Breaking the Habits that Enslave Us: Q&A with Charles Duhigg


Charles Duhigg, New York Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit

by Steve Silberman

For a species obsessed with free will, choices, and options, we spend a surprising amount of time acting like zombies. We’re already sipping our morning coffee before we notice we’ve navigated to the kitchen on automatic pilot. We pull our smart phones from our pockets while the friend beside us says something that deserves our full attention. We can be halfway to the bar before we ask ourselves if we truly need another drink.

Indeed, we spend more than 40 percent of our precious waking hours engaged in habitual actions [PDF], according to a 2006 study at Duke University. Welcome to the machine.

That’s one reason noxious habits like smoking, overeating, and meth addiction are so hard to break. Once the behavior that perpetuates them is set in motion, the voice of willpower utters its dissent too faintly and too late. It’s as if our brains store habitual behavior in a locked box to prevent tampering by the more mindful angels of our nature — even at the cost of our health, our self-respect, our reputations and jobs, our marriages, and our personal survival.

In his provocative and brilliantly written new book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg — a reporter for the New York Times — pries open the box with the help of recent research and finds surprising good news: Even the most thoughtless and self-destructive cycles of behavior can be changed, if you understand how habits are formed and stored in memory.

Duhigg breaks down the sequence of ritualized behavior (which he calls the habit loop) into three component parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is the trigger that sets the sequence in motion. Perhaps it’s a certain time of day when you tell yourself it’s time for your daily chocolate-chip cookie (that was Duhigg’s particular jones). Perhaps it’s email from your boss that makes you want to dash out for another smoke. Perhaps it’s the chiming bells and flashing lights of a crowded casino, designed to make a room full of incremental losers look like winners who are hitting jackpots all the time. The routine is the behavior itself, which can be positive (like a daily running habit) or harmful (like gambling away the family savings). And the third part is the reward — the goal of the behavioral loop, which your brain’s pleasure centers gauge to determine if a sequence of behavior is worth repeating and storing in a lockbox of habit.

A pint of butterfat and sugar with a Ben and Jerry’s label, a spurt of oxytocin when you see that @jayrosen_nyu or @ebertchicago has retweeted you, that tingling in your legs after a strenuous workout, the numbing rush of a fix, the first puffs of an American Spirit… it’s all the same to the basal ganglia, four lumps of gray matter in the forebrain that encode highly rewarding behavior for easy repetition.

Though routinized behavior is often framed in terms of the problems it can cause, Duhigg points out that habit formation is an evolutionarily keen strategy for managing the limited throughput of our conscious awareness. If we couldn’t even brush our teeth or drive without having to ponder the nuances of every action, our brains would require more real estate in decision-making areas like the prefrontal cortex. One advantage of “chunking” behavior into automatic sequences stored in memory — Duhigg tells us in a typically enlightening aside — is that our skulls can be smaller, ensuring that more mothers survive giving birth. Darwin FTW.

But when you become a slave of your most destructive habit loops — blowing through the last of the family credit at Harrah’s, or watching yourself down another half-dozen martinis like a hipster robot, though you know it’s wrecking your marriage — it’s time to make a change. Duhigg explains why our usual way of tackling the problem — telling ourselves “I’ve got to quit doing this, now!” and berating ourselves when we don’t — is often doomed to failure. Then he maps out a more effective path toward enduring habit change that focuses not on trying to scrap the routine all at once, but on becoming aware of the cues and manipulating the rewards. The encouraging news is that success in making modest alterations in behavior (which Duhigg calls “small wins”) creates a ripple effect into other areas of your life. Sometimes the most effective way to quit smoking might be to start walking the ten blocks to the office every other day instead of taking the subway. Small wins beget larger ones.

The Power of Habit transcends the self-help genre by examining ways to prompt behavior change not only in individuals, but also in organizations, multinational corporations, and society at large. One of the most fascinating sections of the book analyzes the way that Rosa Parks’ respected role in the social networks of Montgomery, Alabama provided a foundation for the triumphant 1955 boycott of segregated buses that kickstarted the modern civil rights movement. It’s a great example of how one woman’s refusal to go along with the oppressive habits of society — in a community that was ripe for change — helped transform the world.

In the wide-ranging conversation with Duhigg that follows, we talk about what inspired him to write the book, the way habits can distort your perceptions of the environment, how public-health campaigns go wrong, the factors contributing to the success of the movement for marriage equality — and how a busy New York Times reporter finally conquered his chocolate-chip cookie addiction.

Steve Silberman:  How did you become interested in habits?

