Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business

Book Review: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business – by Charles Duhigg (Random House 2012, 2014 – Kindle Ed)

This is a very readable and potentially a very practical book that makes a great attempt to understand the formation of habits and offers real advice for changing habits. How habits form and change are demonstrated through examples and stories. It is a very readable book that flows well. Duhigg is a NY Times journalist.

The book begins with the story of a woman who was able to radically change her habits and scientists that were studying her habit-changing ability. She was able to divorce, quit smoking, lose sixty pounds, run a marathon, travel to distant lands, buy a home, and work on a master’s degree in a few short years. She and several other subjects were part of a NIH study of habit change. The neurologists apparently noticed changes in her brain. They could apparently detect the brain activity stemming from her old habits.  The impetus was that she was able to change a “keystone habit,” in this case smoking, which apparently taught her to reprogram other habits in her life as well. The scientists wanted to know how a decision to change a habit becomes automatic.

William James noted that all our life “is but a mass of habits.” Most of our choices are dictated by habit. The book here is based on academic research, hundreds of interviews with scientists and professionals, research from various companies, and case studies. The author’s interest in habits began while he was a newspaper reporter in Baghdad, noticing the well-honed habits of the U.S. armed forces. He heard of a major that had determined that the riots in the town of Kufa were prompted by gatherings in the town square and was able to avert future ones by getting the mayor to make it so no food was sold in the square. The major noted that understanding habits was the most important thing he learned in the army.

There is the story of Eugene, a man who was brain damaged by viral encephalitis. The disease destroyed nearly all of the medial temporal lobe of his brain. He recovered but developed severe memory lapses. He could not retain information. However, the power of his habits was not altered and that became apparent through his actions. Though he could remember things about his early life and early developed habits, he could not retain information. He could not recall that he had amnesia. He often repeated the same story or comments multiple times.

Neuroscientists have documented that when people (or rats) are learning a new task their mental activity increases (particularly in the basal ganglia). When the task is learned the mental activity decreases. The task became automated and energy is conserved. Apparently, the basal ganglia can store habits so that less choices need to be made, thus automating tasks and conserving energy. Thus, habits conserve energy and so are useful in a metabolic sense. Conserving brain energy through habit can be tricky if the automated habit state is turned on at the wrong time so it has been delegated to certain tasks. Danger overrides it in other tasks and situations that we have evolved to deal with in different ways.

MIT researchers discovered by comparing levels of brain activation when performing tasks with goals, that there is a process that leads to formation of habits that includes automating functions to conserve energy. They defined the habit loop as a sequence of cue-routine-reward. When a task is first done the brain activation levels are different than when the task has been learned. By then certain functions have been automated through the habit loop. It seems not at all dissimilar from what trance researchers call a trance loop. Indeed a habit and a trance can be one and the same. Through repetition the cue-routine-reward sequence becomes more and more automatic. This can be accompanied by anticipation and craving. Decision-making reverts from the brain to the habit-loop. Experiments with rats have shown that old habits even after being replaced typically can re-emerge under the right conditions. They don’t seem to disappear. Habitual effortless decisions make life more automatic but also easier as it takes energy to make choices, say neuroscientists. The habit loop seems to activate the basal ganglia – which makes sense since damage to the basal ganglia can result in an inability to make decisions or to experience emotions. Eugene had no damage to his basal ganglia and so was able to form strong habit loops that enabled him to navigate on walks and pick things in memory tests but he wasn’t really remembering. He was following the habit loops. We make unconscious decisions through habit.

All three factors: cue, routine, and reward, can be quite variable. They can be beyond our permission or conscious control or they can be deliberately planned. He notes that habits, though quite powerful, are also delicate: “By learning to observe the cues and rewards, though, we can change the routines.”
Creating new habits can involve advertisements, as advertising executive Claude Hopkins demonstrated with his Pepsodent ads. He successfully marketed many brand name products and wrote about it in his book My Life in Advertising. Hopkins is known for his rules of advertising in marketing textbooks. His Pepsodent success involved creating a craving for the product and such a craving is apparently what makes cues and rewards work. He needed a trigger or cue to sell the product and found one in tooth film. The routine was brushing of the teeth with the toothpaste and the reward was the Pepsodent smile, symbolic of beauty. Since there was a sort of epidemic of tooth decay at the time due to people eating more sugar, it was apt. Before Pepsodent only about 7% of Americans kept toothpaste. After it about 65% were using it and it began to be used worldwide. Part of the reward was the tingling sensation of the toothpaste that people began to associate with clean teeth. They began to crave that sensation of cleanliness. It was a signal that consumers could identify with. Brushing one’s teeth became a daily ritual.

