Creatures of Habit

Ah, the intersection of Business and Psychology- better known as the neuroscience of mind-reading for profit. If we can put a mouse in a maze and predict what path it will take to go sniffing around in search of a reward, then why not do the same for a person in a shopping mall? There are cues an individual will respond to that can be entrained to be associated with a pleasurable feeling, much the same way Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell.

Just how far along have our marketing gurus come? A NY Times article by Charles Duhigg profiled the retailer Target, but their strategy is not unique. In his article  “How Companies Learn Your Secrets“, we learn how our shopping habits are formed, and a little about how rats figure out they can get a chocolate chip (positive reinforcement) for finding a certain location in a maze. We are told by the author that “habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape 45 percent of the choices we make every day“. Perhaps that’s an underestimate.

(Stanford Business Prof. Nir Eyal discusses How to Manufacture Desire in Tech Crunch and here. To learn how Gamification is motivating our habits, see the Stanford blog.)

The idea here is that we are driven to habits by cue-routine-reward loops in our brains. And that is how healthy normal adults behave, not exactly pathological behavior attributed to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder patients.  What is the up-side to habits? “Habits help to free up the cognitive loads on routine procedures and allow us to focus on new situations and tasks,” according to neuroscientist  Joe Tsien (data here).

So how can we stop doing those routines we dislike and are sucking away the hours of our lives? Duhigg suggests that once you figure out the trigger (cue) of the habit, just try a different response; “The cue and reward have stayed the same. Only the routine has shifted.” For example, when you feel yourself getting that craving deep down inside, instead of eating sweets go try socializing with coworkers (a rewarding activity in itself, much like exercise or sex). With this minor adjustment, “as long as the habit felt familiar, the new behavior took hold”. We may also wish to disincentivize our own bad behaviors, rendering them less rewarding.

Another solution for kicking habits is to “go outside of our comfort zone,” thus bypassing the habit system with a new routine. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explains “How weird experiences can boost creativity” (see here) because unexpected events trigger new brain connections to be formed. This sort of “exploration” of uncharted territory is the basis for flexibility and creative thoughts, the diametric opposite of “exploitation” (or habitual thought patterns).

Now how to tackle the following dilemma in our brains:

“When I eat chocolate cake, 20 minutes later I’m under my desk wanting to die,” jokes Campbell. “When I eat broccoli, in 20 minutes I feel good. But given the choice, I always eat the cake.”

(-W. Keith Campbell interview, Psychology Today

The real problem here is that any action (say, pressing a lever to obtain food) can transform into a habitual response after extensive training. And worse, it becomes progressively less sensitive to devaluation of outcome. So even if you feel the punishment (say, physical pain in the cake scenario above), you just don’t care because it was ingrained into your routine so many times in the past! To borrow a quote from Albert Einstein:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But by that standard, most of us are insane.”

The easiest way to disrupt old habits is to start small. Here’s a video on how persuasive technology can help motivate your change:

For a historical overview of habits, see web curator Maria Popova’s article in The Atlantic

Final thoughts from Pavlov’s dog,