‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business’ by Charles Duhigg
In its simplest form, researchers have found, a habit has three components: a cue, a routine and a reward. Over time, the routine becomes so habitual that the person anticipates the reward and receives almost as much pleasure from the anticipation as from the reward itself — a phenomenon known as craving. The anticipation of lighting a cigarette, for example, can bring nearly as much pleasure as inhaling the first puff of smoke.
The key to changing habits is not to avoid the cues or to change the rewards, most research shows. Rather, it involves changing the routine that leads from cue to habit. Duhigg notes that he was gaining weight, at least in part, because every afternoon at 3:30 he would break and go get a chocolate chip cookie. A series of experiments, such as having tea instead, chatting with colleagues or taking a brisk walk, indicated that what he really wanted was a break from work and interaction with colleagues. Instead of getting a cookie, he started taking 10 minutes to chat and found that he got the same reward from the activity. The cue stayed the same and the reward was similar, but the routine was markedly different.
O'Neill, CEO of company who served as Treasury secretary during George W. Bush's first term, had focused on what Charles Duhigg, a reporter at the New York Times, calls a keystone habit: a small change in behavior that, when it starts to shift, dislodges and remakes other patterns in life. Such habits can be things like instituting an exercise program when attempting to lose weight or visiting with friends in Alcoholics Anonymous when the urge to drink strikes. In other words, take care of the small things and the big things will take care of themselves.
Human habits seem intractable and inexplicable, as ingrained in our beings as the color of our hair. “They are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense,” Duhigg writes. But it turns out our habits are quite malleable, and as the author shows, companies are getting ever more adept at identifying, co-opting, and shaping our behavior patterns to increase profits.
A habit is essentially an equation written on the blackboard of the brain’s basal ganglia. First there is a cue: An iPhone dings during a meeting. Then there is a routine: The iPhone is discreetly examined. Then there is a reward: A Words with Friends opponent has made a move, and now it’s time to pounce. We crave the ding and the rush of endorphins it promises.
Though scientists didn't put a name to this mechanism—the habit loop—until well into the 20th century, entrepreneurs have long understood the importance of routines. Duhigg points to Claude Hopkins, the wizard behind Pepsodent and the man who, in the early 1900s, got us all to start brushing our teeth every day. He found a cue: feeling a weird film on teeth. Through ads, he offered a solution: brush every morning. The reward: clean, bright tingly teeth.
Duhigg explains how individuals, too, can tweak their behavior patterns to change bad habits. This is how some people, for example, trick themselves into exercising every day. Cue: running shoes left next to the bed. Routine: run first thing in the morning. Reward: endorphin rush and a healthy breakfast. Duhigg notes that habit loops help explain how bad habits arise in the first place. Cue: feeling sad. Routine: drink. Reward: forget the troubles. He also writes about how understanding the mechanics of habit loops is partly what helped Alcoholics Anonymous succeed in battling addiction. However, Duhigg misses an opportunity for a deep discussion of the obvious converse of the Pepsodent experiment: brands that profit by encouraging self-destructive habits like drinking, smoking, or gambling.
His enthusiasm for corporate ingenuity seems to blind him at times to the sinister aspects of habit manipulation. He even admits to being taken in. “It was really helpful that Target was sending me exactly the right coupons for what I needed to buy,” he notes. But reading the quirky anecdotes and the whiz bang science of it all becomes habit-forming in itself. Cue: see cover. Routine: read book. Reward: Fully comprehend the art of manipulation.
Q &A WITH WRITER CHARLES DUHIGG
What sparked your interest in habits?
I first became interested in the science of habits eight years ago, as a newspaper reporter in Baghdad, when I heard about an army major conducting an experiment in a small town named Kufa.
The major had analyzed videotapes of riots and had found that violence was often preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza and, over the course of hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle.
When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Great Mosque of Kufa. It grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 p.m., everyone was gone.
I asked the major how he had figured out that removing food vendors would change peoples' behavior.
The U.S. military, he told me, is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history. “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” he said. By the time I got back to the U.S., I was hooked on the topic.
How have your own habits changed as a result of writing this book?
Since starting work on this book, I've lost about 30 pounds, I run every other morning (I'm training for the NY Marathon later this year), and I'm much more productive. And the reason why is because I've learned to diagnose my habits, and how to change them.
Take, for instance, a bad habit I had of eating a cookie every afternoon. By learning how to analyze my habit, I figured out that the reason I walked to the cafeteria each day wasn't because I was craving a chocolate chip cookie. It was because I was craving socialization, the company of talking to my colleagues while munching. That was the habit's real reward. And the cue for my behavior - the trigger that caused me to automatically stand up and wander to the cafeteria, was a certain time of day.
So, I reconstructed the habit: now, at about 3:30 each day, I absentmindedly stand up from my desk, look around for someone to talk with, and then gossip for about 10 minutes. I don't even think about it at this point. It's automatic. It's a habit. I haven't had a cookie in six months.
What was the most surprising use of habits that you uncovered?
The most surprising thing I've learned is how companies use the science of habit formation to study - and influence - what we buy.
Take, for example, Target, the giant retailer. Target collects all kinds of data on every shopper it can, including whether you’re married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how much money you earn, if you've moved recently, the websites you visit. And with that information, it tries to diagnose each consumer’s unique, individual habits.
Why? Because Target knows that there are these certain moments when our habits become flexible. When we buy a new house, for instance, or get married or have a baby, our shopping habits are in flux. A well-timed coupon or advertisement can convince us to buy in a whole new way. But figuring out when someone is buying a house or getting married or having a baby is tough. And if you send the advertisement after the wedding or the baby arrives, it’s usually too late.
So Target studies our habits to see if they can predict major life events. And the company is very, very successful. Oftentimes, they know what is going on in someone's life better than that person's parents.