Next he goes through Proctor & Gamble’s marketing of the deodorizer Febreze in the late 1990’s. The product worked at making bad smells go away but at first was a dud in sales. The problem was that people become de-sensitized to bad smells like animals and cigarettes if they are around them often. Then they forgot about the Febreze. They needed to anticipate the reward through developing some sort of craving for it, reasoned psychologists. Craving drives the habit loop. There is expectation of the reward. The cue triggers both a routine and a craving. After analyzing tapes of people cleaning the P & G execs noted that some sprayed Febreze at the end of cleaning as a sort of reward for getting the job done. So they decided to market it as a “finishing touch” to cleaning rather than as a simple way to mask smells and they added a scent as well. It was a success and air fresheners were in.  

Next is the story of NFL football coach Tony Dungy. His coaching philosophy involved changing the habits of the players, getting them to react automatically so they can act fast, gaining milliseconds advantage over the other team. He utilized the golden rule of habit change: that cues and rewards are hard to change but if you want to transform an old habit you can change only the routine, keeping the same cue and reward. This has worked for many destructive and unhealthy behaviors, including alcoholism and obesity.

Thirty-nine year-old alcoholic Bill Wilson took his first drink in an officers training camp before his tour in World War I. One day in the mid 1930’s he invited a friend over and fixed him a drink. The friend declined saying he had been sober for a few months. Wilson had tried detox and pills to quit. His friend quit by “getting religion.” Soon Wilson checked in to rehab. After withdrawal agonies he had an ecstatic experience and never drank again. After that experience he started Alcoholics Anonymous. The famed 12-step program is what Duhigg describes as a machine to change habit loops. He wrote the 12-steps quickly one night lying in bed. They were not designed scientifically but some numbers were chosen at random (like 90 mtgs in 90 days). While seven of the twelve steps mention God, Wilson was at one time agnostic and he disliked organized religion his entire life. Academics acknowledged AA’s success but many thought it more like a cult but now there are new explanations:

“Researchers say that AA works because the program forces people to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their alcoholic habits, and then helps them to find new behaviors.”

In order to follow some of the steps a person needs to identify trigger (cues) for their behavior. Then they search for the rewards and what it is they crave through drinking. New routines are replaced for old. AA meetings replace social drinking gatherings such as attending a bar. 

The MIT researchers discovered the habit loop by noting signals in basal ganglia of animal brains. In 2007 German neurologist Ulf Mueller inserted electrodes into the basal ganglias of five hard-core alcoholics. Turning the electricity on reduced the cravings but they returned when the electrodes were switched off. The effect was only temporary. Methods like the AA routines actually switch responses to the various stresses.

Researchers use a technique called ‘awareness training’ to scan for triggers to habitual behaviors. This is simply a way to find the cues. It is the first step in “habit reversal training.” The author describes a habitual nail biter who was given the awareness training assignment of making a note on an index card every time she felt a craving to bite her nails. She then became acutely aware of the trigger, boredom. Next the therapist assigned her a “competing response” which is simply an assignment to do some other behavior when the trigger and associated craving occurred. After initial success she rewarded herself with a manicure. After a month the habit was gone as the competing routines had become automatic. Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training sees it as simple reprogramming. The first step is to understand our cravings and triggers by consciously looking for them. Next is to identify the rewards. Then the routine can be changed. Coach Tony Dungy’s goal was to change the routines of his players. In order to do this he had to identify various triggers of different players by observing them and then teach them to do the same with what’s going on in the game – to get the players to react automatically to cues given by the players of the other team, thus giving them the microseconds advantage. This psychological training took some time to work. The team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, lost early games, but in his second season as coach there, they won many games and went to the play-offs. They would get to the Super Bowl twice and lose. Then Dungy was fired. But they won the Super Bowl the next year still utilizing Dungy’s techniques and habits that were instilled. Simple habit replacement can only go so far in changing habits permanently. Another factor, belief, is often needed to counter more powerful triggers. Religious belief or the “higher power” invoked in AA is the usual form of belief but it can also be simple belief in one’s ability to succeed. Belief seems to cement a reworked habit loop into a permanent change. Belief, as part of the process in AA, helps to train newbies about its effectiveness – by seeing it work for others. Belief is easier to embrace in a community setting. Dungy moved on to coaching the Indianapolis Colts. In 2005 they lost in the playoffs. A few days before the loss Dungy’s son committed suicide. Perhaps the tragedy brought the team closer together and they began to believe more in Dungy’s techniques of habit replacement. The next year, 2006, they won the Super Bowl. Belief cemented their habit replacement.

