Open Book

Bookmarks: Creatures of Habit

Understanding the automatic loops that shape our lives

Magazine Issue
September/October 2012
Open Book, September/October 2012

Do our habits define us (I’m a tea drinker myself, who craves a daily dose of newspapers with breakfast), or do we define our habits? If you change the word define to control, would you answer differently? (How far would I hike for a morning cuppa and a copy of The New York Times?) What if the habits we’re trying to control are more than quirks–if they concern substances considerably less benign than caffeine or behaviors far more dangerous than getting a morning fix of news headlines? When does “habit” become “addiction,” and when does human responsibility yield to neurological dependence?

Those are some of the key questions raised by investigative reporter Charles Duhigg in his provocative and engaging exploration of the automatic behaviors, routines, and patterns we live by, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Skillfully connecting the dots from one case history and research study to another, Duhigg shows us the crucial roles that even seemingly minor habits can play in individual and group behavior. Equally comfortable in the dual realms of business and psychology, he succeeds in making the case that a keen understanding of how habits work is as relevant to anyone whose goal is to prevent or change bad habits as it is to advertisers bent on hooking consumers on new products–for whom this understanding is like catnip.

Duhigg begins by describing how automatic habits form, via a “habit loop,” comprised of an initial cue (for my morning tea habit, for instance: I wake up) triggering a set routine (I boil water to brew tea) that subsequently leads to a reward (a few tasty sips and I’m alert!). Look at this at the neurological level, and what’s really driving this loop is my morning craving for caffeine–a socially acceptable habit (though arguably bordering on dependence) that I share with many. Viewed through the lens of business, it’s the same paradigm that American advertising has exploited to create cravings for any number of consumer products. For instance, we owe our daily tooth-brushing ritual to early 20th-century advertising guru Claude C. Hopkins, whose wildly successful ads for Pepsodent trained consumers to desire and associate the pleasurably tingly sensation of using flavored toothpaste with the reward of a brilliant smile. Similarly, the producers of the air freshener Febreze successfully manufactured a craving for the household to smell as fresh as it looks: reward yourself after the hard work of cleaning up, ad scenarios suggested, with a refreshing scent.

Bringing the story into the age of e-technology, Duhigg shows how detailed credit-card data about our buying habits can translate into occasions when companies know far more about us than we might like. How creepily accurate can a consumer habit profile be? By tracking changes in a woman’s usual grocery purchases (more vitamins, no wine), Target can almost always tell when a woman is pregnant–even before she announces it to anyone else. And when a company knows that much, customized advertising will surely follow.

Duhigg recounts these business case histories with the suspenseful pace of a mystery: how will these Mad Men of different eras get into consumers’ heads and make their products blockbusters? But he could have further dramatized the ethical questions that he begins to raise by adding darker examples of habit manipulation. In particular, I kept thinking of how, after the women’s suffrage amendment passed in 1920, American advertiser Edward Bernays exploited women’s newfound sense of equality by dubbing cigarettes “torches of freedom.” The slogan equated smoking with equality, making social liberation seem the reward for lighting up. It made it fashionable for women to start a habit that would addict them for a lifetime and that, as a result of tobacco-related disease, might even shorten their lives (lung cancer is now the leading cause of cancer death among women, outstripping even breast cancer).

So, what do you do with a habit you wish to disown? Alas, Duhigg explains, “You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” Nonetheless, change can happen–ideally, anyway–by substituting a different routine (stopping at an AA meeting, rather than a bar, for instance), even while the cue (feeling anxious, edgy, depressed) and the reward (companionship, conversation, relief from being alone with uncomfortable emotions) remain stable. Yet even the crucial role support groups provide in helping change last may not be enough, Duhigg acknowledges. To his credit, he doesn’t underestimate the difficulties of committing to the hard work of fighting addictions, but he doesn’t delve deeply into how to overcome such obstacles, either. He’s clearly more at ease exploring how renowned football coach Tony Dungy led the formerly mediocre Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl victory through constant drills that trained team members to exchange their old losing habits (like second-guessing themselves and choking in the clutch) for new habits of pinpoint focus and concentration.

