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Art of Manliness Podcast #61: The Power of Habit With Charles Duhigg

In this episode we talk to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg about his book The Power of Habit [1]. The Power of Habit was our book of the month in the AoM Book Club [2] and it has served as inspiration for a post [3] and a video [4] on the site, so I was excited to finally have the chance to talk to Duhigg himself. During our conversation we discuss what science has revealed about habit formation and action steps we can take to change bad habits.

Powerofhabit [1]

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Well I’m really excited about today’s show. Our guest today has written a book that’s been one of the most influential books I’ve read in recent years. We’ve written a post about it on the blog and also did a video on our YouTube channel inspired by this book. Our guest is Charles Duhigg. He’s the author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business and it’s basically a summation of all the research that’s been going on in recent years about the science of habit formation. What goes on in our brain in every form to have it? And Charles Duhigg has basically laid out this process that we go through in order to form our habits called the habit loop. And he talks about how you can use the habit loop and hack it to transform bad habits into good habits and how to make new habits. So, in today’s show that’s what we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk about how to use the habit loop to transform our life for the better to get rid of bad habits and make good habits. So, I think you’ll learn a lot about it this episode, so stay tuned. Charles Duhigg welcome to the show.

Charles Duhigg: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, your book is The Power of Habit. You’re a reporter for the New York Times, how did you get started researching habits? I think you mentioned there was an incident in Iraq when you’re over there doing a story that kind of peaked it. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, absolutely. That was kind of my first introduction to the science of habit information. I was a reporter in Iraq and I went down to a city name Kufa which is about an hour south of Baghdad, talked to an army major down there. And this major has been given this assignment of stopping the riots from happening in the city. Now, this is in 2003-2004 and if you remember it this is when the US had sort of fully moved in to Iraq and riots were real problem. They were killing dozens sometimes hundreds of people a week. And so, no one really understood how to stop the riots and so this army major met with the mayor of Kufa and he had this whole laundry list of things to do he is asking for to stop the gun runners, stop the suicide bombers. The mayor basically said I can’t do any of that, like those are all great ideas but I don’t know how. And then the major had this one other request which was can you take all the food vendors out of the plazas? And the mayor said, sure, this one I can do.

And so a couple of weeks later, there is a crowd developing around the Grand Mosque of Kufa which is a very important site of Shia Islam. And one of the things they never tell you on the news when you’re watching the riot footage is that it actually takes hours and hours for a riot to develop. What usually happens and we noticed from drone footage that from that shot overhead is that a group of sort of trouble makers will show up some place like a plaza and they’ll attract some spectators. And those spectators will get larger and larger over time and eventually the crowd will reach this kind of critical size where it’s big enough for a riot to occur. And someone will pick up a bottle and throw it against the wall or something like that and a riot will start and all these people who previously were spectators will sort of get drawn into it. But the key is that it has to have this critical size. So, a couple of weeks after that mayor asks the major to remove the food vendors. A crowd is developing around the Grand Mosque of Kufa and the local Iraqi cops are to get worried and they radioed the base and they say please be on standby, we think a riot is going to break out. And the major and his troops say okay and they start watching the drone footage and it’s flying overhead and at about 5:00, 5:30, 5:45 which is actually like the only nice time of day in Iraq the crowd has gotten large enough that it’s kind of that critical riot size. And it looks like things are about to get really bad and all of a sudden and you sort of notice this from the footage of the drones, the folks at the periphery of the crowd because this is at 5:30 it’s like dinner time. They start looking around for these kebab sellers that normally filled up the plaza, around the Grand Mosque of Kufa. But the kebab sellers of course had been removed by the mayor at the major’s request.

So some of these folks they sort of wander away and you actually follow them on the footage and they go home assumedly they have dinner. And sort the next ring of people or spectators of the plaza, they’re watching these people leave and some of them they apparently think oh, there must be a better riot going on some place else and so they start following these people who wandered away and the next ring of people do the same thing and over about 45 minutes the entire plaza clears out except for these troublemakers. The troublemakers don’t have an audience anymore. And so they go home too. In the nine months that the major had been there, there hadn’t been one riot and this is like an all time record for this area.

