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The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I.

This is from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit:

“I want to show you one of your most recent scans,” a researcher told Lisa near the end of her exam. He pulled up a picture on a computer screen that showed images from inside her head. “When you see food, these areas”—he pointed to a place near the center of her brain—“which are associated with craving and hunger, are still active. Your brain still produces the urges that made you overeat.

“However, there’s new activity in this area”—he pointed to the region closest to her forehead—“where we believe behavioral inhibition and self-discipline starts. That activity has become more pronounced each time you’ve come in.”

Lisa was the scientists’ favorite participant because her brain scans were so compelling, so useful in creating a map of where behavioral patterns—habits—reside within our minds. “You’re helping us understand how a decision becomes an automatic behavior,” the doctor told her.

Everyone in the room felt like they were on the brink of something important. And they were.

This is written as a dramatic scene. I mean that as literally as I possibly could. It feels (and was intended to feel) like you are watching a movie where the scientists get their big break and the music changes. Really, the music is the only thing that is missing.

Perhaps it is just aesthetics, but this passage feels typical–perhaps–even cliched in the dramatic sense. But simultaneously it is really weird in the real-life sense. The above doesn’t sound like a real conversation that a real scientist would have with a real study participant. If it were me conducting the study, I’d feel vague unease about potentially contaminating the results.

Investigating further isn’t encouraging. Duhigg’s note for this anecdote reads in part

“This research study is ongoing and unpublished, and thus researchers were not available for interviews.”

If the study is unpublished and the researchers weren’t interviewed, who is the source of the anecdote? It would seem it would have to be Lisa herself. How was she identified as a study participant? Did Lisa really tell Duhigg that she was “the scientists’ favorite participant because her brain scans were so compelling, so useful in creating a map of where behavioral patterns—habits—reside within our minds”?

If so, I’m in awe of Lisa’s opinion of herself.

II.

Also, we have rats.

The maze was structured so that each rat was positioned behind a partition that opened when a loud click sounded. Initially, when a rat heard the click and saw the partition disappear, it would usually wander up and down the center aisle, sniffing in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate, but couldn’t figure out how to find it. When it reached the top of the T, it often turned to the right, away from the chocolate, and then wandered left, sometimes pausing for no obvious reason. Eventually, most animals discovered the reward. But there was no discernable pattern in their meanderings. It seemed as if each rat was taking a leisurely, unthinking stroll.

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain—and in particular, its basal ganglia—worked furiously. Each time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, its brain exploded with activity, as if analyzing each new scent, sight, and sound. The rat was processing information the entire time it meandered.

The scientists repeated their experiment, again and again, watching how each rat’s brain activity changed as it moved through the same route hundreds of times. A series of shifts slowly emerged. The rats stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns. Instead, they zipped through the maze faster and faster. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less.

I’ve read this passage a few times and typed it all once. I still struggle to grasp how someone who thinks himself qualified to write a book about habits would find it un-expected that an animal would need to invest less mental effort their hundredth time through a maze than their first.

Indeed, if we question Duhigg’s framing and look anew at what he describes, we see that this sentence does a lot of heavy lifting to make the story seem interesting:

It seemed as if each rat was taking a leisurely, unthinking stroll.

Isn’t it possible that the researchers are just really bad at reading rat body language? In fact, that seems to be what they have demonstrated more clearly than anything about the rats. Perhaps Cesar Milan would have felt the rats were taking questioning, contemplative walks, and the “unexpected” behavior would then be expected and as unsurprising as it really ought to have been to Duhigg.

The surprising insight here is dependent on the scientists and/or Duhigg thinking they could tell what a “meandering,” “leisurely” mouse stroll looked like. it isn’t a function of the actual phenomenon with respect to the mouse being surprising but rather the researchers’ inability to guess the mental states of rats.

This is a composition technique for making your boring results sound sexy just because you’re a good enough writer to get away with it.

III.