Charles Duhigg:  About a decade ago, I was in Iraq. I went there because I thought it would be fun to be in a war zone. It turned out to be — not fun. I quickly discovered that one of the best ways to be in a war zone is to get to a place where people aren’t shooting at you. So I went down to a city called Kufa, about an hour south of Baghdad by helicopter. There was a major there. I found out that he had effectively stopped riots from happening in the city by influencing the habits of the crowds there. Instead of trying to tackle the job of stopping the riots in an abstract way, he banned kebab stands from the public square, and eventually the crowds just dispersed on their own. No more riots.

Silberman: That’s fascinating.

Duhigg: I thought so too. I basically had two goals when I came back from Iraq. Number one was that I wanted to learn more about the science of habits. Number two was that I wanted to lose weight. I felt powerless over my eating habits, so I figured learning about habits would be a way to do two things at once.

Silberman:  What were your most surprising discoveries about what drives habitual behavior?

Duhigg:  The first surprising thing was how malleable habits are. We’ve only really learned this in the last decade by learning about the neurology of habit formation. We’ve discovered how much habits can be changed by focusing on the three parts of what I call the habit loop: the cue, the routine, and the reward. You’re much more effective if you focus on understanding the cue and the reward. Then the problematic behavior — the routine — can be shifted much more easily.

Silberman: That’s a very different mindset from saying, as I do hourly, “Oh my God — I’ve got to lose weight! I’ve got to get in shape!” Why is it better to focus on the cue and the reward, rather than the routine itself?

Duhigg:  I think when most people think about changing their habits, they focus on the problematic behavior, on changing the habit itself. But there’s only so much willpower we can expend in a day. When someone says to themselves, “OK, I’ve got to get in shape,” that’s an almost insurmountable mountain. But if you focus on the cues and rewards, making a change is more manageable. We know from studies that almost all cues — the stimuli that elicit the habitual behavior — fall into one of five categories. It’s time of day, or a certain place, or a certain emotion, or the presence of certain people, or a preceding action that’s become habitual or ritualized. This gives us a way to create an exercise habit that doesn’t require saying “I’ve got to change my whole life” and beating up on yourself. Instead, what if you just say, “Every morning, or when I come home from work, I’m going to put on my running shoes.  I’m not even necessarily going for a run. I’m just putting on my running shoes. That’s going to be my new habit.” If you do that a couple of days a week, eventually you’re going to go running.

It’s little shifts. Once you start running, you’re going to get into a running habit, right? But it starts with this small win. If as soon as you get home from work, you put on your running shoes — even if you feel stupid about it! — you’re creating a cue. The benefits of that small win will start cascading through your life.

Then you focus on the rewards. The first couple of times you go running, you’re not going to enjoy it. No one enjoys it the first time they run. So you have to give yourself a piece of chocolate when you get back from the run. You have to have some immediate reward.  And we know from studies that within two weeks, the intrinsic reward of running — the endocannabinoids unleashed by exercising — are going to become enough of a reward to create that habit. But you have to trick your brain into it by giving yourself a piece of chocolate the first couple times. And it has to be a reward you really enjoy. You can’t say, “I’m going to start running, and my reward is going to be a salad and kale chips.” No one really enjoys that.

Silberman: I love that concept of small wins. Particularly your notion that the benefits of making a modest change cascade through other areas of your life — like if you start exercising regularly or eating a healthier lunch, it may become easier to quit smoking. That’s inspiring.

I’d like to talk about cues for a moment. A few years ago, I interviewed a couple of brilliant neuroscientists named Kent Berridge and Terry Robison, who study the role of dopamine in generating anticipations of pleasure. We were talking about a phenomenon they dubbed “incentive salience,” which is the way that subconscious expectations of pleasure can highlight certain stimuli in the environment — cues, as you call them in the book. A cigarette smoker can pick up the odor of an ashtray two rooms away, and it starts their nicotine craving going. An alcoholic can walk through a neighborhood, and without even being aware of it, start generating an internal map of where all the bars and liquor stores are, in case he needs to slip away for a drink later.

Duhigg: Yeah. I looked up Kent Berridge after you mentioned him to me last year. It’s really interesting stuff. In the last chapter of my book, I talk about Reza Habib, who does a lot of gambling studies. In particular, he does fMRI studies of people watching slot machines. The brains of pathological gamblers tend to react as if near-wins are wins, while the brains of non-pathological gamblers react as if near-wins are what they really are — losses. It’s a similar phenomenon to incentive salience, I think. Basically people are seeing the same thing, but they’re seeing it two totally different ways, because of what’s jumping out in their mind. It makes sense to me that if you have a cue around a certain habit, when you see an environment that has that cue in it, you’re hypersensitive to that cue. It’s going to color everything you see.

Slot machines. Photo by Flickr user ragingwire.

