The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg - Book Review

Why we do what we do and how to change

This is a great book, and you need to read it. The reason it’s such a good book is that it uses research to explain how habits are formed and changed. Everyone knows someone who was out of shape, or was a smoker, and then in what appeared as if almost overnight, changed themselves in a short period of time. How did they do that? They formed new habits and changed old ones, that’s how.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg - Book Summary & Review

  Note the actual components of the behavior  

Judging from the prologue of the book, the first thing necessary in modifying one’s behavior is to note the actual components of that behavior. The author cites a visit with a military officer in charge of normalizing a village (Kufa) in Iraq. The officer started by observing a video of how riots began and noticed that the trouble usually broke out after people had milled around for a while and food trucks and spectators arrived. He changed the behavior by asking the mayor not to allow food trucks into the areas where people were demonstrating. Something as simple as the presence of food trucks threw off a habit of violence and allowed some normalization. This seemed amazing, but something resonated strongly with this truth.

  A certain cue triggers a set of automatic reactions  

The Power of Habits begins with anecdotal accounts of people who changed destructive habits in their lives and one account of a man who had absolutely no short term memory but was able to function as a result of habits already ingrained within him. The latter case demonstrated that there was something distinctive between one part of our brain and another. So, the author takes the reader on a tour of a lab at M.I.T. where scientists have been researching a golf ball-sized lump in the brain called the basal ganglia since 1990. Apparently, the basal ganglia stores habits while the rest of the brain works less and less because the “chunks” of actions stored in that section of the brain takes over.

Arriving at this understanding, researchers were able to use different experiments to ascertain a “habit loop.” They noticed that a certain cue triggers a set of automatic reactions such that the being feels rewarded. As a result of being rewarded, there is an even stronger response to the same cue on the next occasion. Of course, if reward can reinforce the habit whenever one senses that cue, changing the reward can eventually extinguish that habit as the researchers discovered by moving the chocolate around the maze to mess up the behaviors.

So, what kinds of “cues” work? The Power of Habits tells the story of Claude Hopkins, an advertising legend who “created” the demand for toothpaste by creating a “craving.” Hopkins noticed in dental research that there is a film that forms on our teeth. He decided to get people to “feel” the mucin plaques on their teeth by calling them “the film” and suggesting that “beauty” comes from eliminating the film. By identifying a “cue” (the film that is almost always there) and suggesting a “reward” (getting rid of that film), he established a multi-million dollar product.

  Febreze, the air freshener that started out as a failure  

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet, the book goes on to tell the story of Febreze, the air freshener that started out as a failure. Even though it was extremely effective in getting rid of odors, it wasn’t selling because people in odiferous situations became used to the odors. They weren’t getting the cue. So, there had to be a better way to cue the reward and that came to be with pleasant fragrances and the idea of “finishing” a task with beautiful smelling Febreze (a tactic that is still being used in dozens of new products in this product line to the present day. The “habit loop” works even better when a “craving” is attached to it. It turns out that Pepsodent already had the craving element built-in with the citric acid or mint taste that rewarded users with a tingling sense of feeling clean. It’s pretty masterful the way this author closes the loop in each chapter.

  The “Golden Rule” of habit change  

Duhigg introduces the “Golden Rule” of habit change. You can never quite remove a bad habit, but you need to substitute a new routine between the cue and the reward. Dungy’s coaching philosophy of substituting a simpler playbook with more repetition for the old routine of over-thinking what one might be trying to do. In this way, the new routine would reside between the cue (hiking the ball?) and the reward (scoring a touchdown? Making a sack of the QB?) and more success would result. Naturally, this chapter wraps Dungy’s experiences with turning around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts football teams around the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. Both Dungy as a coach and Bill Wilson who founded A.A. teach people to substitute new routines for the old ones, bad football in the former, and alcohol abuse in the latter.

  One must believe in something  

One of the keys to Dungy’s eventual success and one of the core tenets of A.A. (or any 12-step) program is that one must believe in something. Dungy complained early on that practice was going well and everything was coming together, but the training would disappear during the big games. When he heard the players saying that they went back to what they knew during critical games, Dungy said, “What they were really saying was that they trusted our system most of the time, but when everything was on the line, that belief broken down.” And, as one researching from the University of New Mexico noted, belief is critical in order for change to work in the long run.

