The Power of Habit By Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit is not a self-help book, but an in-depth look at the science of habit formation and change.

power-of-habit-250x385Not set in stone

Published by: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition [January 7, 2014]

ISBN-13: 9780812981605

Pages: 416

Price: INR 579

Human beings are creatures of habit. We typically buy the same food and even the same brand of things. We take the same route to work and back. We drink a cup of tea/coffee or our favourite beverage first thing in the morning.

We have consciously developed certain actions and routines over time, so much so that we do them without much thought or analysis, as if we were born with this set behaviour. We need this auto-pilot mode to cut down on the complex and innumerable decision-making that goes into each of our everyday tasks. “Habits 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.

However, our habits are not set in stone. Even the not-so-desirable habits we develop like smoking or junk food consumption. Habits can be changed in a systematic way, which many companies have taken advantage of to increase profits.

The Power of Habit is not a self-help book, but an in-depth look at the science of habit formation and change. It is laid out in three sections: Habits of the Individual, Habits of Successful Organisations, Habits of Societies. Culled from hundreds of scientific papers, with case studies, anecdotes and personal stories, the author shares interesting findings from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology, and neuroscience.

The first section sets up the habit loop: An environmental cue, which leads to a behavioural routine, which in turn leads to a satisfying personal reward. Repeat the cue-routine-reward cycle and we have formed a habit, desirable or otherwise. This is repeated throughout the book as a framework of reference to understand diverse behaviours. However, it is best exemplified by individual habits.

Duhigg invokes Claude Hopkins, the man who, in the early 1900s, got people to start brushing their teeth every day by putting this habit loop to perfect use for product promotion. Hopkins found a cue: feeling a weird film on teeth. Through ads, he offered a habit-forming solution: brush every morning, which led to a satisfying reward: clean, bright, tingly-fresh teeth.

Of course, the cue and the rewards depend on the individual, and the routine they choose to get to the reward relies on their ability to sustain it.

And then there are the darker habits like drug abuse and alcoholism, which turn into compulsive addictions that are harder to change by using the simple habit loop formula.

Duhigg notes that habit loops help explain how bad habits arise in the first place. Cue: feeling sad. Routine: drink. Reward: forget your troubles. Understanding the mechanics of habit loops can help in battling addictions.

The second section showcases organisations that have overhauled their culture by changing their habits company-wide, one small step at a time. Alcoa recast itself simply based on the ‘Safety Habit’—i.e., safety as the primary goal that management and workers strive towards, thus eliminating conflict among the ranks… and incidentally increasing profit.

The most interesting case study was about Target, which sought to successfully predict the pregnancy of their shoppers. Why? Apparently, expectant parents are a goldmine for shaping new shopping behaviour that can dramatically increase sales. A groggy parent, who is just there to pick up some nappies, might also decide to get baby tooth gel and orange juice and laundry detergent and so on. So Target sought to become a one-stop shop. Plus, knowing when a shopper is expecting a child allows the company to send targeted discount coupons for items they are likely to buy anyway.

The third section talks about habitual behaviours as a result of social norms—norms that we rarely question or think about. We shake hands when we greet people, leave our shoes by the door before we walk into our house, wear formal clothes as the occasion demands, because these are the customs we have learned. Such behaviours are not etched in our minds permanently, but they are actions we could change easily if the laws or customs that governed them should change.

It is true that habitual behaviours come in many different forms, from many different contexts. Grouping them into one habit loop framework ignores some of the nuances to effect a necessary behavioural change. Nonetheless, The Power of Habit is an enjoyable read.

“Once you understand that habits can change,” the author concludes, “You have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”

This was first published in the July 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Sheela Preuitt
Sheela Preuitt juggles the hats of writer, cuisinière, applications developer, childhood literacy advocate, and crazy-craftswoman. She shares her culinary expeditions at her blog.