One of Duhigg’s major themes is the importance of identifying–and then instilling–keystone “habits of excellence” in every individual throughout an organization. The trick is figuring out which single habit, when dislodged and changed, will lead to a positive chain reaction throughout an institution already set in its ways. For Dungy’s football team, the transformation hinged on learning a new way of paying attention to detail. At Alcoa, Inc., in 1987, newly installed chief executive Paul O’Neill turned the company around by instituting a companywide emphasis on worker safety. That new goal, Duhigg shows, forced workers at every level to reexamine and rework old routines. As a sense of mutual responsibility for safety became routine, productivity increased. Duhigg explains: “If molten metal was injuring workers when it splashed, then the pouring system was redesigned, which led to fewer injuries. It also saved money because Alcoa lost less raw materials in spills. If a machine kept breaking down, it was replaced, which meant there was less risk of a broken gear snagging an employee’s arm. It also meant higher quality products because, as Alcoa discovered, equipment malfunctions were a chief cause of subpar aluminum.” Duhigg extends this idea to social-justice movements and religious communities, whose growth can be aided by shared habits of mutual help and supportive peer pressure. I found it interesting that he chose the same examples to illustrate his thesis about the power of habit–the civil-rights bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks and Rick Warren’s mammoth-sized Saddleback Church–as did Susan Cain to demonstrate quite different points about the power of introversion in her recent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (see Bookmarks, July/August 2012).

By contrast, when an institution’s dysfunctional habits go unchecked, they can prove costly, not just in dollars but in human lives. As Duhigg puts it, “Just as choosing the right keystone habits can create amazing change, the wrong ones can create disasters.” A series of surgical errors at Rhode Island Hospital in the early 2000s, for instance, could have been avoided if the hospital administration had intervened to allay ongoing tensions between doctors and nurses. Instead, doctors fell into the habit of overruling nurses, even in the operating room, where surgeons felt empowered to ignore nurses’ safety warnings–to the detriment of patients. Similarly, the horrific 1987 London Underground fire that killed and injured dozens probably wouldn’t have occurred if the narrowly focused organizational culture had emphasized habits of communication and responsibility, rather than minding one’s own business and keeping quiet about problems. The initial report of a stray spark triggered no safety routine, and with no system in place to combat the fire, even as it escalated, chaos and panic ruled. There’s comfort–though cold, to be sure, for anyone involved in those disasters–that in both cases, the organizations learned from their errors to institute strict safety habits and protocols.

Duhigg is entertaining and informative throughout, but so much material is covered there’s little time or space to look more deeply or complexly at such perplexing issues as, for instance, where our ever more ingrained Internet and smartphone habits may be taking us. Also, he can be simplistic. At a couple of points, I couldn’t help thinking: if only the course of changing a merely pesky habit (not to mention an intractable, self-destructive one) ran as smoothly as Duhigg’s explanation of how that ideally should happen, psychotherapists would be out of a job, and any number of businesses, from gambling casinos to tobacco companies, would close up shop.

What Duhigg does provide is an appealing, lucid narrative about the ways in which our habits and our humanity are intertwined, so even though therapists won’t find the depth they’d like, their patients may benefit from his insights. Of particular interest for that audience will be the appendix, in which Duhigg presents a framework for how to go about changing habits. He admits it’s a simplified process, which, in essence, analyzes and then reverses or substitutes new behavior in the initial habit loop. Using a bad habit of his own as an example (his daily cookie habit has led him to gain eight pounds), he breaks down the four steps of habit change this way: first, identify the routine (at about 3 p.m. every day, Duhigg takes a break from work to go to the cafeteria, where he snacks on a cookie and chats with his friends). Second step: experiment with different rewards (eating a cookie sure is yummy, but upon reflection, he discovers that the bigger reward is schmoozing with friends in the cafeteria). Third step: isolate the cue (the trigger for Duhigg, he realizes, is midafternoon fatigue and the need for a diversion). Step four: have a plan (having identified his cookie-habit loop, he develops a new plan: getting up from his desk at midafternoon and going over to chat with a colleague, with no cookie snack involved).

It’s an example with which many will be able to identify. It points to the strength–and limitation–of Duhigg’s book. It’ll reward you with an understanding of the basics, but at the same time leave you craving a much deeper sense of how to grapple with those dark habits that can become our demons.


Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.