Tag Archives: habit

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…


The power of a crisis to instigate habit change

Chapter 6 of Duhigg’s book talks about the role crisis can play in instigating habit change. But first he explains the research of Nelson and Winter, who wrote about institutional habits as truces between warring factions within organizations. Duhigg says “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.”

Duhigg uses the examples of rampant medical errors and a major transit safety incident, which underscores his point: “Sometimes one priority – or one department or one person or one goal – needs to overshadow everything else, though it might be unpopular or threaten the balance of power that keeps trains running on time.”

Crisis brings this into sharp focus. Crisis brings a turmoil in which habits are more malleable and the sense that something must be done. It is easier to institute change and form new habits and routines in a crisis our its immediate aftermath.

While Duhigg emphasizes this for organizational leaders, it seems relevant to the individual as well. When we feel we are in crisis, out is easy to say “I can’t take on new changes during this time of chaos.” But maybe that’s actually the best time to make a change because we see the need and are open to it.

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.

Habitual Writing

Obviously this site has languished for some time, for pretty typical reasons: tumblr, twitter, lack of firm commmitment, etc. I’ve thought of reviving this blog as a place for longer-form, more thought out pieces of writing many times, and even have some draft posts to attest to that intention.

But intentions are not action, and I think the length of non-posting has contributed to additional non-posting. And the longer I hop from service to service for things like link-sharing, discovery and saving, the more I see a need for a central place that I control to save info. Because a lot of these services have already come and gone (or gone from freemium to premium) since I last posted in early 2009.

So I’m going to try posting something here daily in March and April. I’m in a new book club that is reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit for March, so I expect that a number of posts will have that as a topic. I typically dislike business and/or self-help books, but a good friend recommended this one, and habit and automaticity are things that I’ve been exploring quite a bit the past several years.

I’ll clost this post with a quote from Fred Wilson that I keep on my bulletin board at work: “I am not an organized person. But I am a disciplined person. My routine is the key to me getting things done.”