The Power of Habit: Why We do What We Do in Life and Business – Charles Duhigg (2012)

The Power of Habit sounds as though it should be placed in the Self-Help section of your local independent bookstore, but it’s really more along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell and his ilk in that it’s a more science-y based book (although there are some self-help tips in it towards the end in terms of changing habits etc.)

Written by the NYT’s Charles Duhigg, the book takes more of a meta-analytic approach to habits, reviewing scientists and their published research in terms of human and organizational habits. It’s really quite fascinating for me to read, especially since I spent a lot of my professional career trying to change people’s habits from a public health perspective. So many talks and so much time chatting to people about developing more healthy behaviors…

Towards the turn of the millennium, I was involved in a large community-wide health initiative and tried to read as much as I could about changing behavior for the long-term: how did people change their long-time habits? And how do you keep them sustainable? At the time, I was a big believer in Prochaska et al and their Stages of Change, and I still believe that there are stages of development that most people have to travel through to make big changes in their lives.

This book took a slightly different angle to Prochaska and viewed habits as a behavioral loop that would be similar for almost everyone, whether they were smoking or sitting on the couch all day. (And actually, Duhigg addresses other non-health-related behaviors as well – a habit is a habit is a habit after all.) If you are more of a theory-driven learner and like me, need to know and understand the “why” before there’s any chance of moving further, “The Power of Habit” is set up to warm the cockles of your heart. Pages and pages of readable discussion about the various scientific studies that have been published about behavior, from the success of AA to not buying a cookie at three o’clock every workday. I wouldn’t say that this info was mind-shatteringly new for me, but it was thoroughly researched and supported by reputable studies so that its conclusions are more convincing than others have been.

What was interesting about this book was how it demonstrated some of the research findings into real-life scenarios. For example, studies have proven that most people who enter a large supermarket will automatically turn to the right when they go through the front door. (Do you?) This routine habit means that most supermarkets will put the more expensive impulse buys there. (For example, one local supermarket here has its florist, chocolate box selection and magazines to the right of its main door at one location.)  Thinking about it, it also has its grocery trolleys there as well, so that makes me wonder: did the placement of the trolleys come before the behavior or did the behavior come before the trolleys were put there?

It also helped to explain just why the produce section in most places is located towards the beginning of the shopping trip for a lot of people. According to Duhigg, it’s because if the consumer has already put “healthy” food into the trolley, then it’s easier (and more justifiable) to put a packet of Pringles on top as “the healthy food evens it” out sort of thing. I had noticed the arrangement, but could not work out why. Now I know one possible reason.

Additionally, it explains radio stations. Most listeners crave songs that are familiar to them, either because they know them through repetition or because the songs remind them of another song. We can only listen to a few things at one time, and if we’re having to concentrate on new (and therefore different/challenging) songs, then we have less attention to pay to more important actions (like driving a car). Few people will admit that they like Celine Dion songs, but research shows that if a Dion song comes on the radio station, hardly anyone will change the channel. They might protest in a survey or to their friends, but they won’t actually move to change the channel. (Interesting – will have to see if I can see this in action.)

Familiar songs are called “sticky” by those in the music biz (apparently), and makes sense to me as most top 40 adult contemp songs sound quite similar to me when I first hear them. (Not that I am a big fan of live radio as I get frustrated by the ads and the DJ drivel. But supposing I did…) When a radio station wants to introduce a new song that is not “familiar” in how it sounds for its audience, the station will sometimes “sandwich” the new song between two older and much more familiar songs so that the listener is not faced with having to deal with “too much different” at one time.

All fascinating stuff for me to learn. The book even portrays the Civil Rights movement and AA as beginning with habits, both on the personal and the cultural level. A quick and very interesting read that I enjoyed.

Duhigg is a very good writer and has been working for the NYT since 2006 doing investigative journalism. He backs up what he says and tends to keep his personal opinions to himself (which I appreciated). The only thing that disappointed me about the book was that it didn’t have a formal bibliography for further study. Apart from that, this made me think and that’s always a good thing.

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