  Habits in business  

It was fascinating to read about how “keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cultures where new values become ingrained.” This section told the story of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’ Neill’s success at Alcoa. O’ Neill’s emphasis was safety. By placing the emphasis on safety, he gave the corporation something around which management (because of reducing lost workdays) and unions (because of emphasizing the safety of the workers) could both agree upon. There was also an insight with regard to the gay liberation movement. Duhigg suggests that when the Library of Congress re-categorized books on homosexuality as its own subject matter rather than under mental illness, it provided a paradigm shift that fueled the movement. It just shows how little shifts can have seismic effects, not only on individuals but on society.

Another corporate chapter used an experiment on willpower where half of the group was allowed to eat fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies while another group was forced to eat radishes. Sounds like the latter would have a healthy advantage when the group was asked to perform a complex problem that had no real solution! Sounds like they would be more mentally fresh! Wrong! Those who had eaten the radishes were most likely to quit after only a few minutes while the cookie eaters kept on for half an hour or so. Why? Researchers concluded that the first portion of the experiment had used up much of the finite willpower in the radish eaters. A later study showed that using kindness to set up the willpower goals as opposed to ordering willpower allowed those who experienced kindness to concentrate longer.

Building on that idea, Duhigg recounted a Scottish rehabilitation study where the elderly patients who were most successful in learning to walk again in spite of excruciating pain had identified potential obstacles in advance and created their own ways of dealing with them. “Put another way, the patients’ plans were built around inflection points when they knew their pain—and thus the temptation to quit—would be the strongest.” Starbucks put this to work in what they called the LATTE method (Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then, Explain why the problem occurred.) in dealing with irate customers.

  Institutional habits and consumer behavior  

“There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear. Companies aren’t families. They’re battlefields in a civil war.”

I was also fascinated with the chapter on consumer behavior. Did you know that almost everyone turns right after entering a retail establishment and that retailers stock their most profitable items on the right side of the store? Did you know that people’s buying habits change when they go through a major life event (marriage, having a child, divorce, moving)? 

And, in the facts are stranger than fiction department, Duhigg cites a company named Polyphonic HMI that statistically analyzes the mathematical characters of a song and predicts its popularity. Why is that strange? It’s because Norman Spinrad, a terrific science-fiction author, “predicts” it in his novel in the 1980s--Little Heroes. Sorry, Duhigg doesn’t cite Spinrad; that’s me. I was happy that Duhigg recounted a huge Polyphonic miscalculation. It also explained why I don’t listen to music on the radio very much: “Our brains crave familiarity in music because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound.” I actually listen to the radio for stimuli.

  Are we responsible for our habits?  

One significant section of the book was dedicated to the idea of whether we are responsible for our habits. By juxtaposing the tale of a gambler (if you listen to This American Life on public radio, you probably heard this story) who went to court with a major casino chain by insisting that the casino operators were responsible for her problem alongside that of a British subject who killed his wife during sleep terrors, Duhigg raises the issue but concludes by stating that he believes it is possible to change habits—any habits. The gambler protested that she just wanted to feel good at something and the killer protested that he honestly thought his wife was a male intruder assaulting his wife.

This section pointed out that, for example, sleepwalking is a reminder that sleep and wakefulness aren't that separate so that the brain can accomplish complex activities and nothing is guiding the brain except patterns. Even more powerful are the behaviors described as “sleep terrors.” Sleep terrors are primitive neurological patterns. It even points out that a 2010 MRI study of gamblers discovered that, to pathological gamblers, brain activity was so high that it treated near misses as wins when, in fact, they were losses.

So, can such ingrained perceptions be changed? Duhigg cites William James’ decision to believe in free will as opposed to surrendering to suicide. As James tried his 12 month-long experiments, he discovered that habits were based upon exercising them much like a well-folded paper or an old pair of well-creased slacks.

  Learn how to change behavior by identifying routine  

And all of these great narratives point the reader toward the most useful part of the book, learning to change behavior by identifying the routine, figuring out the cue that triggers the routine, and the craving underlying that cue by experimenting with different rewards. If you can figure out what you really want and substitute a better routine to satisfy that craving, you will be well on your way toward changing that habit. That doesn’t mean you won’t fall off the wagon, but it means you will be on your way to shaping your actions by your will as opposed to ingrained behaviors.