The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg (2012)

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

Water, he said, is the most apt analogy for how a habit works. Water “hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before.”

There’s so much good anti-over consumerist detail in the book, on both how marketers take advantage of our ease for shifting and keeping habits, and how we can fight back; that I’d recommend the book to most Americans on that ground alone.

Still, like “The Willpower Instinct”, the entire book — and its excellent exercises – is  reason for everyone to read them.

This will be a good book to revisit the exercises.

Some major points I remember:

  • A general overview of the brain’s basic systems
  • How Americans never brushed their teeth, yet once we started high sugar consumption we had terrible tooth problems, and then how Pepsodent toothpaste, which is arguably worthless over brushing with water, got us to start our habits using it: we desire that tingly-fresh sense after using it. That’s the reward. Likewise, cleaning with Febreze? A clean house isn’t the reward, the pleasant smell is.
  • Good section on excellent habits of a football team, and how it failed under pressure, because the team didn’t really believe in the methods. Then, after the coach’s son died, and the team believed, it worked.
  • Alcoa’s success story as one of America’s safest companies.
  • Exercise is a keystone habit, he notes another researcher say. Furthermore, willpower is like a muscle: we can strengthen it, to be sure, but at some point it will run out of energy during the day.
  • Starbucks and its educational/mentorship programs
  • He has a short nod at the end to start the discussion of whether the government should protect people from their habits, as Washington alluded to.

Here, he ends the book with two legal cases – much like A tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons discusses that neuroscience will certainly change the law, but nobody’s sure just quite how. In the first case, a man killed his wife during the night while sleeping in their trailer home on vacation. In the second, a woman squandered her life savings gambling, and tried to sue the casinos.

Brian Thomas murdered his wife. Angie Bachmann squandered her inheritance. Is there a difference in how society should assign responsibility?  . . .

The man was let off the hook, because he’d been a sleepwalker his whole life, his wife knew this, and the story seems like they’re both victims – he’s as sad that she’s dead as anyone. Yet in the second case, the woman lost her claim and her money, and as Duhigg both evokes and calls attention to, we don’t feel sorry for her. It’s far easier to feel more sympathy for the murderer than the gambler.

Why is it easier, though? Why does it seem the bereaved husband is a victim, while the bankrupt gambler got her just deserts? Why do some habits seem like they should be so easy to control, while others seem out of reach? More important, is it right to make a distinction in the first place?