“[Michael] Phelps had started swimming when he was seven years old to burn off some of the energy that was driving his mom and teachers crazy. When a local swimming coach named Bob Bowman saw Phelps’s long torso, big hands, and relatively short legs (which offered less drag in the water), he knew Phelps could become a champion. But Phelps was emotional. He had trouble coping with the stress. Bowman purchased a book of relaxation exercises and asked Phelps’s mom to read them aloud every night. The book contained a script—“Tighten your right hand into a fist and release it. Imagine the tension melting away”—that tensed and relaxed each part of Phelps’s body before he fell asleep.

Bowman believed that for swimmers, the key to victory was creating the right routines. Phelps, Bowman knew, had a perfect physique for the pool. That said, everyone who eventually competes at the Olympics has perfect musculature. Bowman could also see that Phelps, even at a young age, had a capacity for obsessiveness that made him an ideal athlete. Then again, all elite performers are obsessives.

What Bowman could give Phelps, however—what would set him apart from other competitors—were habits that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool. He didn’t need to control every aspect of Phelps’s life. All he needed to do was target a few specific habits that had nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with creating the right mind-set. He designed a series of behaviors that Phelps could use to become calm and focused before each race, to find those tiny advantages that, in a sport where victory can come in milliseconds, would make all the difference.

When Phelps was a teenager, for instance, at the end of each practice, Bowman would tell him to go home and “watch the videotape. Watch it before you go to sleep and when you wake up.”

The videotape wasn’t real. Rather it was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly. He would visualize his strokes, the walls of the pool, his turns, and the finish. He would imagine the wake behind his body, the water dripping off his lips as his mouth cleared the surface, what it would feel like to rip off his cap at the end. He would lie in bed with his eyes shut and watch the entire competition, the smallest details, again and again, until he knew each second by heart.”

The above mirrors one of the favorite failure modes of Stanford Business School researchers. When you have access to the best, you don’t bother checking with anyone else, so you end up mis-attributing what is actually responsible for success. I imagine being a Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times science reporter gives you similar opportunities, and this is why Duhigg falls in the same, um, pitfall.

Duhigg would have us believe that everyone who is a competitive swimmer basically has the same physiology and “perfect musculature”, so performance comes down to doing a good job with visualization exercises. This narrative only holds up if you believe that no other swimmers do visualization exercises despite that being common practice among athletes for at least decades.

Duhigg would like us to believe that the difference between champions and also-rans is that champions developed certain critical habits. In fact, he needs this to be the case since that is the title of his book, and an interview with Michael Phelps’s coach is for naught if he can’t make the story fit. But we never see a shred of evidence that Phelps does a single minute more of habit-reinforcement than his peers or even for the more general claim that his success results from being a superior mental swimmer to his peers.

IV.

Part II, “The Habits of Successful Organizations,” begins before we reach page 100, and it’s when the book reaches a status I would consider problematic.

Habits heretofore had been, if not explicitly defined, at least understood to mean unconscious, automatic actions encoded in the brain and executed without deliberation. But, Duhigg has more anecdotes to pack in, and they don’t fit with this definition.

The Alcoa plant that manufactured aluminum siding for houses, for instance, had been struggling for years because executives would try to anticipate popular colors and inevitably guess wrong. They would pay consultants millions of dollars to choose shades of paint and six months later, the warehouse would be overflowing with “sunburst yellow” and out of suddenly in-demand “hunter green.” One day, a low-level employee made a suggestion that quickly worked its way to the general manager: If they grouped all the painting machines together, they could switch out the pigments faster and become more nimble in responding to shifts in customer demand. Within a year, profits on aluminum siding doubled.

smoking photoCorporate culture is a interesting and important topic. But those who study it call it “corporate culture.” Duhigg presents no evidence that these sorts of behaviors stem from unconscious responses to stimulus. Neither is the above something that automatically comes from organizational behavior and therefore might merit the term “organizational habit.”