Next he tells the story of Paul O’Neil, a government bureaucrat hired to be the new CEO of Alcoa Aluminum Company in 1987. He would later be treasury secretary in the GW Bush administration for a few years. He was adept at analyzing organizational habits. He had a new idea for transforming the company – focus on changing one habit – safety. Turns out this was a “keystone” habit, one that would make it easier to change other habits. At first people thought he was nuts but soon the profitability of the company soared and the safety focus was also successful as a company once dangerous to work for became among the safest. Keystone habits are according to Duhigg:

“The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.”

As it turned out for O’Neil and Alcoa, changing safety habits involved changing work habits to the point where efficiency was maximized and chances for accidents were reduced as much as possible. It was a win-win. It turned out that focusing on safety allowed the company to focus on many aspects of worker productivity and process productivity.

Next is the story of Olympic swim champion Michael Phelps. His coach Bob Bowman noticed that Phelps had the body shape, musculature, and obsessiveness to make a good athlete. Bowman believed that creating the right routines and mind-set would make a successful athlete. He trained Phelps with various habits, mostly mental ones. Such habit transformation, often of keystone habits, created what are called “small wins.” “Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.” He gives as evidence of the power of small wins, the reclassifying in the 1970’s of library books about homosexuality from “Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes” to “Homosexuality, Lesbianism – Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement.” This small win by early Gay Rights organizations, led to the reclassification of homosexuality from an illness to an acceptable practice.

Duhigg also notes that: “keystone habits encourage change: by creating structures that help other habits flourish.” Keeping records is one way to understand the cues, routines, and rewards of the habit loop. One example is food journaling which has been shown to be associated with successful dieting. Like O’Neil’s safety it is seen as a keystone habit. O’Neil’s safety focus required constant communication between people at the company. The communication network was just before emailing became popular and led to company advantages and improvements. Keystone habits are likely involved in military training where they help to keep the necessary discipline. 

Next is the story of Travis, a child of addicts that moved away to work jobs at 16. He had trouble holding jobs because he would get upset and not be able to control his emotions and get fired. He started working at Starbucks and benefiting from the life skills taught through Starbucks’ training courses. The course focuses on developing willpower as a habit, which may be the most important keystone habit for success. Studies have shown (including the famed Marshmallow Test) that self-discipline is better than intellectual talent (IQ) in predicting academic performance.  Delaying gratification for a better future gratification is a prime example of changing a routine to get a reward. Other studies have shown that willpower is not really a skill, but a muscle, basically a habit. As such it can be trained. Training or discipline helps us learn how to succeed at our goals. Starbucks’ goal was to turn self-discipline into an organizational habit. One study showed that elder patients rehabilitating from hip and knee replacement surgeries were better able to keep up their necessary exercise schedules when writing out simple plans – doing this created a willpower habit loop which got them through difficulties, known as “inflection points.” Similarly, Starbucks employees could overcome such inflection points when they develop institutional habits. A Starbucks method (routine) for dealing with an angry customer (cue) is known as the LATTE method: “We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.” Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz who left in 2000 and returned in 2008 wrote many of the new training routines. Willpower and self-confidence became employee goals.  Other studies have shown that a sense of control, autonomy, or choice is important in developing will power. Self-confidence is an aid to developing willpower. 

The author also talks about destructive organizational habits giving the example of a Rhode Island hospital were a “corrosive culture” led to too many avoidable medical mistakes.  He thinks deliberately cultivated healthy organizational habits are much preferable to unplanned ones deriving from rivalries and fear. He mentions a book lauded by business leaders and CEOs, first published in 1982 called Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change by Yale professors Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter which noted that companies are guided by organizational habits. They noted that “routines reduce uncertainty” and organizational habits of a company can outlive employees, providing an organizational memory of sorts. Routines may also lead to truces between competing employees. Poor organizational habits, particularly poor communication, can lead to preventable errors and accidents. Poor safety habits can kill people. He gives the case of the King’s Crossing fire in the London Underground subway system where poor safety culture and departmental isolation led to 31 deaths. The author notes that crises and catastrophes are often the catalysts for useful changes in organizational behavior but such changes often depend on good leaders to manage them.

