#4 Duhigg, Neuroscience, and the Habit Loop

Over the past few years, other writers besides Nir Eyal have published books on the topic of how habits influence our day-to-day behaviors. Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for The New York Times, wrote the bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business in 2012. Interviewing hundreds of scientists, behavioral psychologists, and business leaders, Duhigg breaks down the complex topic of habits into an easy-to-comprehend 3-step process. His approach, though arguably overly simplistic, has proven highly popular.

Duhigg does a nice job cataloging the scientific breakthroughs that led to our understanding of habits, including the discovery that the part of the brain called the basal ganglia appears to store and execute our habits. After discussing the intricacies of neuroscience, Duhigg abruptly shifts to a remarkably easy visual that represents his interpretation of the habit loop.

The first step in Duhigg’s model is the Cue. Similar to Eyal’s Trigger, the cue launches the habitual behavior, telling the brain to go into “automatic mode.” The second step is the Routine, which can be behavioral, emotional, or mental. The routine forms through repetition in the presence of the cue.

The last step in the habit loop is the Reward, the feedback that informs the brain that the routine was worth the effort. Not mentioned in the model but central to Duhigg’s premise is the Cue-Routine-Reward loop forms a Craving inside the brain that drives the behavior.

Much of the popularity around Duhigg’s approach is the sense of empowerment that comes from his contention that once you understand his model, you can change your own habits. He contends that the way to change an unwanted habit is to essentially hijack it by keeping the cue and reward but swapping out the routine. Not only does Duhigg assert that this makes it possible to change existing habits, but that once you know this dynamic, you have a responsibility to change unwanted habits.

Duhigg also believes that some habits can be so powerful they automatically change an entire range of habitual behaviors. He calls these Keystone Habits and credits them for remarkable transformations of individuals and entire organizations. Keystone habits are often difficult to identify, but usually result in a series of small wins.

While Duhigg makes a significant contribution in synthesizing the neurobiological research on habits, his attempt to model how habits form, work, and change are of limited use in the complex world of pharmaceutical marketing and market research. Like Eyal, he attempts to reduce the incredibly complex process of automating behavior into a simplified 3-step model that does not fully account for the complex relationships between doctors, patients, payer and other facets of the health care ecosystem.

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