This problem repeats itself too many times for me to produce a list. Problems at a Rhode Island hospital related to nurses rationally choosing not to confront doctors and surgeons when they notice a problem are somehow reclassified as habits. The 1987 fire at King’s Cross station that killed 31 people – and started when a ticket collector stamped out a smoldering wad of tissue and didn’t report it to anyone – is attributed to habits, even as Duhigg fully explains that

Ticketing clerks were warned that their jurisdiction was strictly limited to selling tickets…

Station employees weren’t trained how to use the sprinkler system or extinguishers, because that equipment was overseen by a different division.

The station’s safety inspector never saw a letter from the London Fire Brigade warning about fire risks because it was sent to the operations director, and information like that wasn’t shared across divisions.

Employees were instructed only to contact the fire brigade as a last resort, so as not to panic commuters unnecessarily.

The fire brigade insisted on using its own street-level hydrants, ignoring pipes in the ticketing hall that could have deliered water, because they had been ordered not to use equipment installed by other agencies.

We are so far afield of anything that could be called habit that when he switches to how data miners at Target figure out when customers become pregnant and how “Hey Ya,” by Outkast became a hit, it doesn’t even seem all that out of place. If all this is habit, what part of animal behavior is not?

All this happens before we leap into the Civil Rights Movement and Rosa Parks and the power of weak social ties relative to strong social ties and how it explains who participated and who did not. And then Rick Warren’s church and his book The Purpose-Driven Life.

This is a collection of interesting, well-written stuff. What it is not is The Power of Habit.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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33 thoughts on “The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

  1. “Uncanny Familiarity”

    “I hope nothing bad happens on this trip,” the first mate said to the Captain as the ship sailed out of port. Three months later, a completely empty ship arrived at Cape Breton and no trace of the crew was ever found.

    It’s useful for setting up dramatic irony and you can easily get defenders to say “well, it’s what a first mate would have said to a captain!”

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  2. First, it seems that either Duhigg doesn’t understand how research gets conducted, or likes to take, er, poetic license in describing how it’s conducted because it would be way too boring otherwise. (Also, in my considerable experience hanging out in rat labs, rat researchers are pretty good at figuring out what rats are doing.)

    Second, it’s been my experience that a lot of these science books written by science journalists to promote a thesis that’s not actually present in the science but comes from a novel synthesis of research come together like this: (1) Science journalist comes up with thesis he or she thinks will appeal to a lay audience. (2) Journalist makes 1 or 2 paragraph pitch to agent/publisher containing thesis and a really, really brief argument for it. (3) Publisher green lights book. (4) Journalist has little more than said paragraph or two in his bag, and when he or she starts doing research, realizes the evidence in favor of the novel thesis is scant, maybe a chapter or two worth if he or she writes in a narrative form that fills a lot of pages with little actual evidence, and then has to fill in the rest of the book with bullshit.

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  3. This review pretty much summarizes why I avoid non-fiction books written by journalists. This isn’t to suggest that non-journalists don’t copy these bad, uh…, habits. But they seem to be the default mode among journalists.

    This is the book equivalent of the human interest anecdote that seems to be mandatory nowadays. A story about, say, mortgage interest rates will open by telling us about Bob and Kelly Johnson of Tempe, Arizona, who are looking to buy their first house, and how the mortgage interest rate will affect them. This works whether the story is about rates rising or falling. The clear assumption is that I, the reader, am too obtuse to understand a straightforward story about interest rates and need some human interest to hold my attention. In practice this means I have to skim down the story until I get past the fluff.

    I am old enough to remember when newspaper stories were written in the format of most-to-least important information. The reporter didn’t know how much space he would get, so articles were written such that the later paragraphs could be omitted and the story would still make sense. They made sure to put the most important stuff in right away. As a reader, I could get that important stuff, and make an informed decision based on this whether or not to turn to page A8 to read the rest. This format was not without its problems, but it had the cardinal virtue of not requiring me to skim past blather before figuring out if I wanted to read the substance of the piece.

