Kicking the habit

by James Robinson / 21 July, 2012
New scientific discoveries have given us the key to beating some of our worst behaviours – like smoking, boozing and overeating.

Jon Johansson made a pact with the devil in the New Year. Give up smoking now, he told himself, and you can light up again when you’re 65. “It was utter, complete selfishness. And cowardice. I’m an asthmatic, and I don’t want to get emphysema,” says Johansson, a lecturer in politics at Victoria University. “I believe if I can give my lungs a rest, I will then take up smoking as a 65-year-old man, quite cheerfully. The idea I will never, ever have another cigarette – I don’t like that idea.”

Johansson, 51, is an expert quitter. Since he started smoking as a 17-year-old, he has quit five times, for periods as long as six years. In 2008, an election year, he gave up the fags for nine months. “It was one night out with Winston Peters that ruined that attempt.” When he gave up again in January, he was smoking almost 40 a day. Somehow, no matter for how long he quits, the cigarette habit still has its hooks in him. The prompts pop up like clockwork. Waking up. First coffee. Every coffee after that. After meals. He can handle the physical nicotine withdrawal, it’s figuring out what do with his hands that’s the problem. “I get so crushingly bored when I’m not smoking.”Cigarettes can provide company when things get dull, or at least provide a distraction, he insists. He is filling the hole left by smoking in other ways. “I drink more. I’m getting a beer pot.” Johansson knows that deep down he is still a slave to the smokes. “I’ve no great expectations of long-lived success. Smoking is an absolutely pernicious habit. It gets you in its embrace. The psychological hold it has over you is very powerful.”

Indeed – that’s the thing about deeply ingrained habits. But they can be broken, as Black Cap Jesse Ryder appears to have proven. Ryder, who has had very public problems with alcohol, happily revealed to the nation this month that he had been sober for more than 100 days.There are also numerous examples of celebrities who have vanquished various vices, from X-Files star David Duchovny, who sought treatment for sex addiction, to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has talked openly about his addiction to cocaine. The roll-call of female celebrities who have triumphed over such devastating disorders as anorexia and bulimia is also a long one, from singer Lady Gaga to actress Jane Fonda.

As research scientists have found, the addictive properties of nicotine and alcohol, and even the buzz from problem gambling or compulsive shopping, are only a part of the picture. Over time, the brain, and in particular the subconscious, assembles a whole infrastructure of cues and reward-feedback loops around a particular activity that transforms it from something pleasurable into a hard-to-beat compulsion.And our assumptions about why we do what we do are often wrong. For instance, is the urge to smoke all about stress relief, as popularly thought, or, as in Johansson’s case, is it an antidote to boredom? Or is it an excuse to have some “me time”? Marshalling the research, New York Times investigative journalist Charles Duhigg has written The Power of Habit, setting out the complete anatomy of human habit as science now understands it, and outlining ways we can rewire our brains to outsmart ourselves.

Success, he suggests, depends on steadily – even stealthily – substituting cues and associated habits with new activities: by changing routines, for example, and reevaluating the way we tend to think about a particular activity. As with new research into willpower, a bull-at-a-gate approach has been found to be counterproductive, says Duhigg. It is far better to plan small changes, because they don’t involve a stressful all-or-nothing focus on the habit we are trying to break. Another part of the puzzle is belief. In the very successful Alcoholics Anonymous programme, it’s the quotient known as “God”, or the ability to invest faith in some higher power. Studies have shown, says Duhigg, that success is far more likely if people firmly believe the habit can be changed, which may mean focusing on some kind of bigger picture.The trickiest part, though, can be understanding the whats and whys of human habits.

