Charles Duhigg book probes what drives habits

Sunday , May 20, 2012 - 7:34 AM

Lisa Mclendon

"THE POWER OF HABIT: WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO IN LIFE AND BUSINESS." By Charles Duhigg. Random House. $28.

The cue: The "thwack" of the Sunday newspaper hitting the driveway.

The routine: Reading the latest news, sports, editorials, and, of course, book reviews.

The reward: Feeling more informed, enlightened and entertained.

This is an example of a "habit loop," which is explained early in New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg's fascinating book "The Power of Habit." The habit loop, whether or not we realize it's there, is why our routines become so ingrained, so automatic -- and so hard to change.

"Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort," Duhigg explains. "Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often."

Duhigg pulls together both anecdotal and large-scale studies in neurology and psychology and ties them in with consumer behaviors, the successes of a football team and global businesses, people who kick addictions, and large-scale social movements. He details the research behind habit change and the results of people and entities that have tried to change habits. And he writes it all clearly and with flair -- making complicated research accessible and interesting.

The book is divided into three sections, discussing the habits of individuals, the habits of successful organizations, and the habits of societies.

Individual habits are particularly interesting to people in advertising: An early-20th-century ad man, Claude Hopkins, figured out how to sell Pepsodent toothpaste by cueing people to routinely get rid of the "film" on their teeth by brushing, with their reward being a lovely, film-free smile. Decades later, an ad team discovered that getting people to use Febreze as part of their cleaning routine -- with the fresh scent being the reward -- was far more effective at boosting sales than touting the product's ability to banish bad smells.

Organizational habits are trickier since there are numerous people with multiple, often competing, interests involved. Shaky truces between competing factions can provide superficial stability but mask dangers, as illustrated by the 1987 fire in the London Underground: Too many departments had their own rules, and each department's workers were not ever to do anything that was another department's responsibility. So when the fire struck, workers did nothing that wasn't their department. In the end, 31 people were killed in the fire, which spurred a massive reorganization of the whole transit system.

Smart leaders know, Duhigg explains, that "during turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it's worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down."

Social habits are complicated too, but in a different way: Social ties are strong and influential, and can have a cumulative effect, which is how the arrest of a single person -- Rosa Parks, who was not the first person to be arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat but was the most socially connected -- sparked a full-blown movement.

The book is full of compelling examples: How Tony Dungy turned the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers into a winning team by drilling players' basic habits. How Paul O'Neill revived a flagging Alcoa through safety initiatives. How Target can tell which customers are pregnant -- and how it doesn't creep them out by letting them know that they know (by mixing lawn mower ads in with the diaper coupons). And how to get people to like a song they think they hate.

All this is not to say that we are slaves to our habits. Duhigg makes that clear as well: We can change habits, but it takes desire and effort, and the bad habits are simply "overwritten," not eliminated. Let's keep the good habits, though -- like reading the Sunday paper.

-- Lisa McLendon

McClatchy Newspapers

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