Review: Free will, shopping and bad habits

March 2, 2012

By Martin Langfield
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

We have free will, but rather less of it than we  may think. Unconscious routines fill our lives and can destroy us, Charles Duhigg writes in “The Power of Habit.” But if understood and harnessed correctly, habits can be retooled to transform people and organizations for the better.

A New York Times reporter, Duhigg ranges widely in his exploration of our habit-forming tendency, and the uses or abuses it can be put to – from studies of rat and human brains, to riots in Iraq, to discount retailer Target’s pursuit of pregnant shoppers.

Habits are necessary. If many daily actions were not reduced to routines performed without conscious effort, people would be overwhelmed by the need for decisions. So the brain automates all the steps involved in, say, driving a car to work, saving mental energy for greater things. The technical term is “chunking”, and neurologists say it’s the work of basal ganglia – an old part of the brain in evolutionary terms, also found in rats.

Chunking is vital, but it makes individuals and organizations prone to inertia and unthinking drift. Unconscious habits sometimes make no sense. And commercial habits – shopping and website browsing – are easily exploited. For corporations, habits can be a goldmine. Target, Duhigg says, takes advantage of the distinctive habits of pregnant women to identify which shoppers might  respond to coupons for baby goods, which are mixed in with others so that the retailer doesn’t appear omniscient.

How do habits work? People respond to cues, often unawares. The cues prompt automatic behavioral loops, or routines, that lead to a sense, perhaps an unconscious sense, of reward. The reward can become something people crave. Duhigg cites the cases of an obsessive gambler who fed her habit with hundreds of thousands of dollars, ruining her family, and a sleeping man who killed his wife when impulses from his most primitive brain took over his behavior. He suggests that the basal ganglia are responsible in both cases, and explores whether that’s enough to take away legal responsibility for the actions, both waking and sleeping. The gambler had to answer for her debts, he writes; the killer was acquitted by a British court.

Turning to organizations, Duhigg examines, among others, the case of the London Underground, and how rigid habits limiting interactions among its internal departments contributed greatly to a fire at King’s Cross station in 1987 that killed 31 people.

The good news is that all habits can be transformed. The key, Duhigg writes, is not to try to replace them outright, but to disrupt the old cycles of behaviour with new routines. In one case, a U.S. officer’s request in Iraq to a local mayor to ban food vendors from an area where angry crowds would gather and habitually riot led to a sharp decrease in violence. In another, he describes a revolution in behaviors at aluminum firm Alcoa when its chief executive made worker safety his top priority.

Part cautionary tale, part self-help manual, “The Power of Habit” ends with an appendix laying out simple steps to alter habits for the better. It’s hard, Duhigg says. It takes will. But it can be done.

 

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