The book traverses case studies, including from the commercial world, that show how easily we can misconstrue habits. For example, when Procter & Gamble in the 1980s developed a revolutionary spray-on product that lifted odour particles from fabric, Febreze, it was initially a flop. The company’s marketers had assumed consumers would welcome the product. The problem was, consumers didn’t realise they had a problem. It was only when the product was marketed to already-scrupulous housekeepers as a “reward” – a final spritz of fragrance and insurance after normal housework duties – that it took off.Another classic aha! moment about the nature of habit occurred in the 1920s, when the toothpaste Pepsodent trounced all the other tooth-whitening powders on the market. All offered the same seductive promise of a shiny white smile, and answered anxieties about oral hygiene and bad breath. But only Pepsodent actually created a craving on top of the vanity and anxiety factors by adding citric acid and mint, which caused a tingling sensation. Consumers were convinced the tingling – in reality a temporary irritation of the membranes of the mouth – was the absolute proof that the cleaning and whitening was really happening.

The same tactic is still used today, although mint has nothing much to do with oral hygiene. In fact, there are often a variety of sometimes unexpected stimuli at work when it comes to developing bad habits, which Duhigg says need to be addressed specifically.He writes of a nail-biter who had unconsciously used biting for stress relief. Just the act of methodically writing down what she was doing and feeling each time she felt the urge to bite her nails quickly helped her address the real issues. It’s common for the causes of even long-lived, very destructive habits to go unexamined by their sufferer, as Auckland management consultant Glenn Morris can attest of his 35-year battle with the bottle. Morris (not his real name) would often drink during work appointments, and it eventually seemed as if his whole life had become a prompt to drink. “All my friends were heavy drinkers. My father is a heavy drinker. There was nothing I ever did that didn’t include alcohol,” he says. When he attended a wedding four years ago, the cost of his habit became clear. It suddenly dawned on him that his marriage failures, and his dissatisfaction with his life, were largely the result of his drinking. Which brought him to AA – and a hard slog.

Even replacing one behaviour (drinking a lot) with a new one (going to AA meetings a lot) didn’t immediately stick. The desire to drink was prompted by the people in his life, and by the prospect of a fun time and being able to drown out his own frustration and helplessness. Once he began drinking, he couldn’t stop. Now, he uses a reminder that he can’t drink normally as a prompt to abstain. He has come to see that staying away from the dark places that alcohol can take him is its own reward. He has managed to be sober for two years, and has slowly reprogrammed his behaviour and responses to certain situations. It’s a struggle that Iain Potter, the former chief executive of the Health Sponsorship Council, understands well. Potter has spent most of his career examining how habits are formed and how hard they can be to break, and then using his insights to encourage New Zealanders towards sound behaviours: wearing sunscreen, drinking less, eating well. It has taught Potter how much we are a product of our environment. But he knows that, with persistence, behaviours can be changed. “I remember, sadly, when it wasn’t common place to wear a seatbelt,” Potter says. “Now wearing a seatbelt is part of driving a car. It is embedded. The idea doesn’t have to be promoted any more and you’re still going to get a high level of compliance.”

The key to breaking bad habits is a basic cycle of emphasis and repetition known as cue-routine-reward. This pattern was used by the council (now known as the Health Promotion Agency) to promote sunscreen use, and to lessen insidious and addictive behaviours. In the case of smoking, there is obviously an issue of chemical dependency. But even when the nicotine is out of a smoker’s system, a psychological addiction remains. The simple cue of seeing a packet of cigarettes increases brain activity in smokers as they anticipate their nicotine hit. Smokers also develop their own powerful mini-routines. Potter recalls a survey of smokers in which nearly all respondents discussed their “smoking moments”. In many cases, it was their reward for doing something, like getting the kids into bed. The hardest part about changing such behaviour is identifying what the benefit is, and offering something comparable, he says. Philosophers have grappled with such issues for more than two millennia. It was, after all, Aristotle who wrote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

But scientific developments of the past 20 years have moved beyond the philosophical and traced how we are wired to form habits. It has been shown how even seemingly complicated choices boil down to reflexive responses to routine stimuli. In the same way that we automatically perform the skilled task of reversing out of our driveway, it becomes second-nature to rats to travel through a maze to find an identically placed piece of chocolate. The Power of Habit shows how this “habit loop” drives not only the lives of individuals, but also businesses and society – ranging from the founding of AA and America’s largest aluminium plant, through to the willpower of Starbucks employees and an underdog football coach.

