Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (Book Review #79 of 2015)

When reading through books and podcasts I keep a chart in my mind of the books most oft-cited which I have not yet read. This one has been in the #1 spot, cited as a must-read by a wide range of people I've heard in the past year from pastors to Silicon Valley types on Tim Ferriss' show to body builders. I have already read a lot of Dan Arielly and other behavioral economics works that overlap quite a bit with this one, and there are countless articles out there examining the same type of brain research that Duhig highlights in this work. Perhaps the over-saturation of that field in the media makes this book unremarkable, it's probably the lowest-rated book that is the most widely-read. Nonetheless, you can learn things a lot in this book, find promises that you can overcome any habit, and ask some deep questions about how culpable we are if our brains have predisposed us to bad habits.

Every habit has a cue and a reward, chemical or otherwise. To change a habit, recognize the cue/trigger and the underlying reasons for how it makes you feel. Identify the reward, what is it that makes it attractive? Whether habitually eating or biting fingernails or compulsive gambling, it all works essentially the same neurologically. Another key ingredient is either optimism--the belief, religious or otherwise, that things will get better and that you can succeed or the fear or knowledge that if you don't change, there may be irreparable harm. You have to identify the various feedback loops of your behavior first.

Change happens in groups, you need to be a part of a community of like-minded people to encourage you, challenge you, and hold you accountable. (There are obvious church membership lessons here, more later). Even social networks help, a lot of "weak ties" are shown to have more influence than a few "strong ties." So, posting your fitness result pictures on Facebook for all to like or comment on is good motivation to change. Exercise itself is a "keystone habit" that has spillovers to other parts of life. Studies have found that those who build an exercise habit have an easier time making changes in other areas as well-- budgeting, eating, sleeping, saving money, etc. All habits have spillover effects-- developing a positive habit in one area helps you establish more in others. The "willpower workout" in building one habit helps you build/break others.

Besides community there are other helps, like building structures to help maintain a habit. Writing out a plan for how you're going to work out and what you're going to do every day instead of getting the mocha latte. You have to have a plan to "get over the hump," the pain that is change. You need to focus on small wins, don't suffer from learned helplessness.

Duhig tells a series of stories in this book, the first of which deal with research involving brain injury patients. Even when patients' working memories were damaged to not being able to retain anything for more than a few minutes, they still contained their habits and responded to cues. One fascinating story of a hospital patient who repeatedly ripped out his IVs upon waking up involved nurses praising him for sitting still and his habitual response to positive reinforcement.

There are plenty of corporate stories from marketing Pepsodent and Febreze. Pepsodent became a worldwide brand by essentially selling that tingly feeling you feel in your mouth after you brush-- that's what makes you think it's clean, even though it has nothing to do with it. Soon, all other brands added similar chemicals to their toothpastes to create that same sensation. The cue is the film you feel on your teeth (which everyone has all the time anyway) and the reward is the tingly sensation. Think about how you judge how well you've brushed your teeth-- it's that feeling, whether or not you've missed most of your teeth or not. Similarly, Febreze is selling you the smell of a a clean room or clothes, not necessarily clean clothes. Duhigg writes that companies are now experimenting similarly with sensations of sunscreen.

Another story Duhigg tells is that of Alcoa under Paul O'Neill, who was singularly focused on safety. As the emphasis was pushed, accidents fell, morale grew while the bottom line improved. O'Neill suffered a couple times under government, where change is hard and institutional routines have set in and people behave like mindless drones. Institutional habits help curb rivalries and maintain the status quo, but to stay sane the people inside the bureacracy build their own habits and communication networks to help them survive. I know this all too well...

Starbucks helps employees train by training employees to have a plan for what they will do when faced with stressful situations or customers. The story of one addict whose life was changed by working at Starbucks is highlighted. Music companies expoit our brains by concocting songs with beats that conform to what other hits have sounded like, allowing algorithms to predict the success of a song. Then, the companies work to make it go "viral" by guaranteeing airplay at certain key times. The "stickiness" factor of songs is interesting. Target's data scientists are interviewed about how they famously know when someone is pregnant, etc.

In sports, Duhigg tells the tale of Tony Dungy, who Duhigg holds to have revolutionized coaching by having players use the same cues and same rewards but establish new habits. Dungy turned Tampa Bay into winners but was fired after the team lost close playoff games, after which he won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Dungy's players "broke down" in high-pressure moments and the book never explains the "why" other than the team not maintaining a belief that things would get better--crucial to maintaining a habit. After the tragic loss of his son, the mentality of his Colts team changed and they seemed to rally around their coach and his own belief, on to a Super Bowl.

Duhigg also highlights Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, interviewing him on how he got started. Warren looked at starting a church in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country where the biggest complaint seemed to be that there were "no churches large enough" to accomodate the demand; I suspect most were small and could not benefit from the economies of scale of large churches. Warren focused on groups and not individuals, if you are able to convert a group you'll have those weak-tie network effects-- eventually Saddleback became the church everyone wanted to be. Warren battled depression and eventually focused on discipleship, teaching "habits of faith" so that church members could grow in the Word and hold each other accountable. Hence he started small groups in home which helped reach the greater community. He developed curriculum to help the small groups study the Bible instead of just spending 10 minutes on the Bible and prayer and another hour chatting. Duhigg holds Warren up as someone who is interested at changing the habits of "societies," large groups of people by focusing on smaller groups.

The last chapters of the book again look at brain research and raise some important ethical and legal considerations. Electronic devices shorting out signals from the basal ganglia in the brain have shown to help alcoholics develop new habits, particularly if they build up other structures like group therapy. Should we fault the addict who lacks access to these resources? The brains of those with Parkinson's who can't control their tremors look the same in scans as those of a compulsive gambler. When we see a Parkinson's patient we say "He can't help it," but to the gambler we say "It's all her fault." A person suffering night terrors cannot remember what happened, and some people suffer from this and sleepwalking their entire lives; Duhigg tells of one person acquitted of murder due to his accidental killing of his wife during one such episode.

"If you believe in change then your habit becomes what you choose for it to be." I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. There is interesting information here, some of which you have probably read elsewhere. But if not, definitely pick the book up.

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