Book Review: “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do & how to change.”

Book Review: “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do & how to change.”

I remember a day when I was walking in a mall, and realizing that I was hungry, I went to the “food street” section in search for something to comfort my ferocious belly. And while I was still thinking and comparing between the various choices (ah, the contemporary consumerist mentality), I suddenly realized that I was standing under a big red and yellow sign with a big “M” on it. I have unknowingly walked into McDonald’s. Strange indeed that even when I haven’t made up my mind on what to eat, and consciously deciding on a choice, I have “unconsciously” made up a choice. Freud might have a say on that, by hypothesizing that it is because of my libidinal instincts constructed of my unhappy childhood with McDonald’s that pushed me to make this choice. But I have a better explanation: the process was automatic, because it was a habit.

In Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”, he wrote extensively on what it is that make us “learn” habits, how habits influenced our everyday living, and most importantly, how to make new, helpful habits, and eradicate the old, harmful ones. Ever wonder why someone can’t stop shaking their legs when they should be sitting still? Or are you curious as to why smokers or even drug addicts can’t stop harming themselves in search for pleasure? This book offers a glimpse as to why some habits are so hard to eradicate while others come and go. So instead of viewing all behaviors as unchangeable or fixed, we can see them as fluid and malleable habits.
Charles Duhigg
As the avant-garde Irish novellist, Samuel Beckett, once said, “Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits.” And it is somewhat true, because most of what we do in life are reinforced habits, constructed and put in place through our experiences and the passage of time. Take for example, the mall experience which I started this article with. There is a McDonald’s near the university where I study at, and in the entire complex, there is not much of a choice when it comes to food; and besides, McDonald’s is not that expensive, and its efficiency is admirable. So after several years of visiting McDonald’s, it becomes an automatic habit, because whenever I’m hungry, I will think of McDonald’s and proceed to go there and grab a burger. (Do not eat McDonald’s, I’m not promoting it!)
Samuel Beckett. He won a Nobel Prize for Literature, just FYI
So, to use Duhigg’s terminology, there is a “habit loop” that is constructed and constantly reinforced whenever I perform a habitual behavior. First of all, there is the “cue”: which is a trigger that prompts us to act, and changes the mode of our brain into autopilot. Then, after the cue comes the “routine”: which is what we go through in order to satisfy the prompting of the cue (the routine can be psychological or physical). Finally, we arrive at the “reward”: which is one of the most important part in the habit loop, since it determines whether this habit is worth continuing, and if not, the habit will be changed or discarded.
Now, what happens when I automatically walked into McDonald’s is this: I received a cue from the grumbling of my stomach when I’m hungry, and so to satisfy the urge to eat, I go to McDonald’s since it is one of the most practical choices at my university, thereby performing the routine. And the reward is that I am full, and I saved money and time, so in my mind, this habit is worth keeping. And after years of repeating “cue-routine-reward”, it became stuck in my head.
But that’s not all! Because there is another element, and that is “craving”. In order to cultivate and create a habit, one must crave a particular thing in order to sustain the entire habit loop. In my example, it is not only hunger that produces the habit of me visiting McDonald’s, because if that is the case, any food will suffice. It is because I crave for McDonald’s (because of its lustrous beef patty, its fizzy soft drinks, its crispy fries, ok I should stop), that I visited it in particular. Hence, I crave, I received a cue, I perform the routine, I get my reward, then I crave it again, and so it goes.
After explicating on the model of “the habit loop”, the book then explores how corporations used this insight to construct helpful habits, how unethical implications can be made based on this model (the gambling industry, or certain online shopping companies etc.). And it provides a very helpful appendix on how to eradicate certain harmful habits.
The book itself is written in a journalistic tone, much like Malcolm Gladwell’s entire ouvre, and it made it much easier for laypeople and those who are just curious about the topic of habits to digest the topic. It rarely contains technical jargon, and the hard science is dumbed down, making it much accessible for non-psychology students. However, for some, it may seem too simplistic, as the book itself is written by a non-psychologist, a journalist, to be precise. But despite its limitations, the book is a very entertaining read, and it occasionally provides very helpful insights.
Malcolm Gladwell. Another populizer.
In short, this is a surprising book, that may make some uncomfortable, because it is certainly surprising to find something as subtle as a habit changes our entire way of living. This is not to undermine the notion of free will, as we can, through our determination, change our habits consciously. But we often think naively of our actions and thoughts as in our complete control, but there are often times when it is our unconscious habits that determine how we act and how we think. And more often than not it is this part of our mind in which sometimes we can’t voluntarily control that makes all the difference.
(The concept of habit actually has deep roots in the psychological concept of learning, more specifically, of “conditioning”. The concept of “classical conditioning” and “operant conditioning” are much too complicated and technical, and are impossible to understand unless one understands the underlying premise, which is laden with jargon. But if you are interested, you can look up the works of Ivan Pavlov, B. F. Skinner, Albert Bandura, and other behaviorists, which the links provided below will lead you to.)
Ivan Pavlov
B. F. Skinner
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