Companies can develop strategic business advantages when they can predict and manipulate the habits of potential customers, an important principle in advertising and marketing. Mining “Big Data” is now one way to find hidden advantage. Perhaps in big data can be found hidden consumer habits. He tells the story of Andrew Pole, a statistician who did marketing analysis for Target in the early 2000’s, and his and Target’s work in “demographic profiling,” a notion some find invasive but others are OK with it. The idea was to determine the demographic profile of a person by what they bought and then market things directly to them through ads and sales, kinda like Amazon’s suggestions. Such “mathematical mindreading” could determine, for instance, who was pregnant. Many companies now have “predictive analytics” departments. Along with Target’s targeting of demographics the author goes into the shady subjective science of predicting a hit song. Through some examples, including Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” he concludes that familiarity and song style are the big factors of songs that become hits among the pubic – Top 40. He notes that neurologically a preference for the familiar (in terms of listening habits) may be an evolutionary advantage – an ability to quickly attention-filter sounds. People will listen to a song even if they say they don’t like it if it is familiar, says the data. He calls this a ‘familiarity loop’ form of habit loop. He gives a few other examples of successful prediction through data analysis. 
Next he explores the American Civil Rights movement beginning with Rosa Parks staying put in her bus seat. He explores it as an example of the development of social habits. Social habits can create strong ties that can bring successful social movements, he suggests. Apparently Parks’ action sparked a protest movement, and not others who did the same thing in the same place (refusing to give up their bus seats), due to her respect in the community and her membership in many social groups. She was a member of charity groups and she had friends of all socio-economic classes. Her social connectedness was likely a catalyst to her action being able to spark the civil rights movement. Her friend, white lawyer Clifford Durr had been looking for a chance to challenge the Montgomery bus segregation law and here he had one. Through Rosa’s social network a boycott of blacks on buses was organized and successfully carried out. The social habits of friendship lead to support of the friend. Wider support came from the social habit of obligation from the African American community. Such a sense of obligation from peer pressure is known as “the power of weak ties.” Weak ties can be just as powerful or moreso than close ties. Weak ties connect us to broader social networks. Boycotts are not easy to organize and successfully carry out. The bus boycott utilized flyers. The social habits of peer pressure often spread through weak ties, says Duhigg. The combination of weak ties and strong ties can power a broad social movement. Social habits present us with expected behaviors that we tend to do. Like in AA, Montgomery’s black community learned new behaviors and eventually the behavior of non-violent resistance that would become the hallmark of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King fostered it, knowing the success of Gandhi.
Next he tells the story of Baptist pastor Rick Warren who developed his congregation in California first through weak ties then through strong ties. He created teaching curriculums that were designed to build habits among parishioners. Social habits can help self-propel social movements.
He also tells the story of compulsive gambler Angie Bachman who became a slave to the gambling habit and bankrupt her whole family. Is she a victim or a perpetrator? He also tells about a habitual sleepwalker that actually killed his beloved wife while sleepwalking, a horrible tragedy. Apparently, there is a distinction from sleepwalking called “sleep terrors” in which most of the brain is shut down. Brain patterns during these sleep terrors are very similar to the brains of people undergoing habitual action through the habit loop, MIT researchers found. They are primal habits, like fight or flight responses. Unconscious rape, murder, and suicide by jumping off of buildings to flee have been documented as sleep terrors. The man who killed his wife was acquitted but what about Angie Bachman? Should she be vilified as a gambling addict or is her automatic habitual behavior more her own fault? The casino’s she gambled in tracked and manipulated her behavior. Are they at fault too? The casinos made it easier for her to lose more and more money by offering her many perks and making it easier for her to gamble. Pathological gamblers show different brain activations than other people. The areas affected are the same affected by habits – the basal ganglia and brain stem. Apparently, to pathological gamblers near misses look like wins and are neurologically regarded as such. Medications can also affect those areas of the brain and be implicated in habit changing and development of obsessive behaviors, causing people to obsessively shop, bet, eat, and masturbate. Medications for Parkinson’s disease are implicated.

Apparently, at age 28, William James thought he was failing in life and contemplated suicide. However, he decided to do an experiment – act as if he had control over his life and destiny, really believe it – for a year, to see if it would help. He decided he would believe in free will. James would later write that the will to believe is the key ingredient in creating belief in change. Belief is a key ingredient in creating habits. James in his Principles of Psychology, noted that water is the most apt analogy for how a habit works:

It “hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, along the path traced by itself before.”

In this second edition of the book Duhigg gives some correspondences with readers who have written him with their results of applying the principles successfully. The appendix is a reader’s guide to using the ideas: Step 1: identifying the routine; Step 2: experiment with rewards; Step 3: isolate the cue; Step 4: have a plan. He gives an example of his own of trying to change an afternoon snacking habit. Success involves being aware and being investigative and observant enough to discover the cues, routine, and rewards. It also involves taking notes (remembering) and carrying out plans and exploring new routines and rewards.

This is a worthwhile and potentially practical book that was engaging to read.

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