Saturday, September 01, 2012

Habito ergo sum

When Paul O’Neill took over the reins of the aluminum company Alcoa, it was in bad shape. To turn it around he adopted a different tack: O’Neill realised that the company used to lose at least one man-day every month to accidents. So he ensured that workers’ safety was given paramount importance and, as a result, profitability surged automatically

Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit uses many similar stories, related in captivating detail, to explain the central theme of his book as explained in the subtitle: “Why we do what we do and how to change.” Duhigg, a New York Times journalist, delineates habits broadly into three categories: those of individuals, successful organisations and societies. He is at his very best when dealing with the first category. He uses simple illustrations to explain how a few of our habits have been induced by using the “cue-routine-reward” method. Ad guru Claude C Hopkins, the prototype for Don Draper of Mad Men, introduced Pepsodent to the world by saying you would feel a tingle in your mouth after brushing your teeth. Here, the cue is the plaque that forms on the teeth whenever you eat something. By flashing a wide-toothed grin with a twinkle between the teeth, Hopkins induced the customer to brush her teeth on a daily basis.

The one chapter that bestrides the book like a colossus is “The Golden Rule of Habit Change”. Duhigg uses some terrific examples to explain how habits that are deeply ingrained can be tweaked without affecting the “reward”. Tony Dungy, the iconic coach of the NFL team Tampa Bay Buccaneers, pulled his team out of the rut by asking the players to stick to their instincts. The players knew a few formations that allowed them to cohere and stop their rivals from scoring, but Dungy didn’t want too many permutations and combinations (the conventional formula for NFL glory) because he didn’t want his players to “think”. “If his players think too much or hesitate or second-guess their instincts, the system falls apart,” Duhigg writes.

The Power of Habit is the sort of book that is born out of an intellectual marriage between Malcolm Gladwell and Sigmund Freud, which is then raised by Daniel Kahneman. Duhigg marries Freud’s psychoanalysis with Gladwell’s perspicuous prose, and Kahneman’s latest book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is an obvious influence. Gladwell’s Blink, and Nudge, written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, have a theme similar to The Power of Habit. But where the latter scores the most is in the instances that Duhigg cites and the vim of his writing. These examples can be ferreted out if you spend copious amounts of time on Google. However, the personal touch and the odd anecdote elevate The Power of Habit to a different level.

In the chapter “How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do”, Duhigg masterfully explains how the Target store would look at the customers’ shopping habits and make ballpark predictions on who is pregnant. Soon-to-be-mothers are most valuable customers because research shows they tend to buy everything under one roof. Duhigg explains how the supermarket chains outwit their competition without giving customers the heebie-jeebies. This chapter is a fascinating tale about corporate marketing and how every customer tic is worth monetising in the future.

The Power of Habit should not be perceived as a part-study on behavioural economics. It’s much more evolved than that. What’s more, he shows the reader a way to get over their bad habits without ever extinguishing them. If there are jagged edges, then it has to be the way Duhigg slips into journalese on more than one occasion. He quotes Rahm Emanuel’s vapid statement during the 2008 meltdown that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” but does not care to examine it more deeply with the benefit of three years of hindsight. The investment banks are still their narcissistic selves — this was evident in the recent $2 billion trading loss that JPMorgan suffered.

The writer’s explanation of how to stop chewing your nails or drink fizzy sodas requires a suspension of disbelief beyond belief. He posits through examples that charting out the cravings on paper would help beat the habit. These recipes to get over the “bad habits” are simplistic. But then, a start has to be made somewhere. And you can do far worse than to follow what Duhigg has to say.

Charles Duhigg
William Heinemann
380 pages; Rs 599


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