And so, I went and talked to the major and I asked him, how did you know that removing the food vendors would have this impact of stopping the riot? He said, well, he wasn’t really certain that it was going to work but he sort of had this theory and that the reason why is because he was this guy from Georgia. When he was in high school, he was trying to decide whether going to the military or whether to join his brother who had become this very successful methamphetamine entrepreneur in all of Georgia. And he decided to enter the military only because his brother actually got arrested and sent to jail like two weeks before his graduation. And he said when you get into the military he quickly realized that’s like this giant habit changing machine. The military had spent millions and millions of dollars understanding habits so that they can train you for instance your natural instinct when someone shooting at you is to run away but they want to give you this habit to shoot back or when you are in a war zone now and you can e-mail with your spouse and so if they don’t teach you good communication habits you get into these fights over e-mail and you’re distracted when you’re in patrol.

And so the military has spend a lot of time thinking about habits and they transmitted this to the major himself and he said that when he took command in Kufa that he’d been trained in such a way that he sort of saw these crowds not as thousand of individuals who could become violent but as a group of habits and he knew that changing some of the cues in their environment could disrupt the patterns or it would otherwise it exert themselves and that’s exactly happened. And so, when I got back to the US I know this is really interesting. I sort of looking into it more and more and from that collecting research on the science of habit formation.

Brett McKay: It’s interesting. So, yeah, your whole book deals into this research about you know it goes into neuroscience and other cognitive science about habit formation but I mean what it seems we’ve been studying habits since William James, right? That was like over a hundred years ago. But what’s changed in the past 20, 10 years that allows us to understand habits more fully like the science that you’ve displayed in your book.

Charles Duhigg: Well, in particular, in the last decade, there’s just been this huge insights into and using your tools for understanding the neurology of habit formation. The basic insight is that every habit has these three components. There’s a cue which is like a trigger for an automatic behavior to start and then a routine which is the behavior itself and finally a reward. And we’ve known that since Pablo, right?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: Like the cues and rewards shape how we automatically behave. But what’s different is that we didn’t really understand how powerfully cues and rewards functioned on a neurological level, that simply introducing cues and rewards or fiddling with cues and rewards and the environment can actually change how people behave without them realizing anything that’s going on. We also learned just how many of our behaviors actually are habits. There was a woman named Lindy Wood at Duke University who did a study where she followed hundreds of people around and she calculated that about 40 to 45% of what we do everyday isn’t really a decision. It’s a habit. And once you begin to understand how these habits function on neurological level and how many of them surround us, you get this new appreciation for how powerful you can change behaviors with these subtle shifts and the cues and rewards within a person’s environment.

Brett McKay: And what exactly happens to our brain when we form a habit? Because I guess the research has shown or I guess they’ve done MRIs is that what they use?

Charles Duhigg: They use a lot of different things.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: They used MRI, FMRI they even just used like sort of measurements of electrical activity.

Brett McKay: So yeah. What happens I mean when you’re starting that habit formation like what’s going on with the brain I mean what do they see going on in the brain when we were trying to form a habit?

Charles Duhigg: Well, two things happen. The first of it which is you tend to develop a neuro pathway that associates with the behavior with a specific cue and a reward. Right and so that’s this is kind of how our brain works. Our brain creates pathways that electrical charges travel down so as to motivate certain behaviors. And once this pathway gets established it’s pretty uncommon for them to ever disappear. The other thing that we know is that when you’re in the group of habit, once that habit is established your brain essentially thinks less when it’s in the grip of the habits. The habit is essentially an energy saving mechanism for your brain to be able to say okay look, when I see X, I’m going to do Y and I’m going to get reward Z. So, I don’t have to think about it anymore. I can make it automatic. And that’s really, really powerful because it means that it conserves our mental energy for other tasks like being able to think about the memo we have due when we were driving to work because the drive has become a habit or being able to talk to our friends when we walk into a cafeteria because choosing something to eat has become a habit.

So this ability to conserve mental energy is really, really useful from an evolutionary perspective. But because these neuro pathways tended to be very long lasting and essentially once they’re in place they never really disappear. It also means that once you develop a habit it really never goes away. You can change it and you can try and ignore it but once that pathway is there, you have to actively do something to discourage the behavior from immersion.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, let’s get into what you called the habit. So, you kind of mentioned it earlier. So, it’s the cue, routine reward and that’s what you tinker with in order to change habits or to form a new habit, correct?

Charles Duhigg: That’s exactly right. Yeah, yeah. I mean basically you need to recognize there’s three parts of the habit moving in order to be able to diagnose and then manipulate that behavior.

