that instant-coffee is easy to make. (For that, we don’t need science.) The lesson is more metaphorical: when we make our morning coffee, we essentially operate like this computer program. We see the kitchen and gravitate to the coffee grinder. We see the grounds and reach for a filter. We see a cup with brown liquid and reach for a spoon. We do it with few variations and even fewer thoughts. If you feel a bit like a robot in the morning before that first cup, that’s only because you kind of are. The good news is that you can break the habit with a few simple tricks.

Flickr user Angie Chung

The Mindless Precision Of A Machine

The best evidence on habits suggests people really do make that morning cup with the mindless precision of a machine. And while coffee might be the first habit we perform in a day, the performance isn’t unique. “All habits have the same basic neurological structure: there’s a cue, a routine, and a reward,” Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, tells Co.Design. “I don’t think coffee would be any different from most other habits, except that the reward is probably related to caffeine.”

A habit forms pretty much the way you expect: do the same behavior in the same place long enough and you’ll form associations so strong that being in the place–or even just thinking of it–triggers the behavior. Once engrained, all habits (morning coffee among them) operate on a loop of environmental cues and subsequent actions that spiral toward a conclusion. To psychologists like Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California, a leading habit scholar, the process is known as “direct context cueing.”


“Habits form when people repeat a response in a way that co-varies with particular context cues,” Wood says. “The idea is that you make coffee first thing in the morning in your kitchen, and there’s no other place or time when you do this.”

The strength of these cues is truly enormous. For a 2012 study, Wood and some collaborators gave a word identification task to test participants with very fixed running routines. After the participants were shown their usual running routes in a subliminal image–presented way to quickly to process–they identified the words “running” or “jogging” with lightning speed. This didn’t happen with neutral words like “curtain,” nor did it happen for participants with weak or no running habits. Habitual context resides far beyond conscious control.

Flickr user Christian Kadluba

These cues are so powerful that our goals or intentions are besides the point. In a 2009 study, researchers gave test participants Fritos or M&Ms when they pressed a button after seeing an image. After several days, the task became a habit for many participants. One day, researchers made them eat enough chips or candy to get sick, then showed them the image again. Participants without the habit said no thanks. Those with it couldn’t resist hitting the button. Simply put: that morning cup of coffee in the kitchen may be less about the coffee than about the kitchen.

Recent neuroscience sheds a little light on why habits are so automatic. Turns out our brains may be wired with a distinct habit circuitry that treats routine behavior as a single unit.

Work with rats by Ann Graybiel of MIT and Kyle Smith of Dartmouth has shown that as the animals learned to run a maze, neuron activity in the motor part of the striatum spikes at the start and end of the task but quiets down in the middle. In a sense, the striatal cells package movements to need very little attention once a habitual behavior gets started. Meanwhile, the neocortex–in particular the infralimbic cortex–monitors this shipment of behavior, if you will, and eventually commits the brain to the routine.

“The idea is that a series of behaviors (or movements) can be strung together into a sequence, and that sequence almost works as a single thing,” Smith tells Co.Design. “It tends to be executed in full and in order once initiated. It is like how we remember certain things, like the alphabet or phone numbers–not digit by digit, but in chunks of digits.”

Back to coffee. What’s important to keep in mind is that it’s not the coffee itself that’s the habit, but the act of making it in the same place every morning. So that first cup might be habitual, but the subsequent cups you drink throughout the day have more to do with caffeine (or, for many of us, procrastination). Caffeine, it should be said, might facilitate habit formation in the early stages of coffee drinking, just as dopamine can add value to a behavior and thus strengthen its associations with a context or cue. But the stimulant doesn’t run the habit show.

Flickr user Bettina Braun

“Habits won’t form if you stop at Starbucks on the way to work one morning, have an espresso after dinner at a restaurant the next day, and drink a coffee frappe in the afternoon the following day,” Wood says. “Of course, you can develop a physiological addiction to caffeine by drinking coffee in these various different ways, but you won’t form behavioral habits associated with coffee drinking.”

That poses a bit of a problem for those who may want to cut back on their coffee intake. (Although with new health benefits of coffee emerging every day, that population might be a dwindling one.) If you drink coffee on a whim throughout the day, then only the first cup may be a bona fide habit capable of being broken. Alternatively, if you do have a distinct habit for every cup you drink, you’ll need a distinct intervention for every one, too.

How To Break The Habit

Habit interventions do exist. Stricter self-control alone is unlikely to do the trick if cueing is as automatic as the evidence suggests. Wood suggests leveraging major life changes–times when the environmental contexts tied to our routines are disturbed–as key moments for reappraising habits. Of course, only one life change will result in us no longer having a morning, so that first cup might follow us wherever we go. Duhigg, The Power of Habit author, advises would-be habit-breakers to identify the reward at the heart of their behavior and find a new route to it.

Flickr user Ruth Hartnup

“The basic rule is you can’t extinguish a habit, you only change it,” he says. “And you need to change it with something that seems to deliver a reward that’s similar to the reward the old behavior was delivering.” Someone who wants to drink less caffeine, then, might taper down to half decaf in their morning cup–maintaining most of the reward without disrupting the habit in its entirety.

Very recently, brain science has given some hope that habits can, in fact, be extinguished. Using light controls, Smith and Graybiel found it possible in rats to manipulate the infralimbic cortex, the brain’s habit surveillance system–effectively putting automatic habits in manual mode. In some tests, turning the region off during a maze run has blocked the routine. Smith cautions it’s too early to tell how much promise this technique might have in humans, and says much remains unknown about the larger implications of such an approach.

“One question is whether the manipulation would be specific to one habit, or would abolish all habits,” he says. “This would be important to consider. Life would be tough without any habits.”


About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).