Charles Duhigg wanted to lose weight. Luckily for him, he was well-equipped to achieve his goal. As a journalist writing for the New York Times and author of an upcoming book on the science of habit formation, he is an expert on the subject of self-control. What he found out through his research and how he managed to turn his findings into action for the benefit of his own health is remarkable and may have significant implications for millions of people struggling with weight issues.
Scientists Shed Light on What Forms Our Habits
And What We Can Do to Change Them
Getting his weight under control was not the original purpose of studying the inner workings of habit building. Duhigg’s first interest was to report on how today’s marketing researchers examine the behavior of consumers and influence their decision-making processes. He found that the success, if not the survival, of entire industries depends on increasingly detailed analysis of the behavior patterns of their clientele. “The push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in research,” he says, quoting from a study conducted at Duke University, which estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape almost half of the choices we make on a daily basis. This view may change the way we think about dieting to how doctors conceive treatments for a variety of illnesses, including emotional stress and addictions.
Clinical lab tests have shown that, as we encounter an unfamiliar territory or try to learn new skills, our brain activity first increases dramatically and then decreases gradually as we begin to find our way around. We become familiar with the tasks at hand and our actions and reactions become more automatic. Eventually, many of them turn into habits.
The process in which the brain converts certain actions into an automatic routine is known to neuroscientists as “chunking.” There can be hundreds of behavioral chunks we rely on every day, from brushing our teeth to backing our car out of the driveway. And there is good reason for that. “Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit, because habits allow our minds to conserve effort,” Duhigg explains. In other words, we form habits and routines for the brain to keep functioning. It would crash if kept in perpetual overdrive.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to all that too. If brain activity is reduced to conserve energy too soon or at the wrong moment, we can miss out on something important or fail to re-examine our actions when necessary. Old habits, even counter-productive ones, can be persistent and difficult to change.
Exploring the intricacies of habit-forming is also the specialty of a team of neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). According to their research, the habit creating process in the brain can be seen as a “three-step loop.” The forming of a new habit requires (1) a cue that triggers the brain to go into automatic mode, (2) a routine or automatic reaction that follows in response, and (3) a reward, which also helps the brain to decide whether a particular experience is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic and neurologically intertwined. The results can reach from a simple tendency to cravings to a full-blown addiction.
What exactly turns an event into a cue and what constitutes a reward depends on the individual as well as on the situation. Both, cues and rewards, can be obvious or subtle, they can take place quickly and be barely noticeable, we may not even realize their presence at all, but our neural system registers and uses them to form automatic behaviors.
I remember a good example from my own practice as a health counselor. One of my clients who tried hard to get her weight under control described herself as addicted to sweet pastries, especially donuts. On her way to my office for our bi-weekly appointments, she had to pass by a bakery, which she had often patronized in the past and which she now had a hard time to avoid.
Needless to say, the cue (bakery) was still there every time she approached the area. Her old routine would have made her stop without question to satisfy her cravings. The rewards were obvious. Now that she was on weight loss regimen, she had to find a way to interrupt what the M.I.T. scientists identified as her “loop.” Instead of exposing herself any longer to the cue that would inevitably trigger her routine response, she had to a take a different route to see me. It took her several months until she was able to come near that bakery again without going in – but eventually she succeeded. How? Her cue was still there, but she developed a different routine in response, and the awards were for the world to see when she eventually lost over 50 pounds.
This is the good news. “Habits aren’t destiny,” says Duhigg. “They can be ignored, changed or replaced.” Still, old habits die hard. Actually, they never fully disappear. Once a habit is established, it will rear its head at any chance it gets. “Unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new cues and rewards – the old pattern will unfold automatically,” he cautions.
In the end, Mr. Duhigg was successful in his quest for weight loss. He knew that his habit of eating a chocolate-chip cookie during his daily afternoon break caused him to put on the extra pounds. So he looked into his cues: Was it the place (he liked going to the cafeteria where the cookies were), the time (during the afternoon doldrums), his emotional state (he was tired or bored), other people (he liked chatting with his colleagues) or was it something that happened (right before he started craving a cookie)? Eventually, he found that the strongest cue was his desire for company. Once his needs for socializing were satisfied, the cookie monster disappeared.
We are obviously still at the beginning of our understanding of habits and how they develop, but the implications are potentially enormous, especially in the field of dietetics. In order to get the growing obesity crisis under control, we have to look far beyond calorie counts and portion sizes. Based on what we now know about our habits and how they drive our behavior, we need to work toward a much deeper understanding of who we are and what makes us act the way we do.
Charles Duhigg is the author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” The quotes used for this article are taken from a piece he wrote in the New York Times Magazine (2/19/2012).