What I Am Reading: Why I Cannot Stop

Mar 05 2012 Published by under [Brain&Behavior], What I'm Reading

Unless you have been completely disconnected from mainstream media for the past 3 weeks, you have heard something about The Power of Habit, a book by Charles Duhigg. As I opened my browser to start this post, my radio announced an interview about the book on today's Fresh Air. Somewhere there are cloistered monks dying to break their vow of silence to gossip about how Target detected a teenager's pregnancy before her father did.

Click to pre-order at Amazon

In other words, the buzz is amazing for a book not hitting the stands until March 20. And this book is worth every word you have heard.

Early on, we meet The Habit Loop, a simple sequence of cue - behavior - reward that recurs throughout the book. First Duhigg examines basic neuroscience research with rats in mazes; by automating behaviors within the maze (in other words, forming habits) the rats get their reward (chocolate) faster. Think a task this simple does not apply to humans? Consider your daily commute. How many days do you remember your lane changes and turns? For most of us, our daily drive only registers in our brains when something out of the ordinary happens. Does this mean we are less attentive? On one level, yes, but by putting the routine stuff on autopilot, we may be more attentive when traffic conditions are unusual.

The habit loop also applies to groups. Stories from a Rhode Island surgical suite demonstrate maladaptive habits that ultimately get replaced with better ones after a crisis. I enjoyed the story of Paul O'Neill's turn-around for Alcoa. The Aluminum Company of America was struggling when he became CEO in 1987, and investors thought he was crazy to focus on worker safety rather than improved profits. This saga leads us to the concept of keystone habits. Developing a functional positive habit loop for one thing (worker safety) can influence everything else within a company!

Keystone habits work for individuals as well. Australian researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng designed experiments in which groups of students were assigned to physical conditioning, study habit improvement, and personal finance courses. After several weeks, they assessed a whole bunch of other habits in the groups and found that many aspects of the participants' lives improved. They ate better, smoked less, and were more productive in school or work, regardless of the nature of the original assignment.

Finally, an explanation for my personal pedometer effect! My job varies from incredibly sedentary (outpatient clinic and administrative work; 2,000 to 3,000 steps per workday) to fairly active (running around the hospital seeing inpatients; 7,000 to 10,000 steps per workday). My weight stabilizes (or may even decrease) when I wear a pedometer. I thought at first that this was because I had an objective measurement of my activity level. I would come home emotionally exhausted, feeling like I had climbed Mount Everest. My device told me that I had only walked about 2 miles and I needed to head to the gym. However, when my pedometer broke and I just forced myself to walk 2 miles on the treadmill most days (the amount of activity needed to reach that step goal), I started gaining weight again.

Even though my activity levels were likely about the same, I was in better metabolic balance when wearing the device. When I track my daily activity with the pedometer, I probably eat healthier. Why undo that treadmill time with a bag of Cheetos? That little device and step number provided important feedback to reinforce numerous other habit loops. Activity tracking provided a keystone habit that cued other good behaviors!

The Power of Habit is an entertaining and insightful read. We all need to understand the necessity and power of habit before we can use "The Loop" to meet our goals.

3 responses so far

  • Bashir says:

    The New York Times article about this was quite interesting.

    • Pascale says:

      I believe that involved the Target data mining chapter.

      Some people find this sort of use of our habits disturbing, and on one level it is. However, if it means I get ads and coupons for stuff I want and not random crap, I really have no objections. It's the price I pay for using their credit card that gets me 5% off of every purchase.

  • greg says:

    price you pay... oh boy. As a data privacy advocate I have some bad news for you. They also sell your data to others. They also store it forever. They also use and abuse it for whatever tickles their fancy, not just things you benefit from.

    That 5% isn't going to look so hot when you wake up one day and realize there is no way in hell you will ever get your data back, they know everything about you and are using it in ways you don't want. Including selling it to the government to keep tabs on you...

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