Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mind and Spirit –> “The Power Of Habit”


Charles Duhigg has written a book about habits. Duhigg is a science writer for the New York Times, and in his best seller, “The Power of Habit,” he revisits foundational research that is shaping the way that we can interact with our world. The good is a good read, and well worth your time to find it. 

If you are a reader of this blog, you’ll know from a previous post that Wendy Woods has done some small research projects that indicate that we live 45% of our life in simple habits.  I personally believe that this is an underestimate because it doesn’t clearly capture how our non-habit activities are entered through our habits.

The title “The Power Of Habit” is a perfect summary of the book. 

Our lives are primarily lived by habit.  We do not have the time to think through all that we are doing.  Instead, most of our lives are stuck on auto-pilot.  This goes to all aspects of our lives, and the power of recognizing these habits in ourselves and in others can make the difference between having a life of success and one of failure.

Duhigg has divided his book into 3 main sections:

1. The Habit of Individuals

2. The Habits of Companies

3. The Habits of Societies

Now, Duhigg tries make some connections that I think are a bit tenuous, such as trying to say that Tony Dungy was able to capitalize on habits to put together winning football teams (and I would argue habits is something that all coaches instill in every player, and you only need to watch any sport match and listen to the commenter's talking about “they are over thinking it.”).  However, he also has some fascinating examples of how the formation of habits for individuals, companies and societies have locked in behavior.

While Duhigg brings up some new facts and ideas, a lot of what he writes about has been known for many years, and before we dig into his book, let’s look at a bit of history that helps underpin his book. What are some of the key building blocks of habit?

A lot of habit is a recap of what you should have learned in Psychology 101:  Operant and Classic Conditioning.

In Operant Conditioning, the subject is given a stimulus or a signal, then a behavior happens in response to this signal, then a reward or punishment happens.  Seems pretty simple, and this idea is the core of our civilization.  Punish what you don’t want, and reward what you do want.  It is important to remember that operant conditioning is different than, Classic Conditioning Response.  Pavlov’s dogs is the famous Classic Conditioning response that many people know from their college days.  In classic conditioning, the experimenter creates a connection between some type of an input (a bell ringing in Pavlov’s case) with food delivery, which always produced salivation by his dogs.  After a while, the dogs would salivate at the ringing of the bell, even without the food delivery.

Now Duhigg leaves out, for all practical purposes, the grandfather of this movement to understand how to apply these types of conditioning habits to change behavior.  This idea that behavior can be changes is called behaviorism.  Probably the most famous of the proponents of behaviorism is BF Skinner, out of Harvard.

I think that Duhigg knows strongly about behaviorism, but relabeling this and rebranding the behaviorism ideas as “habit” makes it much easy to present as new.  In reality, Duhigg simply dresses up behaviorism principles, but this is not bad, as behaviorism is an incredibly important branch of psychology to effect positive (or negative change).

The core of behaviorism is the A, B, C’s, which stand for Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence. 

Antecedent is a trigger or something that starts a cycle.  For instance, we plan antecedents into our life.  An alarm clock going off in the morning is something that we use in our own life to trigger a behavior in our life.  If you think about it, an alarm clock is much more than just waking us up in the morning.  The alarm clock is a trigger for a whole habit of getting up.  It is an antecedent by formal definition.  Once the antecedent has signaled, we go onto the behavior.  In our example, it means rolling out of bed, brushing our teeth, and eating breakfast (or whatever your morning routine is).

Finally, the consequence is the positive or negative reinforcement of the behavior.  Why does anybody have the series of behaviors triggered by the alarm clock?  Probably because it results in having a job, getting good grades, or some other positive consequence of the trigger.  If it wasn’t for these things, most people wouldn’t want a jarring alarm waking them up.  It is because of the ABCs that we do this antecedent, and many other antecedents.  The Duhigg cycle is much the same, only he labels it slightly differently.


In the picture to the side, you can see Duhigg’s cycle.  You get a stimulus (the cue or antecedent).  Then we create a response (the habit or behavior). Then finally we get a reinforcement (the reward or the consequence).  Once you are into a habit, the brain goes into auto pilot, and unless something breaks the cycle, you will continue to stay in this autopilot forever.

On a society level, we get into some very large habits, and all of society strives to reinforce them.  As an example, we mine data to identify the habits of individuals to understand what they will buy.  An example of this is Target, who has been mining users habits to find out what individuals are pregnant.  Having a baby is expensive, and if Target can target the couples that have children, it is worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars of revenue.  It turns out that Target can do this exceptionally well because there is a very clear set of buying habits once a woman is pregnant.  Target actually has to be a bit careful because they have identified pregnant individuals long before their friends and neighbors know.  So, not to look like the spy they are, they try and hide their ads to this group inside of mailers with other ads.  Nobody expects, unless they know, that they are getting a special mailer with more baby type offers inside of it.

