Author explores belief and remaking habit loops

by Julien Carriere

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By Charles Duhigg
Published by Random House, $28

Have you ever left home on your day off and, after a moment of distraction, found yourself driving to work? This is the “habit loop” in action.

Have you ever struggled against any bad habit that left you feeling powerless? In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, a New York Times investigative reporter, seeks to understand exactly how habits work and how we can control them.

He divides the book into three sections: the individual, organizations and societies. Although many of the stories are inspirational, Duhigg isn’t just interested in the positive effects of habits. He also weaves together the fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking stories of people who fought but didn’t succeed in changing destructive habits.

What exactly is a habit and how much control do habits have over our lives? Duhigg seeks an answer to these questions where one might expect, the cutting edge of brain science. In particular, he traces scientists’ efforts to understand how some people seem to retain memory in spite of having the memory-critical areas of their brains destroyed by accident or disease.

What emerges is that persistent “habit loop,” the process by which the brain learns to repeat an action in an automatic way. Over time, what begins as a choice requiring thought and mental effort becomes an unconscious pattern, in other words, a habit. I can remember the intense concentration learning to drive required and now it is effortless.

Duhigg uses this insight to develop the thesis that if we understand how habits work we can change them. He describes how companies have already used this knowledge to subtly influence consumers’ buying habits and sometimes create new ones. Claude Hopkins created one such habit when he got millions of Americans to brush their teeth every morning and made million of dollars by getting them to do so with Pepsodent.

When Duhigg describes how existing habits can be remade, he illustrates his point by tracing the story of Tony Dungy’s success. It is perhaps a bit surprising that the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl and the only coach to make it to the playoffs 10 years in a row attributes his achievement to remaking habits and “belief.” Here the book veers away from science and toward an even more surprising conclusion.

But to get there, Duhigg first tells the story of Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous. As the author points out, AA’s methods have almost no grounding in science and yet millions credit the program with saving their lives. How can this be explained? Here, Duhigg picks up a common thread between the inner workings of AA and Dungy’s football teams that leads directly to the most provocative idea in the book: Faith is the key to changing habits. Duhigg argues that in both cases faith is essential to the process.

This is immediately evident in AA’s 12-step program. Seven of the steps mention God or spirituality directly and step three illustrates the depth of commitment required, “[We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

When researchers began looking for a correlation between religious belief and how long people stayed sober, they uncovered an astonishing pattern. Simply identifying triggers and replacing habits worked most of the time until a stressful event occurred and individuals began drinking again. Those who believed a higher power had entered their lives, however, were more likely to stay sober.

Duhigg concludes, based on this and other evidence, that faith is the key to making new habits permanent. He also argues persuasively that the positive effects of faith spill over into other aspects of people’s lives as they come to believe not just in a higher power but in themselves.

The book takes up other fascinating stories, of Olympian Michael Phelps, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In each, belief plays a critical role. Duhigg explores the inner workings of large organizations, such as Procter & Gamble, Target and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. In these examples, too, success is more about understanding and transforming habits than personal belief.

The author closes with his own experiments in habit change designed to help him lose weight. He invites the reader to take a second look at the routines of daily life, confident in the power to change them.

I did just that when I finished the book. I’ve learned from my own experiments that this is more than a self-help book and that Duhigg is clearly on to something. This book will be very successful and I highly recommend it.

[Julien Carriere is assistant professor of French and Italian at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.]

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