The Power of Habit.
Spoiler Saturdays

The Power of Habit.

In college, I needed an excuse to study people and their behaviors so I minored in sociology. Now, I read books like The Power of Habit and go, “That’s fascinating” in the nerd voice that lives inside my head. I immediately knew I would like this book when it started to remind me of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I enjoyed reading Tipping Point and David and Goliath because Gladwell makes points about behavior by sharing actual stories. I neither enjoyed psychology nor history, but somehow marrying the two with social patterns makes it all interesting. Now let me convince you.

Consider the story of Eugene. Something happened to Eugene and he lost his memory (coincidentally, I can’t remember what happened to his memory). He could remember everything up until he turned 50, but all memories beyond that age came and went 50 First Dates style. The book illustrates this beautifully by describing the conversations he has with people. He would look at a computer and make a remark about how he used to work in technology and how computers used to take up a whole room. Then, he would pause and look at the computer and make the same remark about how he used to work in technology and how computers used to take up a whole room. A few moments later, he would look at the computer and make the same remark about he used to work in technology and how computers used to take up a whole room. (I have to admit, I would have hidden the computer after the second time.) You would think this is a guy that can’t find his way around his new house, let alone the neighborhood, but you would be wrong! After completing the routine of going about his home and his neighborhood, he could eventually navigate both unattended. Unfortunately, if you asked him how to get to his kitchen, he still wouldn’t be able to tell you. Apparently, habits can drive behavior even when memory is on holiday. Fascinating, right?!

The book uses this and many other stories to describe the process by which habits are created. First, something cues the behavior. For example, around 3’o clock the author would crave chocolate. Then, the routine occurs. The author would go get chocolate. Finally, there would be a reward. The author would eat the chocolate. Me and the author have much in common.

I learned a little about basal ganglia and parts of the brain, and our inability to differentiate between good and bad habits, but our ability to delegate actions to habits to minimize the amount of effort we exert making decisions. But that’s not as fun as the stories. The stories will change the way I feel about certain products, companies, sports, and people for years to come.

Here are the highlights:

  • Shampoo and soap don’t need to foam, but out of habit, we expect it to and feel that it is less effective if it doesn’t.
  • Febreze was not a success in the smelly houses, because people whose houses smell often don’t notice the fact their house stinks. There’s no cue. Febreze became popular among people who simply enjoyed freshening their home.
  • Tony Dungy spurred the Buccaneers and Colts to Football stardom by teaching them to react habitually. Instead of wasting precious seconds deciding where to move, they learned who to tackle before the QB even knew he was passing the ball to them.
  • The key to Alcoholics Anonymous’ success is faith, but not in the way you’d think. The community provided by AA helps bolster the belief that others can live without alcohol. Belief can be a key element in changing a habit.
  • One ALCOA CEO used a single keystone habit to drive profits for the company. The habit was having a great safety rating. The results trickled down to improved efficiency, communication, and manufacturing.
  • Bad habits can go horribly wrong. In a hospital where the doctors berate nurses for questioning them, costly mistakes can (and did) happen, like cutting in the wrong half of a patient’s brain to remove a hematoma.
  • Target predicts shoppers’ habits using algorithms that are so powerful they can predict whether you’re pregnant and how far along you are. One father got huffy at Target for sending his teenage daughter ads for baby items. Target knew what was up before he did.
  • To promote the song, Hey ya!, radio stations played it between “sticky” songs, songs that sounded familiar and didn’t incline listeners to change the channel. Habitually, we tend to ignore what’s unfamiliar.
  • The Civil Rights movement was propelled by social habits. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first person to refuse to give up her seat. She wasn’t even the first person to refuse in Montgomery that year. But she was the first person with strong enough community ties to spur widespread outrage and support. Additionally, out of habit, pressure from acquaintances can drive us to act. When a newspaper posted that all blacks in Montgomery would be participating in a bus boycott one Monday, all blacks assumed that was what everybody else was doing.

Looking at this list, I’m impressed at the number of unique examples of habits in action the author was able to draw from. He winds the book down with a brilliant conclusion that answers directly to the title. What is the difference between a man who is acquitted of killing his wife during a sleep terror (when his mind is not conscious) and a woman is held accountable for gambling away all of her family’s money? The woman was aware of her habit, therefore, she had the power and the responsibility to change it. If you want to do the same, you can follow this three step process:

  1. Identify the cue, routine, and reward for a habit you want to change.
  2. Experiment with other rewards.
  3. Log the location, time, emotional state, other people present, and immediately preceding action when the habit occurs. This can help you identify the cue.
  4. Apply an alternative routine and reward to the cue.

This book was both creepy and inspriational. The creep factor is especially high with Target and other companies who know my entire life and manipulate my habits to their financial advantage. But it also seems very possible to create a lots and lots of positive habits in my life simply by changing one keystone habit. Change is good.

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