How I Scientifically Quit My Cookie Habit

New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg has drawn together the most cutting edge research on why habits exist and how they can be changed. How can you apply the science to your own life?

How I Scientifically Quit My Cookie Habit

In his new book, The Power of Habit, New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg has drawn together the most cutting edge research on why habits exist and how they can be changed. In his interview with Big Think we asked him how he is able to apply the science to his own life. 


As Duhigg demonstrates, there is a clear evolutionary logic behind our habits, as they save us time and mental energy. That's a good thing. And yet, this also makes us more vulnerable to bad habits as well.

Like eating cookies. 

Duhigg described his bad cookie habit to Big Think:

Every afternoon, I would go and eat a chocolate chip cookie in the cafeteria and sort of chat with some of my colleagues up there.

Duhigg knew it was a bad habit, and wanted to make a concerted effort to lose weight. He sought ought the advice of psychologists. 

What they said was I had to diagnose the cue and the reward...So I started with a cue.  And all cues fall into usually one of five buckets.  It’s either a time, a place, a certain emotional state, the presence of other people or the preceding actions that have become habituated.  

So every day when Duhigg experienced his cookie urge in the afternoon, he decided to write down those five things.

What I figured out is that the urge always hit between 3:15 and 3:45.  Like, every day.  And so my cue was basically a time of day.

But that was the easy part. Next Duhigg needed to figure out the reward. 

I thought that the reward was that I liked cookies. Cookies were this blast of sugar.  So I started doing these experiments.  I would go to the cafeteria and instead of getting a cookie, I’d get a candy bar.  And then the next day I got an apple, and the next day I got a cup of coffee, and then the next day, instead of going up to the cafeteria, I’d go for a walk around the block.  I would just change one variable to try and figure out, what satisfied this craving, this urge.  

So what Duhigg figured out was his reward actually wasn’t the cookie at all. He realized that he was socializing with his colleagues when he visited the cafeteria. If he changed this habit and visited someone else’s desk instead of going to the cafeteria he found he would simply spend five minutes gossiping, and the cookie urge would go away.

The reward that I was craving was this socialization.  And so once I’d figured this out, once I had the cue and the reward, I was able to come up with this new behavior.  

So now every day at around 3:30pm an automatic response occurs where Charles Duhigg gets up from his desk and walks around The New York Times news room looking for someone to gossip with. His appetite is sated after 10 minutes of gossip and the cookie urge has completely disappeared and Duhigg has lost 12 pounds.

"If you diagnose the habit," he says, "you can really change your behavior."

Jason Gots contributed to this post. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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