I have a couple of friends who are long-time recovered alcoholics. Sometimes I’ll be talking about taking certain paths through the city and I’ll ask one of them, “Can you tell me every bar that’s on this route?” And he’ll be like, “Yup, I can tell you where every single bar is in that area. In fact, I can tell you the route I’ll take so I have to pass as few of them as possible.”

Silberman: That’s interesting. You talk in your book about how you weaned yourself from your daily chocolate-chip cookie habit. I know how hard that can be, but is that really the most intense addiction you’ve ever struggled with? Did you ever smoke?

Duhigg:  No, I’ve never had a smoking habit. But on the other hand, I do feel like I’ve pretty much struggled with my weight my entire life. It drove me crazy because I felt like I was a very successful person, so I should be able to… I should be able to master this. And it wasn’t until I started doing this research that I was able to basically change how I eat and how I exercise.

And what’s crazy is, within a year it totally shifted. I’ve lost 21 pounds in the last year, I’m running all the time, and I’m actually going be in a marathon later this year. I should have been able to do this ten years ago, right? If anything, I had more energy ten years ago. But understanding the structure of the habit loop has made a huge difference in my life.

Silberman:  That’s great. When I was reading the sections of your book about the importance of belief in behavior change, I was reminded of the placebo effect, which I wrote a long article about in Wired. As you probably know, the placebo effect is a physiological response — not just a psychological response — brought about by the belief that you’re getting medical treatment, even if all the man in the white coat is giving you is sugar pills. Why is something as abstract as “belief” so important when you’re trying to change behavior?

Duhigg:  That’s a fascinating parallel. I wonder if the placebo effect is stronger in groups of people who talk about how they’re taking a pill versus people who are just taking a pill on their own?

Silberman:  Absolutely. In his book Placebo Effects, researcher Fabrizio Benedetti talks about how hearing about the alleged effects of a drug from other people is one of the most placebogenic stimuli around.

Duhigg:  Right — it’s like in high school, when everybody’s doing drugs together, and the drug really turns out to be flour, but they keep talking about how much they feel it coming on.

Silberman:  ”I’m soooo high!” Hearing that from friends is enough to make some of the kids feel the effects of a faux drug.

Duhigg: There’s a woman named Lea Ann Kaskutas who is an alcoholism researcher in California. She’s one of the old-school AA researchers — and there aren’t that many of those, because people are so dismissive of AA. She said something to me that I think is really powerful. She was talking about why it’s important that AA takes place in a group. Obviously, part of it is the social support, right? There’s someone telling you “Good job!” and giving you positive feedback. But she also said that even if someone knows intellectually that they can quit alcohol, they’re going to forget that at some point. Emotionally, they’re not going to believe that they can do it. But then they’re gonna be sitting in an AA meeting, and they’re going to look across the room, and they’re going to say to themselves, “You know that guy Joe? Joe is a moron. If even Joe can quit, then I can definitely quit.” I don’t even know what you would call that kind of motivation. It’s the other side of the social support coin.

Silberman:  I loved how you analyzed the role of Rosa Parks‘ social networks in the Montgomery bus boycott, and how those networks played such an important part in the early success of the Civil Rights Movement. I wonder if you see any parallels in the gay-marriage movement, which has been amazingly successful in moving the mainstream toward favoring equality for all, despite the efforts of well-paid professional bigots like Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage in spreading a lot of nonsense about how long-term, devoted gay couples are a “threat” to marriage or kids.

Rosa Parks at ground zero of the civil rights movement, Montgomery, Alabama, 1955.

Duhigg:  It’s happening amazingly quickly too, right? I was just talking to Michael Barbaro, one of our reporters who covers this issue, and I was saying  there needs to be a book about the gay-marriage movement. It must be working in the same ways that the early civil-rights movement did. We know that for a movement to take hold, for it to get widespread support, there are certain things that need to happen. It feels like most people who favor equality, when they talk to pollsters, tend to say things like, “I know someone who’s gay.”

Silberman:  That’s exactly what occurred to me when I read your book. I think the most powerful, transformative thing that gay-rights pioneers like Harvey Milk did was to urge every gay person to come out of the closet. The result of that push for public candor is that now everybody either knows a gay person or a gay couple themselves, or knows someone who knows a gay couple. That makes the marriage issue personal. Who wouldn’t want their Aunt Rose to be able to finally wed her friend Marian, and have all the rights and responsibilities of legal matrimony, when they’ve been devoted to one another for 30 years?

Look at Dick Cheney. He’s pro-gay marriage because his daughter is gay and he naturally wants her to have her best shot at happiness. I think you’re so right about how social ties and networks accelerate social change.