    Season 5 of the Wire has a journalist who is disgraced when it comes out that he is faking sources. His first step down the road to perdition is when he is assigned to write a fluff piece about fans at opening day of the baseball season. His task is to go find some fan who has the compelling story he is assigned to write. He blows this off, and just writes the story, inserting a fictitious fan to fit the required slot. He gets away with this, and this tempts him for further transgressions. The tone of the show (written by a former journalist) is one of indignant harrumphing at him. What it overlooks is that the initial story assignment was bullshit all along. If you have a story you want to write, so you go looking until you find someone who fits that story, this is not in fact an act of journalism. It is an act of storytelling, with an incidental act of research to find a name at attach to the story.

    So it is with Bob and Kelly Johnson. Are they real people, and are they really considering buying their first house. What possible difference does it make? Assuming they are real, how am I, the reader, served by the publication devoting scarce resources to tracking down someone who fits the requirements of the story? I would be far better served by having the piece written by someone with the skill set to understand mortgage interest rates and to write clearly about them. The skills to track down Bob and Kelly are irrelevant at best, and actively harmful if they are given priority over those other skills.

    Everything you have written about this book is pretty much the longer form version of the same thing. The author either doesn’t have a compelling topic without the bullshit, or assumes his readers need the bullshit to sustain their interest, or (speaking of habits) has been trained to write this way and it would never occur to him not to.

    Seriously: When I am considering buying a nonfiction book, I look up the author. If he is a journalist, I give it a pass, absent some compelling reason to buy it despite this.

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    • Richard Hershberger: He blows this off, and just writes the story, inserting a fictitious fan to fit the required slot.

      And not just a fictitious fan, but a too good to check African American young teenaged fan from public housing who gets around in a wheelchair.

      (the main problem with Season 5 is that they laid on the Stephen Glass/ Jayson Blair storyline *so thickly* that the people in charge at the Sun needed to carry the Idiot Ball, rather than merely have the unresolvable systemic flaws that the police, schools, and political system had in the previous seasons)

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      • Kolohe,
        The main problem with season 5 was lack of time (“carrying the Idiot Ball” doesn’t need to be the actual reason. The actual reason can be a combination of that, willful ignorance and a dash of desperation — that makes a more complex read, but it takes more time to develop).
        The secondary problem was needing to asskiss people who helped you out.
        (Jay got a role in the series. Apparently the paper wanted something different…)

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        • If anything, Season 5 had too much time on its hands (even with 2 fewer episodes than the rest of the seasons). They needed one more narrative hook in that season to balance things out. (one of which could have been making at least one big boss at the paper more of the same vein as either Rawls or Burrell – i.e. [Richards] but with a purpose in acting like they do. Not just irredeemable cluelessness)

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      • My critique of Season 5 is that it is a story about a bad person doing bad things. The previous seasons were about a bunch of people, some good, some bad, many somewhere in between. The point of those earlier seasons is that the problem isn’t that there are bad people doing bad things, but that the system is so fucked up that individuals–good, bad, or middling–don’t matter. Then Season 5 comes along. Yes, there is a lot about budget cuts and such, but we have a central story line where a single bad individual is doing bad things, and that is the source of the badness. That his trip to badness started with a bullshit story assignment is just gravy.

        I do appreciate that at the very end, the Hero Reporter who exposed the bad badness is punished with the worst fate imaginable: being assigned to the Carroll County office. That’s where I live. That office was within easy walking distance of my house.

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  4. Serious question for you, : Is your underlying problem with the book that it tells readers something that isn’t true, or that the writer isn’t thorough enough in documenting why something is probably true is probably true?

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    • I’m curious to hear what Vikram will say but my underlying problem with these kinds of books (haven’t read this one yet) is that they are overly good at convincing people of something that no one including the writer really is convinced is reliably true. Science writers aren’t stupid, they’ve been exposed to the scientific method, and as popularizers, I feel like they have a responsibility to present information to the public in a trustworthy way rather than focusing on charming people. It’s “alternative facts,” otherwise. Stuff that who KNOWS if it’s true, presented otherwise.

