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Duly Noted

Monday, Mar 26, 2012, 9:27 am

Review: ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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In The Power of Habit, reporter Charles Duhigg argues that a large percentage of seemingly voluntary behaviors are actually habits triggered by cues and maintained by rewards. The book is divided into three parts: the habits of individuals, the habits of organizations, and the habits of societies.

Duhigg is a wannabe Malcolm Gladwell. His prose is less elegant, but his approach is similar: Find a Big Theme and illustrate it with an array of eclectic examples. Like Gladwell, Duhigg is very comfortable making sweeping inferences from limited data.

If you've taken Psych 101, the habits of individuals section will seem familiar. A habit, for Duhigg, is anything you can do on autopilot, from tying your shoes, to driving a stick shift, to pouring yourself a drink when you get home from work. Habits can be reduced to a basic feedback loop: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Almost any voluntary action can become a habit through repetition. If the behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. When we first learn to do something, we have to think about every step. Through repetition, the brain eventually reassigns primary responsibility from the "thinking/choosing" cerebral cortex to the "acting" basal ganglia.

They say old habits die hard. In fact old habits never really die. The brain doesn't like to waste R&D. Ingrained tendencies represent behavior that "worked" in some sense. Pouring a drink when you walk in the door does relieve anxiety. The brain isn't just going to throw that hard-won knowledge away because you decide you want to quit drinking.

Neuroimaging studies suggest that people who beat addictions and embrace healthier lifestyles have generated new habit loops that are stronger than their old ones, but the old patterns are still detectable

The best way to beat a bad habit, Duhigg explains, is to substitute a new routine in response to a familiar cue. The new routine is more likely to stick if it delivers the same kind of reward that the old one did. If you want to change the habit of pouring yourself a drink when you walk in the door, reframe the situation as your cue to take a relaxing jog. I'm glad behaviorism is finally coming back into vogue in pop psychology, but this isn't exactly cutting-edge.

The book becomes uneven in parts two and three. The segment about Paul O'Neill's tenure at Alcoa borders on pop management hagiography. The tale takes a turn for the ridiculous when Duhigg tries to convince us that O'Neill was somehow responsible for reducing the U.S. infant mortality rate during his early years in the public sector.

O'Neill reasoned as follows: Infants were more likely to die when their mothers ate poorly during pregnancy; women ate poorly during pregnancy because they weren't taught proper nutrition in high school; high schools didn't teach nutrition because teachers didn't have enough training in  biology. So, the solution to infant mortality was better teacher training. Lo and behold, in the decades since O'Neill had this brainstorm, infant mortality has gone down by 68%, Duhigg notes. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, amirite, guys?

Duhigg doesn't explain, what, if anything, was done on the basis of O'Neill's recommendations, or why we should assume O'Neill's analysis was correct in the first place. Are we sure that lack of knowledge, as opposed to, say, lack of food, was driving infant mortality? How much biology training do you need to teach the four food groups? Duhigg admits in a footnote that, when he gave O'Neill the chance to take credit for the decline in U.S. infant mortality during fact-checking, O'Neill explicitly refused to do so.

In the section on the habits of societies, Duhigg tries to explain why Rosa Parks catalyzed the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus for a white man. Parks wasn't the first black person of her era to get arrested for defying bus segregation, but these individual acts of protest hadn't catalyzed mass action. Why was Parks different?

Duhigg concludes that Parks' example caught on because she was so well-known and liked across all strata of Montgomery society. As a dressmaker, Parks altered the dresses of debutantes and got to know their influential parents, Duhigg observes. She went to church and volunteered in soup kitchens. When she got arrested, Montgomery's black community and many influential whites rallied behind her.

Unfortunately, Duhigg recycles the misleading image of Parks as the nice black lady who was simply pushed too far. He mentions in passing that Parks was secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, but he rattles it off like one more community commitment. This was no garden club. In those days, Montgomery NAACP members brought shotguns to their meetings for self-defense. You'd never guess from Duhigg's description that Parks was already a veteran civil rights activist at the time of her arrest. She had registered voters in the segretated south and championed the rights of black men falsely accused of raping white women.

Actually, Parks became famous because the NAACP and its allies had been laying the groundwork for a challenge to transporation segregation long before she took her historic stand. Her mentor, E.D. Nixon, the head of the local NAACP, offered to pay her legal bills. Clifford Durr, the white lawyer who defended Parks pro bono, didn't do it just because she altered his daughter's cotillion dress. He was the head of the radical National Lawyers Guild and a close ally of E.D. Nixon and the NAACP.

Within days, Nixon had mobilized other community groups to take part in the Montgomery bus boycott, including a group headed by the twentysomething Martin Luther King, Jr.. Duhigg's description of how this coalition of community groups channelled the preexisting social habits of their members in service of the nascent civil rights movement is pretty good.

We know the name Rosa Parks and not the name of an earlier bus refusenik, Claudette Colvin, because the NAACP vetoed Colvin as a test case. She was an unwed pregnant teenager and therefore a less sympathetic figure.

Ultimately, Parks was different because she was part of an organization that was ready to move at a critical historical moment. When the bus boycott sprang into action, the message was "End segregation" not "Help our friend Rosa Parks."

The Power of Habit is a good beach book for nerds like me who don't like pulpy novels. You will learn many juicy new "facts," but don't take any of them too seriously without further investigation.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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