Wednesday, March 25, 2015

#14 [2015/CBR7] "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg

I honestly can't remember how I ended up reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012) by Charles Duhigg. I must have seen it somewhere, and I like books that can teach me something. Depending on the day and my motivation, I can have significant problems with procrastination and efficiency. I am so idealistic and optimistic when it comes to planning everything I want to get done, and then reality sets in. I think picking up this book was a concrete (but still kind of procrastinating) way of working on these issues.

Duhigg wrote a generally interesting, and in some ways, informative book. He begins by describing the pattern of habits and shows how once they are engrained, we often follow habits without thinking. Our brain creates shortcuts to make our lives easier, but it is also what makes bad habits so hard to break. The pattern of habits involve a "cue" that signals your brain to perform the "routine," to receive the "reward" that your brain is craving. For instance, smokers may have a "cue" of drinking at a bar. The routine is to light up, and the reward might be the rush of nicotene. The trick is to figure out the cues and rewards and find a new routine to replace the one you don't like. Cues are almost always one of these five things: location, time, emotional state, other people, or immediately preceding action.

Almost all of the above information was useful, interesting, and focused. It was also almost all in the first chapter. But Duhigg had an entire book to fill. And even though he filled it with interesting stories, I felt he got widely off topic in an effort to find things to discuss. He never clearly defines "habit" and what it means, and his anecdotes didn't seem to have much to do with habits when it comes down to it. Sometimes I felt he was being downright disingenuous in order to keep a story in his book, which drove me crazy.

For example, Duhigg mentioned that people who improve one part of their lives, often improve other aspects of their lives as well. So, if a person began an exercise program at the gym, that person might also start eating better and even watching their spending. Duhigg called this strengthening a "willpower habit" [what?], but is it really willpower or are people feeling more control over their lives and feeling better about themselves? It's certainly an interesting study, but there is no real discussion of the possible causes and Duhigg's insistence to fit it into a "habit" model decreases its value.

Another example of this is when Duhigg stated that students who were treated kindly in a study that required them to not eat chocolate chip cookies did better on a later computer test than students who were treated poorly. Again, Duhigg somehow chalks this up to "willpower habit," but I think it's simply that people are more willing to work hard for people they like. The same goes for the study that shows giving employees a sense of control over their jobs improved job performance. Interesting studies, and possibly helpful, but throwing "habit" in there is just confusing.

Subsequent chapters involving Target's advertising and Rosa Parks seem similarly off topic. I did find the discussion of Target's analysis of its customers both disturbing and fascinating, though. I liked how the Target analyst stated, "With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly [that Target is tracking what you buy and can tell you are pregnant before you even tell anyone]." React badly? That's one way to put it. Or you could say, react like a normal person who feels their privacy is being violated.

Finally, and these chapters bothered me the most, was the comparison between a sleepwalker who murdered his wife in a night terror and a compulsive gambler. Again, both of these stories are interesting on their own. In fact, compulsive gambling actually fits in with some of the AA stories Duhigg discussed in the first chapter. However, sleepwalking is not a habit. Duhigg states that, "Society, as embodied by our court and juries, has agreed that some habits are so powerful that they overwhelm our capacity to make choices, and thus we're not responsible for what we do." What? No. Just no.

To be charged with murder the prosecutor has to prove that the defendant had the intent to kill. You can't have that intent if you are asleep and do not know what you are doing. It has nothing to do with habits. In the gambling case, which I was so irritated by, I had to look it up, it seems that the focus on appeal was the aggressive tactics used by the casino, even when it was obvious she was addicted and had told them that she was broke. And the gambler was liable for the money she spent because addiction is not an excuse under the law, and corporations are not required to be moral.

I like learning new things and I appreciate authors who dig in to find the truth in something or find a new way to look at the world. Alternatively, I hate it when I am misinformed, and I feel like that happened in almost every chapter in this book. Duhigg was too focused on shoehorning stories into his main topic, and on the way, the truth of these stories became twisted. I have very little patience or tolerance for this kind of thing. Honesty is more important than anything to me, and so this bothers me more than it might others. Thus, even though this book was a generally interesting read, I probably won't read another by Duhigg because I don't trust him.

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