Tag Archives: duhigg

Are we responsible for our habits?

The final chapter of Duhigg’s The Power of Habit discusses neurology and personal responsibility. Once again, he uses two powerful examples to make his point.

One example is of a man who killed his wife while experiencing sleep terrors (a slightly less conscious version of sleepwalking). Scientific and circumstantial evidence showed that this man had no intent to kill his wife, and that he was simply following a deeply ingrained habit – fight or flight – and was left with a deep sense of guilt. Not only was he found not guilty, the judge attempted to console him.

The next example was of a woman who developed a habit of compulsive gambling, declared bankruptcy and moved to another state to avoid casinos, but was drawn back in by predatory marketing and grief over the loss of her parents – which ended up in the loss of her $1 million inheritance.

A study of the neurology of problem gamblers showed that their brains showed the same reward reaction to near wins as they did to wins, whereas other gamblers correctly interpreted near wins as losses. This showed up in the brain stem and basal ganglia, the same areas as sleep terrors. Further, people who have taken medication that affects these areas have been found not to be responsible for sudden binges of gambling, eating, shopping, etc. So should all problem gamblers who exhibit this deterioration be excused for their actions?

Duhigg says no:

We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any if them can be changed, if you understand how they function.


However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it…


Keystone Habits

Part 2 of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit begins with a chapter that talks about keystone habits. These are habits that, once created or changed, have a cascading “snowball” effect on other aspects of a person’s life. Duhigg says:

Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers…The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

This is the part of the book where Duhigg switches from a focus on individuals to a focus on organizations, so it seems appropriate that his examples include one of each – this chapter looks at Olypmpic swimmer Michael Phelps and aluminum manufacturer Alcoa. Duhigg initially focuses on Alcoa’s CEO, Paul O’Neill, who came in to run the company at a time when it was in decline and whose focus on workplace safety led it to outperform the competition even after he left. 

Duhigg begins the story of the Alcoa transformation with a lengthy background on O’Neill, demonstrating his knowledge of habits and how he honed this knowledge throughout his career. When O’Neill took CEO position at Alcoa, he recognized that if he were to succeed, he would need a focus that unions and executives could both agree was important – this was worker safety. O’Neill had determined that this was a keystone habit:

The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to understand how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work.

In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa had to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth.

Duhigg details some of the policies that O’Neill implemented, and shows how a focus on one thing – worker safety – had far-reaching implications for how the company operated. He then returns to Michael Phelps and talks about how exercise is often a keystone habit for people – how even exercising once a week can have a spillover effect in how people make choices about eating, sleeping, etc. Reading this section, I was reminded of the FlyLady, whose email list I was on for a while back when I could not manage to keep my house clean. One of her central tenets is to start with the kitchen sink, and ensure that at the end of each day, that is clean. Somehow, that really helped me, and now I see that it was part of a keystone habit around attacking cleanliness and organization.

Of course, Duhigg does not stop with keystone habits – there must be a secret sauce for each chapter, and in this one it is “small wins.” Duhigg introduces small wins with Phelps, then has a brief aside that mentions the wealth of research around the effectiveness of small wins and how they sparked a major movement for LGBT equality, and then returns to the Alcoa example to discuss how small wins helped the keystone habit of focusing on workplace safety become ingrained. Duhigg says “This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cutures where new values become ingrained.”

The Golden Rule of Habit Change

The Golden Rule of Habit Change, subtitled “Why Transformation Occurs” is the third chapter in Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and the final section of part one, The Habits of Individuals. 

The golden rule itself is “you can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” Duhigg goes back to the 3-step habit loop and says that you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but change the routine.

Duhigg once again uses a couple of examples to demonstrate, this time a football coach who focused relentlessly on improving his players’ habits and the founders and members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Once again there are powerful, compelling examples of change, and strong results, so that you would think the above formula is “it.” But then Duhigg gives powerful counter-examples where each of the above failed – in both cases it was high-stress situations (the playoffs/superbowl for the football team, times of major personal crisis/loss for the alcoholics). Duhigg then comes in with the “secret ingredient” which was not explicit in the 3-step loop: belief. 

Duhigg doesn’t make it all seem easy, which is good. He first discusses the difficulty of identifying the cue, which can be subconscious in the case of many habits (Duhigg uses a brief but memorable example of an extreme fingernail chewer). Then, he discusses how it can also be difficult to identify the actual reward (e.g. with alcoholics, it is rarely the physical effects of alcohol, but a certain feeling). Only once these are properly identified can a new routine begin to replace the bad habit.