Brett McKay: Okay. And so what’s the thing that should you tinker with? Is it the cue that you tinker with? Is it the reward? What is it that you tinker with in order to find out what’s causing you can do something or?

Charles Duhigg: Sure. You can tinker with anything but what studies seemed to indicate is that because those habits are so long lasting it’s very, very, very hard to change the cue and the reward. Now, this isn’t impossible, right? For instance when people are trying to quit smoking, they tend to be much more successful is they quit smoking when they’re on vacation. Really that makes sense because you are around different types of cues, you’re not in the same patterns that you have on a daily basis. The problem is that eventually you go home, right. And you can’t really change the cues that surround you very easily without creating sort of some massive appeal throughout your life. And so what most psychologists and psychiatrists and neurologists study this as that you should adhere to what sounded as the golden rule of habit change, which says don’t try and change the cue in your reward. Instead recognize what they are and try to find a new behavior. And since the behavior is what you’re actually worried about or that you actually want to change. Try and find a new behavior that seems to correspond to an old cue and deliver a reward that’s similar to that own reward.

So, smoking is a great example of this because for most people smoking is actually habit dysfunction. We think of it as an addiction, right? And nicotine is addicting but it’s not hugely addicting. Medical study shows that about a hundred hours after your last cigarette, once the nicotine is out of your blood system, you’re no longer physically addicted to cigarettes. And yet we all know people who, two weeks or two months or two decades after giving up cigarettes, they still crave a smoke with their morning coffee. If you’re still feeling that like two decades after you gave up cigarettes that’s not because of the physical addiction. That’s a habit dysfunction and because habits sort of exist in the same parts of our brain as addictions, they feel somewhat indistinguishable to us. So, now when they talk to people about curbing smoking what they don’t say is they don’t say extinguish the behavior. They don’t say just go cold turkey and like trying will power your way through it because that will work for a little while but once your will power kind of passed out, once you had a rough day, if you’re around the same cues you’re going to start craving that reward. The reward of nicotine is that it gives you a boost of energy and mental clarity. It actually makes you think faster and easier.

And so, what they say is don’t try and avoid or extinguish those cues and rewards. Instead find a new behavior that’s very similar. When you are craving a cigarette instead have a double espresso, right? Because the same cue is going to – you’re take advantage of the same cue and shot-gunning all that caffeine. It was going to give you a physical reward, very akin to what nicotine feels like. So, instead of trying to extinguish the habit, instead recognize the cues and the rewards and try and find a new behavior, a routine that seems to mimic those old cues and those old rewards.

Brett McKay: So, I guess what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to override that formation in your brain, the neuro pathways, I mean so will the desire to smoke a cigarette still kind of be there and you just sort of have to train your brain to be like no, espresso is what you’re going to do now.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. What will happen over time is that your brain will begin to crave the espresso instead of the cigarettes.

Brett McKay: Got you,

Charles Duhigg: And the reason why is because our brain expects some reward. Once the brain expects a reward it becomes almost neuro chemically very similar to depression when it doesn’t get it. If you can displace the expectation of that reward to a different substance caffeine instead of nicotine then your brain will sort of just purr up happily along.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, changing the bad habit is just a matter of changing the routine. Don’t mess the cue or the reward. Just change the routine, is that correct?

Charles Duhigg: But recognize the cue in the routine.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Charles Duhigg: Like all of is incumbent upon being able to diagnose exactly what’s going on and it can be really hard to diagnose cues. Cues are somewhat pretty easy to diagnose. Rewards can be much, much harder to diagnose. And unless you know exactly what that reward really is, it’s very hard to find a new behavior that provides it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I can see that being like with cigarettes. It could be just putting something in your mouth or having something in your hand or talking with people because a lot of people talk.

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely. Exactly, the social experience of smoking, the fact that it breaks up your day and gives you kind of the structure to being able to sort of take a break from work and it’s probably different for different people. Nail biting is a good example. There’s always the question about why the nail biting habit exists because it doesn’t seem to serve any particular function. But what researchers eventually figured is that people tend to bite their nails because they are anxious or they are bored. And when you bite your nails, you feel the small burst of pain from the actual biting activity and that pain it can sort of neurologically for microseconds overwhelm the tension of boredom and the tension of anxiety. And so, as a result of the pain is essentially kind of a reward but we’re not programmed to think of pain as reward and so it took a long time to realize that and until people did, it was very hard to treat nail bite.

