The power of Habit

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The power of Habit
Charles Duhigg • Random House, 2012, 371 pp.
Book cover for 'The power of Habit'

Duhigg’s new look at human behavior analyzes some fascinating issues: the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement, the use of data-mining to suck another buck from the customer, the techniques for building a mega-church, and even the methods a corporate titan who started his highly successful tenure by distributing his home phone number to the entire work force.

The guiding princilpe here is habits — defined as “behavioral patterns” containing a cue, a routine and a reward. Habits are things we do or think without thinking about them, says Duhigg, a New York Times reporter. “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meal we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise and the way we organise our thoughts and work routinse have enormous impart on our health, productivity financial security, and happiness.”

Habits rule, Duhigg says, but they can be broken — or more accurately, replaced with better habits, and his book covers personal habits, corporate habits, and “social habits.”

There’s just a small flaw. It’s not a book about habits so much as an exploration of learning, motivation, relationship and social customs. It’s a grab bag of insight about the human condition that Duhigg fails condense into his simple title.

I was snared by the story of Paul O’Neill, a number-cruncher who became president of struggling Alcoa, the aluminum maker, in 1987. In his meet-and-greet with Wall streeters, O’Neill announced that his initial focus would be, not the bottom line, not productivity, growing market share or profits, but (gasp) safety! “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America,” he told the investors and analysts. I intend to go for zero injuries.” A habit of safety, he said, would be an indication that a culture of excellence was being instilled.

That focus was soon tested when an employee was killed while trying to repair a machine. Within hours, O’Neill told assembled executives “We killed this man,” and began a thorough review of dozens of steps that would be taken to prevent a recurrence.

O’Neill told employees to phone him at home if they knew of safety hazards, and the result, Duhigg says, was revolutionary — the simple offer to take the workers seriously released a cascade of suggestions related to processes, products and efficiency.

Behavioral patterns are everywhere, Duhigg insists, but one could argue that this had as much to do with morality as habits.

Later, Duhigg quotes — with apparent approval — pastor Rick Warren of the mega Saddleback Church: “All of us are simply a bundle of habits.” I heard an ominous echo of B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist who reduced human behavior to a bag of “conditioned responses.”

Duhigg may be no Skinnerian, but by attempting to corral so much of human existence into the rubric of “habit,” he comes perilously close.

Although I’m not in the habit of recomending books that have such sustained arguments with their own title, but “The Power of Habit” is worth every minute.

– David J. Tenenbaum