The flyleaf of this 2012 book by Pulitzer Prize (for Explanatory Reporting) winning author Charles Duhigg tell us that the book "... takes us to the thrilling edge of scientific discoveries." Five years on, this seems like hyperbole—the neuroscience is interesting, but doesn't seem to live up to its billing. It may be because the book's scope leads it to wander further and further away from the "discovery" that leads off the book. If you read it in several disjoint sittings, as I did, then you may well have forgotten that there was a scientific basis during the final section. I would give Duhigg a pass on the flyleaf copy if he didn't quote it himself, but as he does, it seems fair to make him own it.
The book is divided into three main sections, dealing with individuals, organizations, and society. The first chapter lays out the scientific discovery: that patients for whom the ability to form conscious memory is severely impaired can still adapt to a new environment by developing unconscious habits. Down in the basal ganglia, it seems, our brains can be programmed to execute complex routines based on recognized cues. If you've ever done something "on autopilot" like take your usual route to work without really noticing it, this is what's happening. If nothing interrupts your usual path, your conscious brain can work on other things, taking little to no part in your trip. The primitive brain gets you there without needing the more highly specialized bits.
The second chapter builds on this premise to establish how habits can be created without our intent, by setting up a loop where a cue will trigger a habit that leads to a reward. The reward reinforces the response to the trigger, making it easier for the trigger to happen without conscious intent. Advertisers are well aware of this and use it to build loops that get us to buy everything from toothpaste to Febreze. That advertisers try to trick us is not news, but that they're overtly working to program our primitive minds is somewhat disturbing.
The third chapter talks about how those habits can be used and changed. We're already well adrift from the original premise, and away from the hard science into the soft, but still using the habit loop concept to talk about how to change bad habits like alcoholism or nail biting, or to establish good ones like the almost-instantaneous reaction of an NFL defensive line to the subtle cues of the opposing offense.
And at this point we're done, in a nice tight 93 pages, not counting the detailed end notes...except that we're not. Perhaps the publishers demanded a bigger book. If you came for the "thrilling edge of scientific discoveries," you can close the book here, although you might want to hit page 275 for the ten-page appendix first.
Section two goes on to talk about organizational habits. There are some great anecdotes in this section, and Duhigg's background as a business reporter for the New York Times comes through here with snappier, tighter writing. This section comes in just a bit longer than the first, at about 115 pages. We get a good story about Michael Phelps, and how his habits let him prevail in a race where his goggles flooded and he could not see. We learn about how Starbucks trains its employees. We get a hospital story, and then a very compelling story about a deadly fire in the London Underground. The latter tells about how a dysfunctional organizational structure developed, why no-one heeded calls to fix it, and the human cost that was ultimately paid. The connection to the overall theme of habits is tenuous, but the story is compelling.
Duhigg then goes on to one of the most interesting chapters, in which he describes how closely the US retailer Target tracks and predicts shopper behaviour, and how they use that knowledge to bring shoppers to the store. I won't spoil it, but even if you think you're generally aware of what goes on, this chapter might open your eyes to how every thing you do contributes to the global database about you. It's a great read, backed by lots of references in the end notes, but its link to the overall topic seems quite thin. Section two wraps up without much of a clear message or synopsis that I can tease out for you.
Section three, on society, is a quick sixty pages. The first section is about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The connection to habit is even more tenuous here, mostly suggesting that the Montgomery, Alabama black communities' habits were disrupted by Parks' arrest because of who she was and her place in the community. I read it with a vague sense of disquiet, worried that Duhigg was whitesplaining a complex issue to me in overly simple terms. Not that his (and my) race should prevent him from dealing with the civil rights movement, but I felt that this section needs some balance from someone of color, or at least with a more direct perspective.
The next and final chapter deals with responsibility for habits, which to my mind is out of place in the society section, and belongs back in the realm of the individual. It is mostly accomplished through focus on a compulsive gambler, how that compulsion developed, and how the habit feedback loop played a major part. It's kind of a downer ending which is partly redeemed by a brief appendix.
The appendix offers a short guide to consciously changing your undesirable habits (or forming good ones) by altering or building the habit loop. It's out of place here, it needs to be at the end of section one, so that the most relevant material is fresh in your mind. I wonder if the whole book isn't put together backwards, such that it should start with society and end with the individual. But then the falseness of the "thrilling edge" would be even more apparent.
You can get a sense of the flavour from this fifteen minute TEDx talk. Ironically, the best stuff is in the first five or so minutes, so it's like a miniature of the book itself: The Power of Habit: Charles Duhigg at TEDxTeachersCollege
This book has some similarities with The Checklist Manifesto in the way that is uses anecdotes to illustrate its points. Author Charles Duhigg is not quite as compelling a tale-spinner as Atul Gawande, perhaps for the reasons Tem42 gives us above. if you're going to read only one, I'd go with Gawande's. As mentioned, if you read this one, you might want to go with section one and then the appendix, and then skim sections two and three for the anecdotes. Then again, TPoH spent over two years on the New York Times best-seller list, so YMMV.
NaanceMuse says: Based on your review, it sounds like three master theses cobbled together into a book, with the final chapter tossing in interesting information that didn't quite fit anywhere.
- Borrowed the book from the library
- Duhigg's page at the NYT
- The TEDx talk
- I skimmed the Amazon reviews, but only after I had written my own here.
My boss is a big fan of this book. I'm not sure why. I will need to tread carefully when we discuss it!