      Some science writers are remarkably good at doing it right – David Quammen springs to mind but there are plenty of others – and some are… lazy. Hasty. More focused on how much money they can make fudging the truth than being honest about the truth. Some combination of the above.

      FWIW, it’s not just science writers either, it makes me really angry – even angrier – on the rarer occasions when scientists and social scientists do it too. The number of journal articles with math an undergrad can tell is busted…. grrrrrrrrrr. It’s just that those journal articles are usually so boring that they won’t have impact beyond the scientific community and the scientific community OUGHT to have the good sense to check the math themselves, so I’m not as concerned about the effect.

      tl;dr: It’s propaganda and I believe the uses of propaganda should be EXTREMELY limited even in cases where the producers are sincere.

      (I have to confess, as someone who does feel pretty confident about sorting the wheat from the chaff, there are writers who are such good writers that I will read them anyway – I will probably read and enjoy this book while not relying on a word of it, likewise Barry Schwartz and Malcolm Gladwell and any number of religious writers. Their perspective is interesting regardless of their reliability. But I will feel weird about it…)

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    • Tod Kelly: Is your underlying problem with the book that it tells readers something that isn’t true, or that the writer isn’t thorough enough in documenting why something is probably true is probably true?

      Definitely the former. In fact, I’m a little embarassed that you might think it’d be the latter.

      But let me be a bit more explicit with respect to this book.
      1. The book purports to teach about habits, but a definition for habit is never provided and seems to morph every time it benefits the narrative.
      2. The examples don’t convincingly portray the points they are supposed to portray. For example, the Phelps example. Yes, one could say “even if he is wrong in the case of Phelps, it gets across the point”, but a big reason pop versions of science should exist is to provide valid examples. I’m left wondering whether he just wasn’t able to find anyone for whom the strategy worked.
      3. The sourcing in the opening anecdote (section I in the OP) creates a credibility problem for me as a reader. Given this is the very beginning of the book and is the story that is supposed to sell us on why it’s an important read, this is a big mistake for anyone who reads the note.
      4. When an author is willing to make anecdotes do gymnastics to fit his point, it further creates credibility problems.

      is quite right that a lot of this applies to science writers in general. I am being unfair to Duhigg in this regard.

      There’s another problem that perhaps can articulate better than I. Almost all references to neurology and parts of the brain in pop science books such as this one don’t actually elucidate the subject-level phenomena they ultimately influence. The neuroscience is just there to spice things up. It’s like a book teaching you to be a better baseball player talking about atoms. Yes, ultimately, the ball is made out of atoms, but it doesn’t actually help you hit or throw the ball. This book didn’t need to mention basal ganglia even once. Instead…

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  5. As far as the Phelps example goes, you read the book and I’ve read only your excerpt, so maybe there’s something else in the book that justifies your take on the excerpt, but based only on the excerpt, I’m not sure you have it right. Is Duhigg really saying that the only difference between Phelps and other world-class swimmers nearly as good as he is is his use of (well-known and widely-practised) visualization techniques, which, I agree, is implausible? Or is it that using the visualization techniques got him past being the big fish in a small pool and into the big pool in the first place, and that techniques like that are necessary to make that jump?

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    • Good question. I am pretty confident that he is arguing the version that you and I find implausible. While there are some other sections on Phelps, I chose the excerpt above for the post since I thought it was a critical one. I’d direct you to this part of it:

      Bowman believed that for swimmers, the key to victory was creating the right routines. Phelps, Bowman knew, had a perfect physique for the pool. That said, everyone who eventually competes at the Olympics has perfect musculature. Bowman could also see that Phelps, even at a young age, had a capacity for obsessiveness that made him an ideal athlete. Then again, all elite performers are obsessives.

      What Bowman could give Phelps, however—what would set him apart from other competitors—were habits that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool. [emphases added, of course]

      I don’t think I’m reading him unfairly, but I’ll let you be the judge. I think he’s saying that physically all Olympic swimmers are the same and it is Phelps’s coach’s mental preparation that makes Phelps the winner among that set of people.

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