Although he does not mention it, I believe the typewriter keyboard is an excellent example of the habit of a culture.  If you look at your keyboard, you will see that the keys are set in a QWERTY pattern.  The reason for this is that one of the earliest inventors of the typewriter, Christopher Latham Sholes, was looking for a method to keep his keys from jamming.  It was not built for speed, as having the “a,” which is  commonly used vowel, hidden under the left hand pinky obviously is not the best layout for anyone.  However, it was the source of the popular Remington #2 typewriter, which became very popular, and cemented QWERTY in the halls of habit.

This habit of a culture has a formal name:  it is known as the networking effect.  Once you get a standard habit going, everybody wants to jump on this habit because it allows them to be very productive.  Once a network of a habit is big enough, it is known as critical mass.  Most products in the world are either in some network, or they are trying to create the network so they can become popular.  Once the QWERTY keyboard started to take off, you could go to most places, and you could find this standard method of keying input.  Therefore, QWERTY has become the habit of the world.  And once habits are created, it is very difficult to change them.

Many years later, Dvorak came up with an alternative keyboard, and he convincingly showed typists to be many times faster.  (There is some dispute it this really true, but it was unchallenged.)  The problem with the Dvorak keyboard is that our culture was stuck in a habit, and no amount of promises could dislodge this hard core activity.  Once locked in, our brains turn off, and we are stuck.  The reason that the next time you sit done and type at a keyboard is due to a culture habit that you are stuck in.

Dvorak keyboard key layout

This goes to deeper discussion of how we make decisions, which is  currently a favorite area of thinking and thought for me of late.  We make decisions based on quick heuristics, such as the availability heuristic, thus creating idea that we have made a decision.  Once we have made the decision, then we are highly susceptible to rationalization for our decision.  Then combine this ability to rationalize our decision with our ability to sort through all the inputs and only take in the ones that we like (this is called confirmation bias), and we find out why we are stuck in a very deep rut.

For example, you would think that something as simple as the Dvorak keyboard would be easy to test, validate, and then make a clear call off.  However, it turns out that even this is a raging area of debate.  Although Dvorak himself did numerous tests, Earl Strong, of the GSA, decided that Dvorak’s ideas were bunk, and set up  test to prove that the Dvorak keyboard was no better than the QWERTY keyboard two decades after Dvorak was pushing his idea (1956).  The two sides of this argument is still being argued today, as in the 1990s Stan Liebowitz and Steve Margolis, a couple of economics guys, were pushing a paper where they were using the Strong work from 1956.  Now, it seems obvious to me that the right answer, 35 years after the fact, would be for Liebwitz and Margolis to try and do original research.  However, they like all of us, are not really looking for the truth, and they simply repeat the conflicting tests held by Earl Strong in 1956.  They are looking to confirm their already made up minds.  The opposite is true for the true Dvorak fans.  They ignore evidence to the contrary, and they don’t prove their point either.

While much of Duhigg’s book can be applied to more than just individuals, this blog, for the most part, focuses on mind, body and spirit.  So, in this light, we are most interested in how to change habits.  As humans, we have two things that we want to do:

1. Create new habits

2. Stop old habits

Duhigg points out that it is almost impossible to stop old habits.  What we can do is not stop the old habit, but we can change the old habit.  He calls this the “Golden Rules Of Habit Change.”  The thought process is that we will not be able to stop the cue part of our habits.  Therefore, you cannot stop this part.

Therefore, you either need to change the reward, which is not normally able to be stopped because it is an outcome, or you change the routine.  The routine is the easiest thing to change, and, therefore, it is the focus of the habit changes.

It is important to note that an individual might get “reward” and “routine” confused.  In his example in the book, he talks about a habit that he had picked up where he would get some food during the middle of the day (a cookie), and this routine was causing him to put on weight.  Normally, cookies would be thought of as a reward.  If you think about it, the cookie is not the reward.  The cookie is the routine to get to the reward.  The cookie would deliver a sense of satisfaction.  It turns out, as he dug into the habit, the cookie was not really what he was looking for.  He was looking for a break.  Therefore, he substituted a break in his routine, and this resulted in the same type of satisfaction. 

Again, Duhigg uses terminology to describe something which would be better described by the more classic terms operant and classical conditioning or the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence.  But when you look at habits with any set of words, you can still see how this cookie habit had formed.  What is interesting is that it turns out that he had developed a habit where he was getting up from his desk to get a break.  It was the break that gave him a relief from just constantly working, and it was this break that gave him a sense of relief.  However, the cookie got in the middle of this cycle, which is the classical conditioning piece.  Therefore, he associated the good feelings of the break with the cookie.  (In reality, I’m sure that the pleasure of the cookie’s good taste reinforces the feeling.)  The point, no matter what language you use, is the same.  Some times self-destructive (which is a strong word, but one that suits the subject) behavior is something that we’ve gotten into the habit about.

In the same way that Duhigg changed his habit, there are many habits that we can change also in our lives.  We simply need to step outside of ourselves an understand the triggers, the behaviors, and the consequences.  The book is fast and easy to read and will leave you with some great ideas.  I strongly suggest getting a copy on Amazon.

I hope you are in the reading habit.