From the days of William James, psychology has been fascinated by the notion of habit. What is it? Where does it come from? Perhaps, most importantly, how do we change it?While various psychologists over the years have taken a variety of approaches to changing habits, it’s only now with sophisticated brain imaging that we are starting to see the neurological impacts of habits, giving us new clues into how to change them.
While the elixir still eludes us, Charles Duhigg has brought us a few steps forward in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Habit, it turns out, is a funny thing in the brain. It seems almost impossible to eradicate. Even when a person creates a brand-new lifestyle, for example getting advanced education, successfully holding down a job, and training for a marathon, it turns out that scientists can still see the old habit pathways in the brain. Yet we know that neuroplasticity remains with us through our adult years. This begs the question, if our brains can change, then why is it so hard to erase bad habits?
The ModelDuhigg draws on the research from various disciplines – advertising, sports, addiction, religion and others – to create a model for how habits are formed. Essentially, we start with some sort of cue: a trigger from our senses that kicks off the habit. In response to the cue, a routine follows, which is the habit, an action that we mindlessly execute. This habit provides us with some sort of reward, which reinforces the habit. When we encounter that cue, we mindlessly embark on the habitual routine again and again.
There is, however, a driver that propels us forward, and that is a craving for something. Duhigg chronicles various habits that fulfill a craving for distraction, for stimulation, for a clean scent. Presumably, Seligman’s PERMA could fit in here. Habits could be brought about by a craving for positive emotions or accomplishment or relationships.How to Change a Habit
The brain likes habit because habits are low-energy. Duhigg demonstrates this with reference to neuro-imaging done of rats that run a maze over and over and over again. There is significant brain activity while the learning takes place, but once the habit has been instilled, the brain activity takes place only at the cue (e.g. the ‘click’ as the gate opens) and the reward (the chocolate at the end of the maze). As the rat becomes faster and faster in the maze, and the habit is more and more ingrained, the brain can rest more and use less energy. Habits are very efficient. When the maze is changed, and the old habits no longer work, the brain activity has to pick up again, using more energy.Armed with this knowledge, Duhigg crafts a series of experiments which he recounts with great humor trying to figure out how to break his habit of eating a cookie each day, a habit that has resulted in weight gain. As he explains in the book, he writes down the answers to a series of questions each day when he starts feeling the craving to get up from his work and go get that cookie. He identifies the routine, which is about the cookie. He experiments with different rewards, discovering that it is a social element he is craving, not hunger. He isolates the cue, discovering that it’s related to time of day. He then creates a plan using the same cue, and providing the same social reward but with a different routine.
Duhigg draws heavily on research from across different fields. He refers to Baumeister’s work on willpower and Duckworth’s work on grit. He also cites William James, Aristotle, and Walter Mischel, the man who performed the marshmallow study. What’s not to like?
Duhigg’s formula for changing habits reminds me heavily of Heidi Grant Halvorson’s use of “if… then…” statements to harness the brain’s power for seeking out contingencies and executing plans. Duhigg’s model is simple to understand, and makes a lot of sense. It could be very powerful, yet still requires work, mindfulness and some will power to get started.
Not Just Habits of Individuals
Duhigg didn’t stop after the first section of his book, “The Habits of Individuals”, even though it would have been a very fulfilling book if that was all he tackled.The second section is “The Habits of Successful Organizations.” Here Duhigg looks at companies like Starbucks and Target. In fact, an clip of Duhigg speaking on Target has been making the online viral rounds recently.
The third section is about “The Habits of Societies.” Duhigg discusses the habits of friendship that spurred the civil rights movement in the United States. He also debates the neurology of free will and whether society is right to condemn one sort of habit and yet to make allowances for another.
I found this to be a very thought-provoking book and an excellent read. It draws on research, weaving in an easily-digestible series of stories, much in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell or Freakonomics. Duhigg parses habits finely, realizing that the science is ever evolving and offering hope for even the worst nail-biters.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.
Baumeister, R. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Press.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Personality Processes and Individual Differences, 92 (6), p. 1087.
James, W. (1890). Habit. In Principles of Psychology.
Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.