Charles Duhigg on habits and how stores know when you're pregnant

First aired on The Current (20/03/12)

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Routine and repetition can ingrain some behaviours so deeply, we barely think about them. But there are researchers and companies that think about them a lot. Charles Duhigg has taken a close look at the force of habit and how businesses learned what a lucrative force it is. He is an investigative reporter with the New York Times and the author of the new book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It. Duhigg stopped by The Current on Tuesday to talk about his book and his habits with guest host Jim Brown.

"A habit, unlike an instinct, is a decision you made at some point and stopped making but continued acting on," said Duhigg. "My favourite example is backing your car out of the driveway. The first dozen times, it takes a major dose of concentration -- there's a lot of activities involved in backing a car out of a driveway! But by now it's just a habit, you hardly even think about it. And that's why you have the mental space to think about the meeting that's coming up, or what's on the radio."

So what's the difference between making a decision every day, and relying on habit? "You stop making the decision -- that's the wonder of habits, and the problem with them too," said Duhigg. "Our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been completely transformed, and we know more about how to stop habits and how to create habits. The core of this insight is that your brain essentially stops working when a habit takes over."

There are three main components to any habit. First is the cue, which is the trigger for the habit to start. Then there's the routine (the behaviour itself), and finally there's a reward, which is how the brain learns to remember the pattern for the future.

Once you begin an activity deemed habitual by your brain, all brain activity moves to the basal ganglia, a very old section of the brain that exists to let you do things without thinking about them. That sort of automation of thought isn't necessarily as bad as it sounds. "That's why we have the mental space to invent fire, and spears, and video games and aircraft carriers," said Duhigg. But just as often, habits can backfire.

Duhigg cites a researcher at Duke who did a study to determine how much of the average person's day was a habit. After following people around, she determined that about 45 per cent of our daily behaviours aren't decisions, but habits, including behaviour as minor as dropping your clothing on the floor when you get home to change. "There's a burst of momentary pleasure in dropping your clothes on the floor that you probably aren't even aware of at the time, but that your neurology notices," said Duhigg. "Your neurology uses these things to build patterns...if it were up to your brain, everything you do would be a habit because it's so efficient."

This information, naturally, has been regularly exploited by marketers over the years. Take tooth brushing, for example. It wasn't nearly as habit forming until Pepsodent salesman Claude Hopkins came up with a new reward to change how people thought about brushing their teeth. "The reward was that he added some chemicals into the Pepsodent recipe that make your gums and tongue tingle when you brush your teeth," said Duhigg. "That's the habit loop for brushing."

Brushing your teeth is a good habit, of course, tingling tongue or not, but some marketers can be more sinister. Target, for example, has used this research to figure out when its customers are pregnant, because when you go through major life changes, your shopping habits are up for grabs. "Most people aren't aware that their habits change in this way, but retailers are aware," said Duhigg. "And they care quite a bit."