Some mornings, my drive to work goes so smoothly that I hardly notice that I’ve been driving. Habit has carried me down the familiar streets, stopping at red lights, passing laggards and dodging potholes without active thought on my part. It seems that similar habits see us through a larger part of our day than most of us realize.
Charles Duhigg, whose article about how marketers profit from our habits was highlighted in a recent post, explains the mechanics of habit in his fast-paced book, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.1 Duhigg describes the discovery that, when we undertake a new task, our brains become intensely active from the time we react to the first cue until we reach our goal and experience the reward associated with the activity.2 If we repeatedly react to the cue in the same way, the pattern of our brain activity changes: our brains fire up only while we recognize the cue and again when enjoying the reward, but in the interim they become passive as we perform the habitual activity. Presumably, my brain reacts to the cue of the morning drive and puts me on autopilot until I arrive at the office, where it fires up again as I enjoy the rewards of my workday.
When the rewards are intense, a further change can take place. Instead of waiting to enjoy the reward until the habitual activity has been completed, our brains anticipate and begin to enjoy the reward before the activity has begun. We experience this shortcut as a craving. The descent into gambling addictions, for example, appears to be based on gradual transformation of habit into craving. In a recent study in which gamblers were asked to watch the bars on a slot machine, problem gamblers reacted strongly to any ‘win’ and almost as strongly to ‘near misses’. In practice, the near misses prompt gamblers to lay down another bet.3 Simply by programming slot machines to produce more near misses, casinos have been able to entice players to gamble, and lose, more money.
Fortunately for us, we are more than our habits. Duhigg explores the habit-changing methods of Alcoholics Anonymous to develop an understanding of how destructive habits can be overcome. Deliberate changes to routines and conscious resistance to cravings can help, but in times of stress the recovering addict needs the additional support of a dedicated group which shares the same goal. In other words, belonging to a community of like-minded people can help sustain a person’s decision to change habits.4 Contrast that with the casino which trains its employees to listen sympathetically to the life stories of problem gamblers with the intent of discovering and exploiting their weaknesses.5 Our mothers were right — it matters who we hang out with.
Is any of this new? Has it taken lab-coated researchers with sophisticated probes and imaging hardware to discover this? Actually, no. The researchers are providing material evidence that supports conclusion drawn centuries ago by Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and dozens of other philosophers and writers.6 Listen to Blaise Pascal:
For we must make no mistake about ourselves: we are as much automaton as mind. As a result, demonstration is not the only instrument for convincing us. How few things can be demonstrated! Proofs only convince the mind; habit provides the strongest proofs and those that are most believed.7
Generally, we have a choice of two paths. On one path, developing virtues through careful thought and consistent practice eases our way; on the other path, unthinking development of injurious habits throws up obstacles at every turn. Whichever path we choose, the marketers will be watching.
- Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Doubleday Canada, 2012. ↩
- Duhigg, p. 19. ↩
- Duhigg, p. 264. ↩
- Duhigg, pp. 82-86. ↩
- Duhigg, pp. 260-61. ↩
- For a penetrating examination of the thrills and devastation of problem gambling, see Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Gambler. ↩
- Blaise Pascal. Pensées. London: Penguin Books, 1966, p. 274 ↩