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Creatures of Habit : Understanding the automatic loops that shape our lives

Reviewed By Diane Cole

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
By Charles Duhigg
Random House. 371 pp.
ISBN: 9781400069286
Purchase this book on Amazon

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).

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