Keith Swenson's Reviews > The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
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Dec 09, 2012

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Read in November, 2012

Duhigg is a good and entertaining writer with a journalist's flair. This book contains a number of engaging stories loosly held together by the theme of 'training your subconscious' (my words not his). It is odd that he can can he get through this entire book without standard references to Operant Conditioning like Pavlov or B.F.Skinner. (OK he mentions Pavlov in passing once, but doesn't really explain the connection to habits.)

He introduces a theme of stimulus-action-reward with a visual diagram, and then tries (unsuccessfully in my mind) to apply this patterns to many different situations. He stretched this too far.

I include a summary of the book below, and I realize now it comes off as quite negative. I don't mean to be that negative. He is a great writer, and the book is a pleasure to read. However, I think one should just read the book as an series of interesting stories, bound by a loose and improbable theme, and try not to take the theme too seriously.

Chapter 1 - The story of H.M. was amazing ... that you can learn a new habit without your memory functioning. This chapter makes it worth reading the entire book. It does indicate that there is something deep in the brain running these things, they are subconscious. No surprise there.

Chapter 2 - Story of Pepsodent - people just like that minty flavor, his attempts to show that this P&G successfully engaged people's habits does not persuade me. Fabreeze - people just like the product after they include a scent, but still to me it is just a product at the right time, nothing to do with habits. How do we learn? To play a piano, you have to practice TECHNIQUE. We all know that. After a lot of practice of technique you get to a point where you can play. Duhigg calls this "habit" OK, but nothing really new there.

Chapter 3 - A story about the Buccaneers Football team: a good coach tells the players to focus on particular specific maneuvers and not to think too much on the field, then practice, practice, practice. Some details on Alcoholics Annonymous and habits. Yes, there is clearly a connection between habit and addiction, nail biting. This clearly is a case of habit, and solution is to replace with another habit.

Chapter 4 - very inspiring story about Paul O'Niell and ALCOA, but real lesson here is that he built a learning organization. You can't just pick a habit and get people to do it, but you need to have the right habit. He set in place the standard procedures (well known in TPS) for stopping the line when anyone notices something wrong, and reporting all accidents. He tries to relate everything to this stimulus-action-reward paradigm, but in this case the real lesson what that it was OK for a person to stop the production line to clear a problem. It does have to do with organizational change, and clearly organizations are ruled by habit. This is rally a story about leadership. The stimulus-action-reward does not really play here: you had that before Paul O'Niell.

Some stories about Michael Phelps training and technique. Then an interjection on the reclassification of gay books from abnormal psychology category. Shows how a small change can start things ... but every journey starts with single step.

Chapter 5 - Starbucks and "willpower" training. Really just visualizing your goals clearly. Talks about the delayed gratification study with the marshmallow, cookies and radishes, and how this relates to success in school. In a scottish hospital they instituted a procedure of stating "my goal is ________". Once again, this is all good advice, but it does not strongly support the thesis of the book: this is just visualizing goals.

Chapter 6 - Story about a Rhode Island hospital that was a disfunctional organization. Talks about the role of responsibility in a London subway fire.

Chapter 7 - data mining sales data. How new songs which we are not used to yet get sandwiched between popular songs, makes the sandwiched songs more popular more quickly. Makes me wonder if any popular songs would have been popular had they had not been promoted this way.

Chapter 8 - Now he takes a turn to "habits" at the social and cultural level, if we can even entertain the thought. Good reporting about the Montgomery bus boycott, but once again I don't really see a connection to the thesis which is supposed to hold the book together.

Chapter 9 - Obsessive gambler and Sleeping murderer. Fascinating chapter about the role of free will, and how you are more guilty if there was time to recognize a pattern. Seems pretty obvious really, the obsessive gambler who was told time and again she was in trouble is far more culpable than the sleepwalker who accidentally killed his wife one night. Both are interesting stories, but no deep unexpected truths revealed.

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message 1: by Gordon (new)

Gordon Great review. I hadn't thought of it until you mentioned it, but how did he get through the entire book about "stimulus + behavior + reward= habit formation" without a discussion of Pavlov and Skinner? I think it's because they came to be seen as tarnished brands that the author didn't want to associate his product with. Why they became tarnished is a fascinating question in itself, since these two men's ideas live on, but their names have largely vanished, especially Skinner's. Worth a discussion ...


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