In many ways, habits define us – the routes we take to work; the things we eat, drink, or inhale; the ways we interact with others. But a bad habit is one of the hardest things to get rid of, no matter how much we may want to change. Thus, Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit promises to appeal to people (like me) who read self-help books, non-fiction, and books about psychology or medicine.
At this point, it’s best to use Duhigg’s own words to explain how habits work. Here’s an excerpt from his fascinating piece in the New York Times, which was in turn what spurred me to read the book:
The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.
In the book, Duhigg reviews behavioural psychology research and analyzes individuals, corporations, and social networks that have used the principals of habit formation to their own advantage. However, while this approach is fascinating, it does have its flaws.
For one thing, it takes some stretching to fit several of the case studies into the three-step model at the centre of the book. Showing how Target analyzes shopping habits to improve sales and take advantage of buyer psychology is one thing. Arguing that it was Rosa Parks’ social habits – her weak and strong connections across several layers of society – that galvanized Montgomery into organizing such a successful bus boycott is another thing entirely. Social interactions are much harder to boil down into the “habit loop” than the book implies.
The most successful sections deal with personal attempts to change habits, and corporate/institutional attempts to do the same. The chapter on Target – much of which is included in the NYT article above – is possibly the most engrossing yet simultaneously frightening thing I’ve read in a while. Things like Target’s “pregnancy prediction database” make you realize just how thoroughly we’re monitored every day.
Likewise, I appreciated the opening section that talked about Lisa, a woman who overcame multiple bad habits – poor diet, lack of exercise, financial irresponsibility – and turned her life around completely through the simple act of setting one goal for the future.
But it is precisely these two halves of the story that point to The Power of Habit’s biggest flaw. Was Duhigg trying to write a self-help book or a piece of long-form investigative journalism? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but the chapters are separated out to highlight this division. The prologue with Lisa’s story and the final chapter of the book sound like self-help writing, but the chapters on Target, radio stations, football teams, and Starbucks fit into the mold of other non-fiction books established by writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis.
It’s an interesting read, but it left me feeling strangely unsatisfied. Instead, try going with the New York Times article he wrote – it’s definitely got bang for the buck.
Up next: Among Others by Jo Walton