Powr of Habit

It has long been our opinion that people don’t really change. Sure, you can present them with new stimuli or you can drop them into new situations and find they behave in ways they did not before. But that’s not really change. They are what they are, and any plan the relies upon them doing anything differently is, we have observed, pretty much doomed to fail.

You may say we are cynical. You would not be the first.

But this is why we were so interested in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. For habit, we believe, is central to our thesis. The reason people don’t change is because they are fundamentally creatures of habit. And, as Duhigg explains early in the book:

Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness. One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

Duhigg begins by identifying habit’s three core pieces– cue, routine and reward. There’s a thing that triggers your habit, there’s a thing you do, and then there’s the benefit you get by doing it. For example, we feel sluggish and want a rush of energy (cue), so we eat a chocolate cookie (routine), and the sugar in the cookie provides the rush we were seeking (reward).

Of course, we eat too many cookies and we get fat. Armed with Duhigg’s book, however, we can play with the elements of habit to eliminate that unintended consequence. Perhaps the rush of energy we desire could be provided by endorphins. So we could do some quick exercises to provide that rush. Or perhaps we could do something to get rid of the cue altogether. Like eating better earlier in the day, so we didn’t feel sluggish – thereby not triggering a need for a cookie, and eliminating the reward. See? Options.

But what makes The Power of Habit so fascinating is what Duhigg does once he has established that foundation. For almost like a composer who has established his initial theme, Duhigg spends the rest of the book stretching it and chopping it up and looking at it from this angle and that to understand the ramifications of what science is telling us about how our brains work.

He digs into famous medical cases of patients with uniquely damaged brains to understand why and how they acquire habits, despite having no memory of them (as contradictory as that sounds). Or the case of habitual gamblers and the culpability of multi-trillion dollar industries who use their cues to trigger habits that the casinos know will cause their downfall. Or of the habits of corporations, for as Duhigg writes:

It may seem like most organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision making, but that’s not really how companies operate at all. Instead, firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions. And these habits have more profound impacts than anyone previously understood.

And if habits can be corporate-wide, can they exist in other social organizations? And sure enough:

The reason why social habits have such influence is because at the root of many movements – be they large-scale revolutions or simple fluctuations in the churches people attend – is a three-part process that historians and sociologists say shows up again and again: A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.

All of which makes Duhigg’s book not only fascinating, but extremely valuable to humans and the marketers who advertise to them.

For humans the value is freedom. For there is nothing more enslaving than a habit that you know is destroying you. It makes you feel hopeless and helpless and worst of all, like the person you count on most of all – yourself – is actually against you. Duhigg’s book provides a way out of this hell, by handing you habit’s blueprint. Now you know that you can try changing the routine and if that doesn’t work, changing the cue and if that’s not getting it done, changing the reward. And this really is marvelously empowering because not only does it run counter to the self-help manifestos that ask you to transform yourself into an entirely different person, but it does so with, of all things, science. It says “This is how you function. Use it to your advantage”.

And for marketers, it offers us a radically different way to look at what we do. Sure, we like to think that humans love our brands, products and advertising because we’re smart, clever, and wonderful. But it is somehow more useful to understand that our success is often because we have stumbled upon a habit loop. We’ve become someone’s cue, routine, or reward. Figure out how you did it, and you might be able to defend yourself against the competition.

But Duhigg’s book also offers marketers the opportunity of something more radical. The opportunity to imagine what marketing would look like if instead of customer journeys and media plans, we thought about how our products, our media and our content aligned with cues, routines and rewards. Aligned with the way our brains work 40% of the time.

Imagine what a good habit that would be to get into.


The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg was published by Random House on 02/28/2012 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

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