Brett McKay: Interesting. Okay. So, we figured out how to change bad habits, I guess creating new habits is just a matter of taking the habit loop, right, and just setting up like the routine you want, creating the cue for yourself and then giving yourself reward. Would that be it?

Charles Duhigg: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right and the reward is the really important part there, right? So think about how most people try and sort of running habit in the morning. They want to go exercising. So, they wake up one morning and they put on their shoes and they go for a run. And to get home from their run and they’re a little bit late for work because they took time to go running and so they are like rush through their shower and they are anxious by getting to work. So, they rush to work essentially what they are doing is they kind of punishing themselves or at least they’re punishing their brain for exercising. Their brain learns to say whenever I go running in the morning, I feel anxious afterwards and that’s a negative reinforcement for habits. On the other hand, studies are showing that when people try and start exercising in the morning and they’re using like choosing an obvious cue like put their running shoes next to their bed or tell their friend that they’ll meet them at 7 a.m. down by the running path and then when they’re done if they give themselves a small piece of chocolate or let themselves take an extra long shower, drink a smoothie. If they deliberately reward themselves, they’re much more likely to develop a running habit but the key is you have to find the reward that you genuinely enjoy and then you have to allow yourself to enjoy it in order for your brain to start making those associations.

Brett McKay: I’m curious have they done studies with habit formation like by randomizing whether you get a reward or not? Because I read studies where when you don’t get the reward all the time, you’re more prone to like do that thing so you get the like e-mail is a perfect example is that, right? Like you don’t really know if you’re going to get an e-mail, right? Or an awesome e-mail so you keep checking on that off chance you’re going to get that e-mail is going to change your life. Do you understand what I’m saying?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. Well, so what happens, what we do a lot is about expectant intermittent rewards right. In order to develop a habit, a habit is based around stability, right? Your brain has to beget to anticipate certain things in order to form associations. And so the reward has to be consistent initially for that habit to stick. Now, the question then becomes so what transcends sort of habit to addiction, what transcends kind of a pattern to behavior to something you begin craving. And one of the things that can enhance craving is when there’s intermittent rewards. So, that exactly what you’re talking about is when there’s an expected reward our brain tends to discount a little bit. When there’s an unexpected big reward, it feels much, much more rewarding to us. So, if you want to make something into a habit, what you should do is you should dribble among the expected rewards unexpected rewards, right? This is how they have slot machines work.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: You know if you play a slot machine that you’re on average going to win probably one out of every three to five pulls, right, its closer to five. But like if you went 12 pulls without winning you’d walk away from the machine. So, they set it up so that you’re going to win on average every five pulls. But then every so often you win like three in a row, right? Unexpectedly. That’s what makes that activity more than a habit. It makes it into some little craving to continue to act.

Brett McKay: Got you. Okay, so I mean how could you do that? I mean was that something you’d want to do?

Charles Duhigg: It would be hard to engineer that into your own life right?

Brett McKay: Okay.

Charles Duhigg:Like if you’re talking about you know customers or something like that or your kids, it’s easier to do that.But the thing is if you do it within on your life, intermittent rewards are very unusual within your own life because you’re giving yourself the reward.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: You know that it exists. And that being said basically our brains understand the science and sometimes they take advantage of it, so one of the kind of interesting things that happens when people develop an exercise habit for instance is that they will stop relying upon extrinsic rewards like chocolates or smoothies and extra long shower. Eventually your brain learns that you’re going to feel endorphins and endocannabinoids, these neurotransmitters that come from physical activity and that becomes a reward in and of itself that motivates the running, the exercise habit. What’s interesting is that our brain tends to vary sometimes how many of those are in our transmitters are released because there’s a – realization is a wrong word but basically our body understands that to reinforce positive behavior that the reward should not be completely predictable. So, instead of sort of calculating for intermittent rewards, you can often times simply just allow them to happen naturally.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Charles Duhigg: And when you think about it this happens all the time, right? Like people will be running and they are accustomed to taking a nice long shower and then one day they decide instead of having a shower, I’m going to have a smoothie. Like I’m going to take it easy this morning and really let myself enjoy like the rewards of running. That’s an intermittent reward but you don’t really have to plan those ahead of time. You just have to have a mindset where you allow yourself to enjoy the rewards that surrounds you.

