Don't break habits, transform them
In his breakthrough bestseller, The Power of Habit, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg uses science to pull back the curtain on some of our most mystifying behaviors—and reveals how we can change them.
When you get down to it, it seems like a lot of the time we're pretty oblivious about why we do the things we do! Why do you think this is?
When a habit takes hold, something interesting happens within our brain: activity moves from the prefrontal cortex (where decision-making occurs) to the basal ganglia (one of the oldest parts of the brain, where automatic patterns are stored). In a sense, we stop thinking when we're in the grip of a habit—and so as a result, it often feels like we're acting without realizing what is going on.
Yet that doesn't mean that these behaviors are out of our control. In the last 15 years, scientists have learned an enormous amount about how habits work. Once you understand how to take a habit apart, how to fiddle with its gears, you learn how to design behavioral patterns and take control of these automatic habits.
You say there are certain "keystone habits" that, if changed, can change a person's life. How do you identify these habits?
Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate. They start a process that, over time, transforms everything. Identifying keystone habits, however, is tricky. Most keystone habits create daily victories—what are known within psychology as the “science of small wins.” So to identify the keystone habits in your life, look for those patterns that give you numerous, small senses of victory; places where momentum can start to build.
"No matter how old someone is, or how ingrained the behavior, it can be shifted once they start analyzing the cues and rewards."
You cite evidence that the brains of people who suffer from certain purportedly uncontrollable habits (e.g., gambling or alcoholism) differ from those who don't. Many people would likely say that our brains determine behavior, but to what extent do you think behavior can change the brain?
The brain is incredibly plastic—it is constantly changing as we expose ourselves to different stimuli and engage in different behaviors. One of the things that we've learned from laboratory experiments is that no habit is destiny. Every behavioral pattern can be changed. No matter how old someone is, or how ingrained the behavior, it can be shifted once they start analyzing the cues and rewards. And once we start behaving differently, our brains start to shift.
Your book explains how companies have used insight into the ways habits work to exploit target markets. Is awareness of things like Target's couponing strategies enough, or are there other techniques shoppers can use in order to make sure they're only buying what they need/want?
I don't know if awareness is sufficient protection, but it's a great place to start. One of the defenses that companies offer is that by studying habits, they can anticipate their customers' needs better. Indeed, when I was reporting on Target's use of habit studies to predict which customers were pregnant, my wife and I were expecting our second child. Lo and behold, we started receiving coupons for diapers and formula and a crib. And I was overjoyed: I really needed a crib! It was great to get a coupon that was so useful!
So, awareness is a great defense—but so is appreciating the usefulness of companies understanding our habits. From one perspective, it might be an invasion of privacy. From another, it’s helping me get the coupons I need at just the right time.