• The Power of Habit, Part 2/9

    Today we will be taking a deeper look at The Power of Habit, in the second of our nine-part series on the mammoth hit that spent over a year on the New York Times Bestseller list. The Power of Habit was written by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg was a staff writer of The Los Angeles Times, until 2006; since then he has been a reporter at The New York Times, and was one of a team of New York Times reporters who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a series of 10 articles about the business practices of Apple.

    Chapter Two opens in the most glaring parallel to Freakonomics yet, with the question of how a common, everyday product that had existed for years (toothpaste) gained its everyday use and massive mindshare (from less than 10% of Americans exercising daily tooth care to over 65%). He focuses in on an early-century marketer who, without having decades of research explaining it, was able to suss out the cue → action → reward train that habits rely on to get people invested in creating and (more importantly) maintaining habits. Claude Hopkins, accidentally and without a scientific background, created the field of habitology.

    From this simplistic example, Duhigg goes more modern with the tale of Proctor & Gamble’s runaway hit/almost-total-failure-that-got-the-whole-department-fired product Febreze. Having laid the groundwork for how to make others start engaging in a habit (“First, find a simple and obvious cue. Second, clearly define the rewards.”), he goes into detail the terrifying death-spiral of failure Febreze had early in its marketing as it was peddled to those that most needed it: pet owners and smokers.

    The Febreze team went to Wolfram Schultz, whose study of blackberry-juice-loving monkeys named Julio is legend. The interesting component Schultz added to the lexicon of habitology is that after a habit is locked in (button → press → Juice!), the pleasurable moment of achievement that is required to create a habit moves. At first, it is – predictably – at the “I just got blackberry juice!” moment. And why wouldn’t it be? But after repetition and habit lets the actor know that blackberry juice is imminent, the pleasure turns to the cue (“press button!”) rather than the reward. In effect, Schultz had diagnosed the exact moment that a habit turns into a craving – something you do in hopes of a future reward you are already anticipating.

    This is explained brilliantly by the almost compulsive act of checking your phone the instant it buzzes or lights up with a new message – something the author of this article has work to deprogram themselves from doing. The pleasing feeling of clearing unread messages, making ‘that red dot go away’ is a powerful, appealing activity. Taking away the reward (by removing color from your phone’s display, for example) will allow you to break the cycle, and thus the habit itself.

    Most importantly, and drawing the chapter to a close with a relieved Proctor & Gamble team isolating the craving that housewives had for a fresh smell to go with a finished tidying (rather than relying on smokers and pet-owners to know that they stink), Duhigg explains that it isn’t just inventing and isolating the chain of cue → action → reward that makes a product’s advertisement a success, but creating a craving that short-circuits the brain’s ability to break the habit due to laziness or apathy. While toothpaste already existed; indeed, toothpaste advertised using the trigger of getting film off your teeth existed, it took Hopkins’ composition of both cue and devising a craving that would divert the brain’s anti-habit forming pattern. The citric acid present in Pepsodent giving people an absence of “minty tingle” when they missed a brushing didn’t hurt, though.

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