I don’t think it’s possible to deny gay couples marriage rights unless you turn them into something less than human in your mind, as Gallagher and GOP candidates like Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney do. Groups like NOM openly admit that they depend on the depersonalizing phrase “redefining marriage” to turn voters off to the idea of equality. They fight to get that precise language into these hateful amendments they’re bankrolling everywhere, because if it becomes obvious that you’re rewriting the state constitution to perpetuate the notion that gays are second-class citizens, most voters instinctively know it’s wrong. It’s as if NOM was waging a campaign against integration by claiming that letting black kids go to the same schools as whites is “redefining education.” My husband Keith and I didn’t redefine the traditional concept of marriage. We embraced it eagerly and enthusiastically the first chance we could.

Mormon mom breaks the homophobia habit. Photo by Steve Silberman.

Duhigg:  Did you find that people reacted to you guys differently once you were married?

Silberman:  Not that much. We’ve been together for 17 years, so everyone knows us as a couple. But what’s amazed me is how marriage transformed my own experience of our relationship.

Duhigg:  That’s interesting.

Silberman:  Yeah. One reason why I’m such an advocate for equality is that marriage has strengthened our relationship in ways that I could not have predicted. It put an end to a certain kind of equivocation: “Well, I hope this relationship works out.” Marriage gives you a solid rock to stand on. Of course, it turns out not to be so solid after all for about half the straight couples that get married these days, but for us anyway, it has enabled us to feel more secure and more deeply woven into the fabric of our extended families in many different ways. That’s one reason I think equality is so important.

Duhigg:  I completely agree. I started dating my wife in college, so I feel like getting married was always an inevitable possibility, because it’s always been legal for us. But what’s astounding to me is exactly what you said — how much it changes the relationship to say, OK, there are certain questions that are off the table now.

Silberman: Totally. So back to your book. We’re a society that struggles with the fact that so many people have damaging addictions like smoking and alcoholism. Knowing what we do about habit formation, is there anything that the government could do to discourage smoking, beyond printing pictures of bloody lungs on cigarette packs? Is there any way that social networks or interventions could be employed to make it easier for people to change their lives in healthy ways?

Duhigg:  Absolutely. There’s a little part in the book when I talk about the only time that the government successfully changed people’s eating patterns — when they got people to eat organ meats during World War 2. Granted, that was a weird time, but they did it by basically leveraging existing habits — by saying, “Let us teach you how to put kidney into your meatloaf.”

Rationing poster from World War Two.

So many campaigns that the government does right now essentially say, “Change your entire behavior” — without paying any attention to the cues and rewards, and without saying, “Let me explain to you why your family eats at McDonalds three times a week. I know that you don’t want to do that, and I know that just telling you not to do it isn’t going to work, so let me explain. Here’s where things are breaking down and you’re losing the time.”

Or telling people that if they set up the ingredients on their counter before they leave for work, it’s gonna be a lot easier to start making dinner when they get home. This is practical advice that no PSA ever includes, right? Why not? Why not have Michael Pollan talking about how to shop at the grocery store? Why isn’t that on ads in the subway?

They say “Read to your kids,” which is great, because we know if you read to your kids, they’ll do better in school. But that’s not how you create a habit. It’s just ordering people around. You have to say, “Before your kid goes to sleep, have a book on their pillow. Put it there in the morning so it’s a cue for you to pick up. And you know what? You don’t have to read the whole book, just read three pages. The reward is to let yourself watch TV for a half an hour afterwards, because you did a good job. That’s how to create a habit.

Silberman: One of the revelations of reading The Power of Habit was realizing how many hours of the day I spend running in zombie mode, just carrying out these behavioral loops. Did you experience a subjective difference in awareness of your own behavior after writing this book?

Duhigg’s nemesis (New York Times recipe). Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jamison_Judd.

Duhigg:  Yeah, I did. I became much more aware of why I was doing things habitually. I became more aware of how to experiment in a finding a way to change my cookie habit. I also I got to a place where I could edit the book anywhere. I would start editing and get drawn into the text immediately. A lot of that was creating these work habits, or really, thinking habits to help me focus. I was much more conscious and deliberate about choosing cues and rewards. When I focused, I rewarded myself.

I think a lot of our instinct is to think that doing good work means just powering through it, then getting home and powering through the work some more. Instead, I spent some time really thinking about, “What do I enjoy during the day? What rewards are genuinely rewarding?” Making sure I gave rewards to myself for habits I wanted to encourage. Those behaviors definitely became easier. So writing the book changed my subjective experience of my life a lot.

Workout time. Photo courtesy of Flickr user maHidoodi.

Piece originally posted at PLOS Blogs

About the Author:

Steve Silberman is an investigative reporter for Wired and other national magazines.