Saturday, February 24, 2024
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Creatures of Habit

Humans are creatures of habit. 

This is an understanding about people, and all living creatures for that matter, that has existed for eons. In the February 1887 edition of Popular Science Monthly, Professor William James wrote a 19-page article titled, “The Laws of Habit,” which laid out the modern concept of habit. He defined it as a routine, behavior, or cognitive process that starts spontaneously, but then repeats automatically as a result of prior experience.

This past weekend it turns out I was thinking about my own habits as I drove to the home improvement store for various items necessary for the proper functioning of our household. 

Back in 1986, my wife and I lived in an apartment on the east side of Orlando, Florida. A mile away on East Colonial Drive was a huge store called Home Depot. Since we had been born and raised in central Pennsylvania, we had never seen anything like it before in our young lives. It was a magical place for DINK’s (Dual Income, No Kids) with visions of our life together – even when we only had a one-bedroom apartment and most of the “Doers Getting More Done” was the landlord’s problem.

Three years later when we built our first house – this time on the west side of Orlando – we had become Home Depot disciples and were dismayed that the closest store was 25 minutes away (to be fair, many things in growing Orlando were 25 minutes away back then). However, since growth in homes always means growth in stores, within a year a new Home Depot opened only 2 miles away on West Colonial Drive. 

“I need to go to Home Depot,” was a popular refrain in our house for years. And it was usually, but not always, spoken by me. Even when, five years later, a competitor – Lowe’s – opened up also just 2 miles from our house. By then, years of prior experience had long since made me a creature of habit – if I needed something I automatically went to Home Depot.

Which was what got me thinking as I drove north on Valley Vista Drive to the Home Depot this past Saturday. And my apologies in advance to Ace Hardware and YBC – the combination of items I needed weren’t available in one stop at either place. 

What I was thinking is that it would save me a few minutes of time and gas if I just pulled into Lowe’s instead of driving across Atherton Street and waiting for the interminable left-turn light at Green Tech Drive to get to Home Depot. And going home would be easier too. But I just feel odd if I shop at Lowe’s. Not quite a traitor, or as if I was rooting for Ohio State, but just uneasy. Which is not to say I haven’t gone in or spent plenty of money at Lowes – I have – but that Home Depot habit just got ingrained in me early in my adult life, and that habit is hard to shake.

Now, that’s a habit of shopping, an activity many of us do on a regular basis in our lives – food, clothing and sundry items for example – and to which we attach a certain amount of economic value. I only buy this brand. I only eat this pizza. I get these paper towels.  

However, those habits don’t register much of a blip in our daily lives on an emotional scale. We rarely get outwardly demonstrative and loudly passionate about these buying choices. We don’t scream at the top of our lungs as we run down the supermarket aisle, our favorite ketchup in hand, as we dash to the checkout. We don’t gather with our friends and tailgate around the arrival of the new car model at the dealer. We don’t go on blogs and social media and delve into the financial details of the owner of the local pizza shop vis-à-vis the quality of their pizza.

But we do get that emotional about our college football habits.

Penn State football finished their regular season last Friday by shutting out Michigan State 42-0. That win gave PSU a 10-2 record over the course of the season and a likely spot in a very good bowl game in a few weeks. It gave them a  No. 4 ranking in ESPN’s Football Power Index, “a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward.” It also got them ranked No. 10 in both the latest AP and AFCA Coaches Polls. 

Here’s what it didn’t get them: an undefeated season, a No. 1 or No. 2 ranking, a shot at a Big Ten championship or a shot at a national title. 

As a young kid living just 61 miles away from Beaver Stadium, Penn State football was something I and many of my friends paid attention to growing up. It wasn’t anywhere near as omnipresent as it is today – no sports were – but the local paper and radio stations made sure you knew what was happening. 

I attended my first Penn State football game on Sept. 30, 1972 in Beaver Stadium. Penn State was ranked No. 13 and beat Iowa 14-10 (sounds like an Iowa score, doesn’t it?!). I still have the game program (pictured above) which featured a cover photo of Penn State linebacker John Skorupan’s face inside his helmet in a stylized blue color. 

From the time I was old enough to understand football, about 1967, through the end of the century – a period of 33 seasons – Penn State had five undefeated seasons, two national championships, two one-loss seasons where the only loss came in the bowl game after an undefeated season, and, according to the PSU Football Media Guide, were ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the country for multiple weeks during nine different seasons, the last of which was 1999.

That was the Penn State football that I, and many other Penn State fans, grew up with. And to which we formed the habits of our Penn State fandom.  

And habits, as noted 135 years ago in “The Laws of Habit,” are not only routines or behaviors, but cognitive processes. To wit: “…the universally admitted fact that any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances…”

Meaning, what I and hundreds of thousands of other Penn State fans have found ourselves automatically prompted to think and feel is that every five years or so Penn State should have an undefeated regular season, and every four years or so it should be ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the country. It is the cognitive habit that was formed by being accustomed to that performance for years. 

But since the turn-of-the-century,  this action has not perpetuated itself. In the 24 seasons of Penn State football in the 21st century, there have been no undefeated seasons. Penn State has not been ranked No. 1, and was only ranked No. 2 for two weeks during the 2017 season. There have been no one-loss seasons where the only loss came in the bowl game after an undefeated season. And, of course, there have been no national championships. In fact, of the top 10 all-time winningest current FBS college football teams, only Penn State at No. 7 and Tennessee at No. 10 (tied) have never played in either the BCS title game or the College Football Playoff series.

As with my problem of feeling odd when shopping other places than Home Depot, breaking any habit can be difficult. The mental habits that Penn State fans of a certain age acquired over decades are difficult to break. Years later, we’re still accustomed to think and feel that there will be an undefeated season, a No. 1 ranking and even a national championship. And as I said, we do get emotional about our college football habits – especially when things are going very well, or in this case not-so-well in relation to what we were accustomed.

Well, our angst-ridden habit may finally become accustomed once again to having national championship aspirations! Next season the expanded playoff begins with 12 teams having a shot at the national title at the end of the season. As columnist Mike Poorman – who has covered Penn State football since 1979 – pointed out on these pages a few months ago, “… if the 12-team playoff had been in existence since 2014, Franklin’s Penn State squad would have made it to the CFP tournament a total of five times.” That’s five times in nine seasons, and six in 10 when we count this season. 

So, if you’ve been hearing for some time from a few other humans how we’re unhappy with Penn State football’s success not being perpetuated, and we’ve expressed that unhappiness in emotional ways, remember that we humans are creatures of habit, and that habits – including these cognitive habits – can be hard to break. But next year we’re looking forward to both our angst being relieved and a new generation of fans becoming accustomed to the things we were back in the 20th century. That’s a habit we would like to start back up again.