And of course, the belief part may be the most difficult. Duhigg quotes Lee Ann Kaskutas of the Alcohol Research Group:

There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People may be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.

I like that Duhigg takes the time to mention that while the process of habit change is easily described, it is not always easily accomplished. I wish that this was not relegated to a footnote, though.

The Power of Habit: The Craving Brain

The second chapter in The Power of Habit starts out talking about Pepsodent toothpaste, and how Claude Hopkins was credited as a genius marketer for making the product a staple at a time when very few Americans brushed their teeth at all. Hopkins created ads that said “run your tongue across your teeth – you’ll feel a film that makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.” This created a simple and obvious cue, and provided a simple routine that people could follow with a reward that they valued (beauty). Duhigg then stops and says that while this two-step process of finding a cue and promising a reward seems to be a simple, effective recipe, Hopkins did not know that there was a third step that was really driving consumer behavior.

Duhigg then brings up a discussion of how Proctor and Gamble struggled in its initial attempts to market Febreze. While testing showed that consumers loved the product and its results, after some time it ended up sitting in the back of their closets. Consumers who had obvious pet odors in their house were not using it, because they had become habituated to the smells and did not notice them. There was a struggle for the marketers of Febreze – how do you build a habit when there is no cue to trigger use of the product, and those who need it most don’t appreciate the reward?

The solution is, of course, that missing third step that Duhigg mentioned earlier – creating a craving. Duhigg shares studies on the brainwaves of monkeys that show that once a routine becomes habit, the brain starts anticipating the reward even before it comes. Going back and looking at consumers who used Febreze, the marketers found that those who used it at the end of the cleaning cycle were basically using the spritz as a signal of accomplishment for having made a bed, cleaned a room, etc. The marketers further noted that making things scentless was not most people’s desire – instead they wanted a nice clean fresh scent. So they went back and added some scent to the product, marketed Febreze as the final step in the cleaning process, and watched as Febreze finally started selling. Consumers felt like their house wasn’t really clean without that fresh scent at the end.

Duhigg then returns to the Pepsodent example and explains that the difference between Pepsodent and other toothpastes wasn’t the ability to remove the natural film that develops on the teeth, but a citrus ingredient that made the mouth tingle. It was that tingle that consumers respond to, and even though it has nothing to do with cleaning the teeth, you will find it in all toothpastes on the market today because consumers unconsciously associate that feeling with an idea that the product is working.

The Power of Habit – The Habit Loop

Chapter 1 in Duhigg’s book is The Habit Loop: How Habits Work. It starts with the case of EP, who in 1993 lost a portion of his brain to viral encephalitis. EP was not able to recall anything recent, but his long-term memory seemed to be unaffected. His wife was told she would need to keep a close eye on him, as he would not remember that he had amnesia and his home would seem unfamiliar. However, researchers found that he would regularly take walks and find his way home without any problems, despite not being able to verbalize how to do so: “…the visitor asked Eugene where he lived. ‘I don’t know, exactly,’ he said. Then he walked up his sidewalk, opened his front door…”

Researchers hypothesized that this ability to form habits had somethign to do with the basal ganglia, and studies on rats seemed to show that the basal ganglia was central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The brain essentially looks for cues at the beginning of a routine task, then when it recognizes a cue it goes on a sort of auto-pilot as the routine takes over, and finally there is a reward once the task is completed successfully. This cue-routine-reward process is what Duhigg calls The Habit Loop.

The reason the habit loop is important is precisely because the brain shuts down during the routine. So once a habit is formed, unless you deliberately fight it, the pattern will unfold automatically.

Research shows that these routines and habits never really go away – even if we replace them with something else for a long period of time. This can be positive, like the way you never forget how to ride a bicycle. But it also highlights the difficulty of breaking bad habits when repeatedly exposed to the same old cues. The key, then, is to be very conscious of the cues and rewards if we want to change routines.

The Power of Habit – prologue

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg starts with a prologue that focuses on a woman named Lisa. She had turned around many negative aspects of her life (losing weight, quitting smoking, advancing professionally) and scientists were studying how she had made these major changes successfully, in a relatively short time. They honed in on her decision to quit smoking as a “keystone habit” that taught her how to reprogram other routines in her life as well.

With this dramatic example, Duhigg lays out the structure of the book and turns to a similarly compelling example that shows how habits can play a major role in organizational and social change as well. His example is from a military officer in Iraq who managed to reduce violence by examining habits and removing the presence of food vendors.

Certainly a compelling introduction – I’m cautiously optimistic about reading the rest of this.