Duhigg first became interested in the subject after being stationed in Iraq nine years ago. In Iraq, protests would often start in an open area and usually grow more and more violent. Someone figured out that the protesters were only able to sustain the activity by buying food from local stalls. After the food vendors were shifted out of the major plazas, the protests eventually died down, because hunger was a reminder to eat that could only be ignored for so long. The patterns of habit began to take a tighter grip on Duhigg’s imagination when he returned home. He would be feeding his two-year-old son chicken nuggets for dinner, and found he was unable to stop picking. “As soon as I’d stop thinking or get distracted, I’d just eat one,” he says amiably over the phone from New York. He started to notice other automatic behaviours in his own life. “I’m a successful, well-educated person, but I felt there were all these things in my life I didn’t have control over,” he says.

Three hundred interviews and an exhaustive amount of research later, Duhigg had learnt that new understanding of the brain has transformed our ability to see how a habit unfolds neurologically. Two discoveries in particular have radically changed how habits are viewed. In 1993, Eugene Pauly, from Southern California, had the temporal lobe of his brain destroyed by viral encephalitis. His memory was so affected he could hold information for only a few minutes at a time. Those treating him were shocked, therefore, when they discovered he could find his own way around the house and neighbourhood he had moved to after his illness. He was forming new memory in a way they did not understand. Researchers began administering routine memory tests, but Pauly repeatedly failed. Four months later, however, his success rate was 95%. This overturned the orthodox idea about learning – that it flowed from the declarative areas of the brain, which sort through facts and knowledge, to the non-declarative areas that store unconscious skills. Pauly’s declarative brain function was gone and never returned. But researchers were witnessing that through repetition and subconscious cues he could still learn new behaviours. Even when he passed the entire memory test, he couldn’t explain how he knew the answers.

“Unconscious processes form a big part of who we are,” says Dr Larry Squire, a neuroscientist from the University of California San Diego, who was the lead researcher in Pauly’s case. “A lot of behaviours and decisions are based on automatic processes we don’t have access to.”

Although this explains mechanical behaviours – such as riding a bicycle, or a small morning routine – it doesn’t account for the need that drives many habits. Duhigg uncovered more answers. In the late 1990s Wolfram Schultz, a University of Cambridge neuroscientist, was studying a monkey that had  learnt that if he pressed a button when it lit up, he was rewarded with juice. After a while, researchers experimented with not giving him the juice when he pressed the button. The monkey became upset, and what they saw inside his brain was new. Whereas to begin with the pleasure centre of his brain had lit up at the taste of the juice, it was now lighting up at the sight of the button. The cue and the reward had become psychologically linked. If Pavlov’s dogs acted reflexively, Schultz’s monkey had come to learn a pattern of behaviour and expectation.

The breakthrough has broad applications in understanding human behaviour. “The idea that there was that response to just the anticipation of the reward was revolutionary. You could see the response in the brain, but there was no receptor for it,” Schultz explains. The reward system, he discovered, is central to the idea of habit and how we make decisions. And as Duhigg spends much of The Power of Habit advocating, understanding it is the key to changing our behaviour. If you set up a cue and a potential reward for a behaviour you would like to become routine, eventually the cue and the reward become linked. Put a pair of running shoes next to your bed and take a run when you get up in the morning. Do something nice for yourself afterwards, and stick patiently with this plan. Alternatively, focus on the perceived reward for a behaviour you wish to change, and try to deliver that same reward by different means.

