The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

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Vikram Bath

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.

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33 Responses

  1. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    I love a good negative review. Well done.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    “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!”Report

  3. Avatar Chris
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    says:

    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.Report

  4. Avatar Richard Hershberger
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    says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Richard Hershberger
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      says:

      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)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kolohe
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        says:

        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…)Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kim
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          says:

          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)Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Kolohe
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        says:

        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.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Richard Hershberger
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      says:

      I take it you don’t like Malcolm Gladwell, then?Report

    • And I thought I wrote the OP harshlyReport

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Richard Hershberger
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      says:

      Dang. Good stuff.

      Of all of the things I never expected from a Trump Presidency was a reason to go back and watch Season 5 of The Wire.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Richard Hershberger
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      says:

      @vikram-bath
      Excellent review!

      @richard-hershberger
      Excellent review addendum!Report

  5. Avatar Richard Hershberger
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    says:

    Also: You inserted “Mark” Phelps. I assume you meant “Michael.”Report

  6. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    Is the rats’ chocolate click bait?Report

  7. Avatar Tod Kelly
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    says:

    Serious question for you, @vikram-bath : 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?Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to Tod Kelly
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      says:

      @tod-kelly 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…)Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Tod Kelly
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      says:

      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.

      @maribou 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 @chris 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…Report

  8. Avatar CJColucci
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    says:

    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?Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to CJColucci
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      says:

      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.Report

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