Creatures of Habit

In The Power of HabitCharles Duhigg takes an unflinching look at the science of habit, and offers concrete strategies for transforming harmful habits into beneficial ones.

“So here’s the thing to recognize about your bad habit.  You cannot eradicate your bad habit.  If you just try and say, ‘ I’m going to use willpower to make this behavior go away,’ it’s not going to work.  And we know this from study after study.  Every scientist who works on habits will tell you, once the neurology of that habit is set; it’s always there in some form or another.”


 – Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We do What We do in Life and Business. 


What’s the Big Idea? 

It’s easy to scoff at a billboard’s transparent psychological trickery, thinking: “Ha! I see right through your bikini-clad babes. You’ll never make me buy that Budweiser!” 

But one way or another, metaphorically speaking, they will make you buy that Budweiser, because Madison Avenue has long understood what we’d rather not admit to ourselves – that even the smartest, most creative, most ruggedly individualistic of homo sapiens is on autopilot much of the time, eating, working, and communicating with others through habit. 

There are some good evolutionary reasons for this: habits save us time and mental energy in negotiating the world, and free our minds to invent things like fire and computers. They also limit the size of our brains (and therefore our heads), making it easier for human mothers to survive the act of giving birth. But our hardwired ability to form habits quickly makes us vulnerable to picking up self-destructive patterns, too. 

 

Investigative journalist Charles Duhigg on the Power of Habit

What’s the Significance? 

While Madison Avenue works overtime, using fundamental principles of cognitive neuroscience to instill bad habits in us, we attempt to overcome them through willpower alone. This is why so many diets fail. Why that New Year’s resolution to cut back on the martinis seems like a distant memory only three months later, when the weather improves: because our best laid plans for changing our routines often fail to take into account how powerless we are to escape the habits that control us, and that the best we can do is to redirect them.   

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg takes an unflinching look at the science of habit, and offers concrete strategies for transforming harmful habits into beneficial ones. Using case studies from the unlikely success of Febreze to Alcoholics Anonymous’ unparalleled ability to cure alcoholism, the book offers incontrovertible evidence that understanding how our habits work is essential to changing them.

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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