We’ve all been focusing on habit, but we haven’t been connecting the dots, Duhigg argues. “People who work on smoking cessation were not the same people who were talking to organisational behaviouralists. But they were discussing the same ideas,” he says. One of the more powerful ideas Duhigg explains is the concept of “keystone” habits: that some good habits also unlock other positive behaviours. It has been suggested, for example, that children from families that eat dinner together are less likely to abuse drugs, and people who exercise more have longer attention spans. Duhigg spends a chapter outlining how this concept can be used for effectively organising businesses, giving the example of the resurgence of American aluminium manufacturer Alcoa.Paul O’Neill, later Treasury Secretary in the second Bush Administration, took over at an economically sagging Alcoa in 1986 and announced a renewed focus on employee safety. Most thought he was mad. But by engaging the entire workforce in a singular habit, it brought other positive changes. Less money was spent on injury leave, workplace efficiency improved and the workplace culture became more innovative and open. When he retired in 2000, Alcoa’s net income was five times larger and O’Neill’s leadership style was being studied at Harvard University.

It’s an approach Mark Orson, the client services director at transtasman management consultancy Right Management, enthusiastically supports. A diverse workforce has diverse needs, and companies need to be connecting with the individual motivators and needs of its employees, he says. “You can’t impose organisational change,” Orson says. “Successful change comes from getting individuals to assess their behaviour and for them to get insight into how they behave and why.” Companies can do this through various processes, including psychometric testing, which can be used to put together a workforce with complementary behaviours and beliefs. The sense of a common goal is imperative; engaged employees are much more likely to go the extra mile. “I’ve been involved with companies on their last legs. The people are disengaged, with no focus, but they’ve turned themselves around when they’ve grasped this,” Orson says.

What lies at the bottom of this is that we’re not as unpredictable as we imagine. “Habitual ways of behaving are the most effective, least effortful, way of behaving when the environment is constant,” says Michael Davison, a psychology professor at the University of Auckland. Your choices can even be accurately modelled, says Randolph Grace, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury. If you have a choice you have to repeatedly make, it is likely you will favour the option with the larger reward, or the one that offers short-term gains over longer-term benefits. “Most people would be surprised to know how similar our decision-making processes are to [those of] animals,” he says.

The Power of Habit closes with an allegory from a speech by American author David Foster Wallace to a graduating class in 2005. Two young fish are greeted by an older fish swimming the other way that asks them how the water is. Eventually, one of the younger fish turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water?” “A habit is a decision we make at some point, and then stop making, but continue acting on,” Duhigg says. Habits are the water in Foster Wallace’s story. We all live within a system of entrenched behaviours of which we have become unaware. Meaningful behaviour change – in our lives, communities and workplaces – is open to us if we can identify the motivators of our actions. To Duhigg, habits can become a tool for us to better ourselves, rather than an excuse to hide from change. “Once you know how to change something, you have a responsibility to do so.”


All habits — no matter how large or small — have three components:

  • a cue (a trigger for a particular behaviour)

  • a routine (the behaviour itself)

  • a reward (how your brain decides whether to remember a habit).

However, scientists have also discovered that habits create subconscious neurological cravings. The key to breaking bad habits, they believe, is to break the cue-routine-reward cycle, to enable us to rewire our brains.

With additional reporting by Jane Clifton and Ruth Laugesen.

Four habit-breaking steps

Changing behaviours involves firstly identifying the habit loop and repurposing it, but also staying on guard to stick with it.

Author Charles Duhigg ends his book The Power of Habit with a 12-page guide to help readers adopt its ideas. “People want to know how to change habits. I think everyone feels this way,” he says. But how difficult is it to heed the author’s advice? I put his steps to work for a week in an attempt to attack my own propensities for snacking, guzzling fizzy drinks, and procrastination.


Identify the routine
I was able to quickly isolate the routines involved in my snacking habit. Snacks followed a meal, because I would be looking for something sweet. They also came between meals, precipitated by either boredom or hunger. Soft-drink consumption and procrastination were harder habits to shed. Both seemed to be cued by boredom, although craving a Diet Coke obviously had a little to do with thirst. I was exponentially more likely to procrastinate, I realised later in the week, if I was mentally overloaded or tired.