Brett McKay: Okay. Well, so we’re a podcast geared primarily towards guys. I’m curious if in your research did you find any difference between the way men and women go about forming habits?

Charles Duhigg: Not particularly. I mean in general it’s hard to make broad generalizations, right?

Brett McKay: Sure, yeah.

Charles Duhigg: Because in general women tend to find different types of things inherently more or less rewarding than men. So, we know that emotion that emotional rewards are the most rewarding kinds of rewards. Women tend to find cathartic emotions, have much greater salience. Again this is a huge generalization.

Brett McKay: Sure, yeah.

Charles Duhigg: But in general women tend to find cathartic emotions like, for instance, crime is a great example right? One of the hypothesis about why women tend to cry more than men is that women actually find it just much more neurologically rewarding to cry than men do. And so there’s some interesting differences there that you can get into about like what types of rewards you should give to different people but the truth of the matter is people know themselves really well.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: Like there are plenty of men out there who find crying rewarding and plenty women don’t find crying rewarding. And so the truth of the matter is if you want to create habits for yourself and you know that you need to positively reinforce, you need to find some rewards just to ask yourself what you genuinely find rewarding and you’ll know, right. We all know.

Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah. Okay. The one section I found really intriguing or just fascinating or interesting because I didn’t think of this as an important part of habit formation was this idea that belief plays an important role and habit change. Can you talk a little bit about how belief affects habit formation?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, sure. So, one of the things that’s kind of interesting, particularly if you’re looking at Alcoholics Anonymous. So, AA for instance is essentially a large habit change organization, right? They help you idea identify cues and rewards that alcohol previously provided and they try and replicate those chosen rewards in a sober environment like giving you sponsor and replicating the social experience, by giving an opportunity for emotional catharsis but kind of telling your story and achieving some emotionality away from alcohol. But when researchers have looked at AA and a lot of researchers were skeptical of AA for a long time because this was created by people who didn’t have any scientific background.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: When they looked at it what they found is that people can say, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah that makes a lot of sense like its great habit, habit transfer organization. But the real reason that it works for me is because it tells me to believe in a higher power. And this doesn’t make any sense to scientist because belief in higher power isn’t supposed to like really doing anything, right. There’s no way like test hypothesis around like whether God exists.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: But what they eventually figured out is that it seemed like for a number of people that getting a chance to practice belief was very, very important, so in AA a number of steps are about believing in a higher power. And it seems like what’s happening on those AA meetings is that when people go to those steps, they’re practicing belief and eventually they can transfer that practice that skill to believing in themselves and once they start believing in themselves and they’re ability to stay sober in stressful situations it makes it much more likely that they’ll actually stay sober in stressful situations. So, it seems like there is this kind of interesting prerequisites to behavior change which is that you have to believe that behavior change is possible, you have to believe that you are capable of behavior change. You have to believe that that change can be permanent. And the way that you kind of learn how to believe that is you practice believing in other things. You build up the belief muscle and eventually you can apply it to yourself.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so it sounds like you need to have like that growth mindset right?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, right. I mean I think that that’s the thing is that most of our interior capacity is kind of muscle is a good analogy but we develop neurological capacities because we practice stuff. And it’s hard to practice belief in a sort of a low stake setting. But when it happens, when you’re believing in a higher power or something like that that you get better at it.

Brett McKay: Yeah, interesting. Go ahead.

Charles Duhigg: And I apologize I actually have to jump to another call.

Brett McKay: Okay. Well, we’re done.

Charles Duhigg: Oh, great.

Brett McKay: So here’s my last question. Well, Charles Duhigg, thank you so much for your time. This is a fascinating discussion and I appreciate your time.

Charles Duhigg: No, absolutely, thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: Our guest today is Charles Duhigg. Charles Duhigg is the author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. And you could find that on Amazon.com and in other book retailers. And you could find more about Charles Duhigg and his book at Charlesduhigg.com. I highly recommend you to check it out. He’s got links to other additional resources and teaching guides about The Power of Habit so make sure to check it out. Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. And if you enjoyed The Art of Manliness podcast we really appreciate if you go on to iTunes or Stitch or whatever you use in your podcast and give us a rating that will help us reach more people and we just really appreciate it. So, until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.