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You don’t break habits, you just change them

Shalin Hai-Jew

By A Contributor

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” — William James (1892)

Ingrained habits affect many parts of human lives, and once learned, they cannot be unlearned-but only over-written. Habits that become entrenched are not deterministic of people’s lives—if people can see their own routines and what triggers those routines-but if left to run wild, they can drive a person to despair. Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” taps into brain science research to better understand human habit forming.

This book opens with an inspirational story of a woman who had started smoking and drinking at 16 (indicating a high dependence level). She had developed long-term habits leading to smoking and drinking addictions and obesity. She had poor debt management. However, in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, she was able to turn her life around. In four years, she had lost 60 pounds, run a marathon, erased her debt, and started a master’s degree. She was thriving working in a job which she’d held for over three years. She was “lean and vibrant.” She was being studied by neurologists, psychologists, geneticists, and a sociologist.

One conclusion was that she had changed what is called a “keystone habit” by replacing smoking with jogging. That shift in her life changed “how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on.”

A further question for this individual is how resilient her healthy changes are for the better-faster-stronger self. Research has shown that new habits can be quite frail and can fall apart if cues change even slightly. Long-term former habits can have reassert themselves powerfully. The macro question involves how organizations and governments may tap into behavior modification to enhance work performance, combat unhealthy addictions, and promote public health.

To get at how habits are formed, the author highlights some contemporary research on human behaviors. He tells the story of Eugene Pauly, who suffered severe viral encephalitis and suffered damage in his medial temporal lobe and lost all capabilities of short-term memory. He would cook and eat breakfast multiple times a day. He had no idea that he had suffered any injury or memory loss. He could not retain any new information for more than a minute. However, some of his habits from youth were still intact. However, he could walk around the neighborhood by himself without his wife’s guidance when he walked off on his own and returned (even though he couldn’t recall going out). What cognitive resources was he drawing on to achieve this? Where were these new patterns being stored in his brain?

Dr. Larry Squire conducted research to try to understand what was going on that “even someone who can’t remember his own age or almost anything else can develop habits that seem inconceivably complex…” Apparently, Pauly was creating new habits in the basal ganglia-the ancient brain structure near the center of the skull-in an area that controls automatic behaviors (like breathing, blinking, and swallowing).

The basal ganglia enables human pattern recall. It is the space in the brain which stores habits and scripted routine behaviors. This part of the brain allows the other parts of the brain to focus on other details or rest-which increases the brain’s efficiency. In evolutionary terms, more efficient brains means a smaller head-which makes childbirth easier and safer for both infant and mother. “An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and eventually, airplanes and video games,” Duhigg writes.

MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department studied rats’ brain activities as they ran mazes in pursuit of chocolate rewards. They found that while rats were apparently meandering and learning the mazes, their brain activity was active. However, after hundreds of times of running the route, they increased their speeds and made fewer mistakes, and their mental activity decreased. Their running of the mazes were more automatic. The neuroscientists observed spikes only at the beginning when the rats were deciding whether to cede control to a habit and then which habit to choose (for that particular maze) and then when the rats had found the chocolate.

People go through a cue-routine-reward loop. People may be triggered by any number of signals from their environment (or internally from themselves). In response to their cue, they go through a routinized behavior. Then they experience a reward for their action. Marketers have used this to train Americans to improve their dental health by teeth brushing; to eat organ meats in WWII when much of the protein was sent to US troops abroad who were fighting on both Europe and the Pacific theatres, and to buy new products.

A fascinating example involves Febreze, based on a chemical that binds to odor molecules. In its initial launch in 1996, Proctor & Gamble paid millions in R&D to create a spray that would not leave stains but would remove offensive odors. They needed to launch this new category of product. Their initial ad campaign focused on people being aware of odiferous smells in their lives and using Febreze to get rid of it, but that message was not compelling with consumers. The sales were non-existent.

Researchers who went into people’s homes realized that people could not detect the bad smells in their lives. “If you live with nine cats, you become desensitized to their scent. If you smoke cigarettes, it damages your olfactory capacities so much that you can’t smell smoke anymore. Scents are strange; even the strongest fade with constant exposure,” explains Duhigg.

Then the researchers discovered that the product could be repackaged as a kind of mini-celebratory spritz to a room once it was cleaned. They placed the product as a post-cleaning expression of happiness. Further, they added a scent to the product to indicate that it was working. They positioned the product to graft onto an existing habit. The result? “The Febreze relaunch took place in the summer of 1998. Within two months, sales doubled. Within a year, customers had spent more than $230 million on the product. Since then, Febreze has spawned dozens of spin-offs-air fresheners, candles, laundry detergents, and kitchen sprays-that, all told, now account for sales of more than $1 billion per year.”

What many marketing practitioners have long learned is that if people may be taught to “crave” a particular reward, and taught to recognize certain cues about their needs, they can be trained to consume certain products and services-and the optimal way to train a routine is to build on an old one.

When researchers tried to extinguish a habit by moving the chocolate, the rats could relearn a new path. However, their old learning never wholly disappeared. The former habits could be retriggered by placement of the reward in the old location. New habits had to be written over the old ones.

If former encoded habits led to negative consequences, people have to diligently watch against the old cues. To make long-term change, they need to believe in their ability to make such changes in a sophisticated neo-Pavlovian stimulus-response approach.

The conversion of a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is called “chunking,” and humans rely on up to hundreds of behavioral chunks every day. While habits are not “destiny,” unless people deliberately fight a habit or replace it with a new routine, people will generally follow their established patterns automatically.The positive news is that people can engage their executive functions by identifying the positive habits and then work to apply them diligently, and once they’ve established self-discipline over one “keystone” habit of their lives, they become more practiced and can apply that to other parts.

Separated out, such habits may seem innocuous. However, over time and constant practice, such habits push people to grow “to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds,” according to William James, an American psychologist and thinker. The habits of daily life have implications for health, financial security, relationships, workplace productivity, and contentment.

To see how such habits may go awry, he describes the case of a man who experienced severe night terrors who-in an episode-inadvertently murdered his wife. “When a sleep terror occurs, the activity inside people’s brains is markedly different from when they are awake, semi-conscious, or even sleepwalking. People in the midst of sleep terrors seem to be in the grip of terrible anxieties, but are not dreaming in the normal sense of the word,” he writes. “To a neurologist, in fact, a brain experiencing a sleep terror looks very similar to a brain following a habit.”

Keystone habits do not only benefit individuals by changing the dynamics of their lives. At Alcoa, a new focus on absolute safety for all workers enabled new channels of communication, opened the floodgates of innovations, enhanced training programs, created a culture of accountability, and increased profits. “The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns,” writes Duhigg.

Predictive analytics are widely used in sales. Another compelling example involves the data mining which identifies how shopping patterns change when women are early in their pregnancies (they tend to buy a lot of unscented lotions, vitamins, hand sanitizer, and cotton balls).

Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.

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