Duhigg pulls together both anecdotal and large-scale studies in neurology and psychology and ties them in with consumer behaviors, the successes of a football team and global businesses, people who kick addictions, and large-scale social movements. He details the research behind habit change and the results of people and entities that have tried to change habits. And he writes it all clearly and with flair — making complicated research accessible and interesting.
Individual habits are particularly interesting to people in advertising: an early-20th-century ad man, Claude Hopkins, figured out how to sell Pepsodent toothpaste by cueing people to routinely get rid of the “film” on their teeth by brushing, with their reward being a lovely, film-free smile.
Organizational habits are trickier since there are numerous people with multiple, often competing, interests involved. Shaky truces between competing factions can provide superficial stability but mask dangers, as illustrated by the 1987 fire in the London Underground: too many departments had their own rules, and each department’s workers were not ever to do anything that was another department’s responsibility. So when the fire struck, workers did nothing that wasn’t their department. In the end, 31 people were killed in the fire, which spurred a massive reorganization of the whole transit system.
Social habits are complicated too, but in a different way: Social ties are strong and influential, and can have a cumulative effect, which is how the arrest of a single person — Rosa Parks, who was not the first person to be arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat but was the most socially connected — sparked a full-blown movement.
All this is not to say that we are slaves to our habits. Duhigg makes that clear as well: We can change habits, but it takes desire and effort, and the bad habits are simply “overwritten,” not eliminated. Let’s keep the good habits, though — like reading the Sunday paper.