Understanding the science of habits

2012-03-26 00:00

UNDERSTANDING habits can help people radically transform their lives and companies boost their profits, Charles Duhigg, an award-winning investigative reporter with the New York Times, argues in his new book.

T he Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business examines­ daily life within a matrix of oft-overlooked habits which account for more than 40% of the actions people­ performed daily, according to one study he cites.

The study looked at everything from Procter & Gamble’s marketing of Febreze odour freshener to how a down-and-out chronic smoker re-tooled her habits and became a fit, successful professional.

“Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not,” Duhigg writes. “They’re habits.”

What is the key to changing habits? Understanding the habit loop, Duhigg says. This three-step process consists of a cue, or trigger (for example­, you awake), a routine (you shower), and a reward (you feel clean and alert).

“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making,” he writes.

Understanding this loop, Duhigg says, is what helped advertising man Claude Hopkins transform Pepsodent­ toothpaste into “one of the best-known products on earth” in the first half of the 20th century.

Hopkins’s adverts in the thirties exploited tooth film — a naturally occurring coating on teeth that everyone gets — as a trigger, with brushing as the routine and a more beautiful smile as the reward. Pepsodent spiced up the reward with citric acid, mint oils and other chemicals to enhance the cool, tingling taste, Duhigg says. Bingo. The power of habit at work.

In a similar vein, some makers of sunscreen products today are trying to provide a tingling sensation to affect­ a similarly rewarding sensation, he says.

Changing the middle part of the loop, the routine, is one key to changing habits. This helps explain the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, Duhigg says.

AA addresses triggers for drinking with different routines, such as attending meetings or speaking to a sponsor, while providing similar rewards, such as companionship or relaxation (since intoxication is often the least rewarding part of drinking for alcoholics, he says).

“Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amne- siacs­ and organisational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function,” Duhigg writes. “However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it.”

Duhigg says that he first became interested in the science of habits eight years ago, as a reporter in Iraq. There, he discovered an American officer in the small city of Kufa conducting an impromptu habit-modification programme — after analysing videotapes of riots forming, he had asked the mayor to keep food vendors out of plazas to deprive potential rioters of dinner.

“People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found,” Duhigg says of one tense afternoon. “The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 pm everyone was gone.”

Some examples in The Power of Habit can seem a bit strained or maddeningly obvious. In a discussion on popular music, Duhigg ties some research showing that our brains are attracted to familiar music with radio deejays sandwiching new songs between familiar hits. On other occasions, comparing cases like a woman who gambled her life away with a man acquitted of murdering his wife during a sleep terror, Duhigg can seem like he’s stretching his points.

But the book’s description of the ripple effect new habits can start is telling.

Duhigg says that aluminum company Alcoa’s profits hit record highs under future U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s leadership thanks to his obsessive focus on one set of habits­ — worker safety.

That created, he writes, a virtuous loop within the whole vast company — unions embraced measuring individual productivity since it helped determine­ when the manufacturing process was posing safety risks, managers­ endorsed workers’ autonomy­ to stop production lines when they became overwhelming because it was the best way to stop injuries before they occurred. And so on.

“Almost everything about the company­’s rigid hierarchy had to change to accommodate O’Neill’s safety programme,” Duhigg writes. “He was building new corporate habits­.”

— Reuters.

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