Are Habits More Powerful Than Decisions? Marketers Hope So.

The science of how we develop habits is used by companies both to mold consumer preference and to shape company culture. Details from Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit.”

The science of how we develop habits is used by companies both to mold consumer preference and to shape corporate culture.

Habits are powerful forces, and companies are using those forces when interacting with customers and employees.

“Over the past two decades, the science of habit formation has become a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs,” wrote Charles Duhigg, a New York Times staff writer, in “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” in February.

Duhigg is everywhere these days, talking about his new best-seller “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012). It’s a fascinating topic: habits, rather than conscious decision-making, can shape as many as 45 percent of the choices we make every day, according to a study [pdf] from Duke University.

Five of the themes Duhigg explores:

There’s a process for habit formation: The Cue, The Reward, The Routine. Cues trigger an action, a reward reinforces it, a routine develops. Take a look at a great diagram of the three elements to visualize how it works (and how to break it).

The science of how we form habits is used to sell products. “Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to investment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a ‘predictive analytics’ department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them,” wrote Duhigg in his Times article.

A story on NPR gave toothpaste as an example. “About a hundred years ago, says Duhigg, no one in America brushed his or her teeth. But when one of the nation’s most prominent advertising executives, Claude C. Hopkins, heard about a new toothpaste called Pepsodent, he thought he could make a killing.” Hopkins made the product into a daily habit and provided a reward — a clean, tingly feeling. “He intuited [the habit loop] years before laboratories had proven that it exists,” said Duhigg.

Consumers can combat habit manipulation through observation. “When consumers start paying attention to their own habits, they gain an authority over their own behavior that no company can casually undermine,” Duhigg said in a Boston Globe story.

The science of how we form habits can be used to transform company culture. In the NPR story, Duhigg spoke about how, when Paul O’Neill became CEO of Alcoa, he made transforming worker safety habits the top priority — “a big deal in a company where all of your employees handle molten metals,” Duhigg noted. Alcoa’s focus on worker safety through better practices was what Duhigg calls a change in a “keystone habit” – one that can “unlock all these other patterns in someone’s life or in an organization.”

In our personal lives, we have the power to change a habit. This gets back to Duhigg’s thesis that, as he put it in the Globe, “Every habit has three components: A cue, which is a trigger for the behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and then a reward, which is how your brain decides whether to store that pattern for further use.” Paying attention to both the cue and the reward that feeds our habit provides the insight that can help you change the habit.

That means experimenting. “Cues fall into one of five categories,” said Duhigg: “a time of day, a particular place, the presence of certain people, a particular emotion, or a behavior that’s become ritualized. I had a cookie habit. When the cookie urge would strike, I would write down those five things: Where am I, who’s standing around me, what time of day is it. You only have to do that three to four times before you can figure out what the cue is, because it’s going to be pretty consistent from time to time.”