Suppose a person throws his pen up and catches it by his one hand when he is deep in thought to solve a math problem. They don't know why they do it, but they just do and they do it unintentionally and inattentively. This behavior is generally not easy for a person to give up, but if one lessens his absentmindedness, he can stop this habit. What is the word for this behavior?

  • If you said John has an automatic behavioural routine when he's thinking, I'd probably understand that to mean what you're getting at. But I don't suppose for one minute that's a standard "technical" term, and I can't think of any quick and easy alternative likely to be used in common parlance. Jan 5, 2013 at 18:03

7 Answers 7


I believe Instinctively or Instinctive is the word you are looking for.



Of, relating to, or prompted by instinct.

Arising from impulse; spontaneous and unthinking: an instinctive mistrust of bureaucrats.


I would say it's just a reflex.

an action that is performed without conscious thought as a response to a stimulus.

Or one could think of it as a subconscious impulse that forces you to act even before you realize it. That really looks like one did it unconsciously, but I feel in reality it's a subconscious act.

  • I can't really see a justifiable stimulus here. Feb 4, 2020 at 14:30

I would call that behavior:

  • an unconscious habit

  • a mindless reflex

  • a bad habit

  • a compulsion

  • a compulsive habit

  • I beg to differ on compulsion. Compulsion is an urge to do something but it does not come to mind for no reason. It comes to mind (so the person is not inattentive) and it can be left undone consciously, whereas in my question the person is unaware of what he is doing due to his absentmindedness.
    – Mistu4u
    Jan 5, 2013 at 18:23
  • @Mistu4u, it's your question so you know best the scenario you are asking about. However, by definition, compulsive behavior can fit the characteristics of the scenario you described: from the FreeDictionary.com - com·pul·sion (km-plshn) n. An uncontrollable impulse to perform an act, often repetitively, as an unconscious mechanism to avoid unacceptable ideas and desires which, by themselves, arouse anxiety. Jan 5, 2013 at 18:35
  • 1
    unconsciously was the word I was thinking about. I think your first option is the most appropriate one.
    – didierc
    Jan 6, 2013 at 4:20
  • Compulsive behaviours are often exhibited with full attention too!
    – Mohit
    Jan 6, 2013 at 16:12
  • It could also be positive.
    – Kris
    Jan 9, 2013 at 5:18

I think the word you want is simply the word habit, which you mention. Habit is defined as:

an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street. (bold mine)

Or as:

psychol a learned behavioural response that has become associated with a particular situation, esp one frequently repeated

The thing you describe is not necessarily bad or detrimental, but it has become almost involuntary in a certain situation because of repetition. However, the person could stop doing it if someone pointed it out to him.


Depending on the context, you could be doing it "idly"


without any real purpose or reason

As in

She sat in the waiting room, flicking idly through a magazine.

  • Yes, I'd say this fits better than the accepted answer. Op was happy with an adverb, though the question appeared to request a noun. Feb 4, 2020 at 14:32

The word quirk (“an idiosyncrasy; a slight glitch, mannerism; something unusual about the manner or style of something or someone”) often is used of such mannerisms. Terms oddity and tic may sometimes apply.


If it is particularly well developed and occurs enough, one could say that it is a tic; which can be defined as being

a frequent usually unconscious quirk of behavior or speech

For example, a person who, like, frequently inserted like in the middle of, like, all sorts of, like, sentences, might be described as having a verbal tic, you know.

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