The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
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“This research study is ongoing and unpublished, and thus researchers were not available for interviews.”
If the study is unpublished and the researchers weren’t interviewed, who is the source of the anecdote?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.
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.
“[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.
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.
Corporate 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.