Experiment with rewards
Duhigg encourages readers to experiment with new rewards and pay close attention to the responses they provoke. This had immediate impacts. Instead of snacking on something chocolatey, I had a small bowl of frozen raspberries. I switched from a Diet Coke to a small bottle of soda water. In each case, the sense of boredom, thirst or hunger that cued the need for each was sated. Procrastination still ruled me. I tried promising myself a short break in an hour’s time, but this frustrated me further.


Isolate the cue
Cues, research says, fit into five categories: location, time of day, emotional state, people around you and what happened before the behaviour. I began focusing closely on my mindset when I was procrastinating. As I’m a work-from-home journalist, the “who” and “where” were irrelevant. The time of day varied. But my emotional state was similar: mentally overextended and cranky.


Have a plan
The plan to cut unhealthy snacks and softdrink was self-evident: keep a supply of soda water and fruit, so when bored or hungry, I would have better rewards on hand than junk food and chemical-laden beverages. I began to develop a plan to attack procrastination. The next few times my attention was diverted, I took a short stroll around my apartment, or set about more menial tasks. I returned to my work each time with a considerably clearer mind.

One month later
My behaviour has slipped occasionally. I have let my guard slip and found myself downing a Diet Coke or a large bowl of ice cream. It is evident, as Duhigg suggests, that changing behaviours involves fi rst identifying the habit loop and repurposing it, but also being alert to sticking with it. Understanding how habit is formed is a start, but it is nothing without patience and vigilance.

Under the corporate gaze

We might not like to admit to our bad habits but some of them are on full show.

In America, the corporate sector has become adept at gleaning all sorts of information about its customers simply by monitoring their habits. In his book, Charles Duhigg uses the example of Target, America’s thirdlargest retailer, to show just how much effort goes into data-mining. Target sees its customers’ shopping habits as rigid, but most likely to shift in moments of great personal change: a baby, a divorce, moving house. Therefore it takes great interest in whatever information it can deduce about their lives. In one eye-opening example, it claimed to have successfully predicted the pregnancy of a teenage girl before her own father knew. The company closely monitors customer behaviour through its loyalty scheme, or by assigning guest IDs to unaffiliated credit cards and coupons. It also buys information from outside sources, enabling it to infer personal details about a customer that it can then exploit through direct marketing.

“There’s an arms race going on between companies, but the weapons they’re using are algorithms,” Duhigg says. Target’s use of predictive analytics is at the cutting edge of marketing, and some New Zealand companies have also adopted it as a marketing tool. North Carolina’s SAS Institute has been offering predictive business analytics in New Zealand for three decades, and claims to have clients in most major sectors of the economy. Oracle and IBM also offer predictive analytics, alongside a number of smaller players. SAS Institute’s New Zealand director, Geoff Beynon, says broader data captured from social media platforms is examined in tandem with information provided by clients. This information can be analysed as closely as a client needs. The bigger a company’s customer base and electronic footprint, the more information that can be gathered, he says. This is how Google and Facebook target users with minutely relevant advertisements.

Some experts, however, question the worth of much of the data mining that goes on. University of Auckland marketing professor Rick Starr notes that many companies use loyalty schemes to track information about their customers. Although this is a relatively easy method of acquiring data, it is not necessarily of much value, says Starr. “My guess is many of these efforts in New Zealand aren’t very sophisticated yet,” he says. Michael Carney, editor of Marketing Week, agrees. Many New Zealand companies are still reactive, collating the same information they always have, he says, such as Nielsen surveys, in-store traffic and point-of-sale data. Banks closely monitor customers’ accounts for all sorts of reasons – they can tell instantly, for example, if you have received a large lump sum, or if there are any unusual transactions. Westpac’s head of customer experience, Simon Pomeroy, is reluctant to go into details, but acknowledges the bank uses this information to target customers with specific services, to assess risk and to improve its overall service.

Trade Me’s Paul Ford acknowledges “there is a lot of information behind these walls”. The auction site, which has about 2.4 million members, mostly examines search history, visitor numbers and revenue information. The company realises, says Ford, that there is the potential to find out much more.
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