Conscious human thought and the ability to process colossal amounts of information and make thousands of small decisions each day, is part of what sets us apart from our animal counterparts. However actively processing all of that information would be overwhelming, hence the innate human ability to learn, then to remember and then function on autopilot. With this, tasks that initially seemed complex can become second nature. This includes playing the guitar, speaking another language or even performing surgery. In essence as described as far back as the 1800s by Harvard philosopher William James; habit economizes the expense of nervous and muscular energy.
Though harnessing the power of habit, has been fundamental to the success of many individuals, habit has a darker more challenging side. When one develops a bad habit such as smoking, overeating, gambling, alcoholism, infidelity etc, they can spend their entirely life trying to unlearn these treacherous habits, and needless to say it is very difficult. In this book, Charles Duhigg explores the role of the trigger and the response.
Duhigg is an investigative reporter and shows this well. For this book he clearly has read a number of scientific papers and interviewed many prominent scientists. Through this he conveys many helpful and interesting findings from the worlds of social psychology, clinical psychology and neuroscience. He is attempting to help the reader understand why we do what we do in life an in business.
Duhigg feels that this science has powerful practical application. He states that once you understand that habits can change, you have the power and responsibility to change them. He keeps this book entertaining by presenting several fascinating cases. He discusses how the Supermarket Target conducts its research preying on the habits (often unconscious) of its customers. He explains how this store can tell which female customers are pregnant and where they are in their pregnancy, even before they have told their friends and families.
I found this book extremely interesting and frequently found myself putting my own life and behaviors under the microscope. However though the cases are entertaining and insightful, this book is not a prescription for change. This is in part because the science of behavior is extremely complex, and so putting markedly different behaviors on the individual and societal levels down to habit, its likely somewhat simplistic. Nonetheless I found his “habit loop” model useful and applicable to life. In this model he describes an environmental cue that leads to a behavioral routine that results in a reward. He explains that this is why toothpaste brands initially added mint to toothpaste. He states that the cool refreshing feeling of freshly cleaned teeth was the small reward associated with teeth cleaning, hence perpetuating the habit. He applies the same framework to cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and why we prefer certain songs.
Throughout this book he continues to break down habitual behavior using cases and stories to demonstrate his points. Though this is a small snapshot of a huge area of social science it is an excellent read for anyone greater understanding of why we do what we do, and how we might be able to actively re-programme and relearn certain habits. It is an enjoyable read with lots of useful practical advice. I certainly do recommend this to young adults trying to navigate their way in this increasingly complex modern world.