Full text of Charles Duhigg on The Power of Habit at TEDxTeachersCollege conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – The Power of Habit-by Charles Duhigg at TEDxTeachersCollege
My name is Charles Duhigg. And I’m the author of this book The Power of Habit.
So imagine for a minute that you have this cookie problem. Okay, a cookie habit. Every day you go up in the afternoon. Let’s say, you work in a building in midtown. It’s called The New York Times. On the 14th floor is cafeteria with this amazing, amazing cookie selection. And you put this little note on your monitor that says Do not eat the cookie. And then every afternoon you manage to ignore that note and go upstairs and get a cookie. And imagine for a minute that this has caused you to put on a little bit of weight, let’s say, roughly 8.7 pounds. And when I say you, what I actually mean is me. Because I’m describing my life at eating cookies.
So I was really interested in why I, a successful human being, won a Pulitzer Prize last week, I think I’m a pretty smart guy. Why I have this difficulty resisting cookies, right? There’s a lot of things I can do in my life. And I began researching the science of habits, what, how habits work. And what I learned is that we’re actually living through this golden age of understanding the neurology of habit formation. I ended up writing this book out of it. And I want to tell you a little bit about what I learned and what it has to do with teaching kids in mindfulness. But in order to do it, first of all, I have to tell you a story about a rat.
Anyone here ever experiment with rats before? Anyone ever ride the subway? Okay, then you got a lot of experience with rats. There is a woman named Dr. N Graybill who has for years been doing experiments with rats. She is a neurologist and for years she was trying to get sensors into rats’ cranium so she could measure what was going on inside their skulls. This took a long time and a lot of rats. But eventually she got to a point where she could get about 150 sensors inside a rat’s skull and she could measure its neurological activity. What she’d do with each rat after it woke up from the surgery was exact same thing. She would drop it in the world’s simplest maze — works every some time. Click. A partition would move, the rat’s free to run through the maze and find the chocolate. Every rat when you drop it in the maze the first time acts like the world’s laziest animal. It will like wander up and down, and get to the end and will see the chocolate, it will go the other direction. It takes on average about 13 minutes for it to find the chocolate.
And for years people thought that this is because rats are unusually dumb. And that if a rat can learn something, then any animal could learn. But Dr. Graybill could actually see inside a rat’s head, and what she saw was kind of fascinating. This is a simplified neurological graph the first time a rate is dropped in this maze. There’s all these spikes in activity, right? Basically the rate would like scratch the walls, the scratching center of its brain would light up, but it’d find the chocolate, and the pleasure centers would light up. This is what unmediated learning looks like.
So Dr Graybill takes this rat, she drops each of them in the maze again and again 150 times. Over time unsurprisingly the rat learns how to run through the maze faster and faster and faster, find the chocolate. But what’s really interesting is what happens inside its head. As the rat learns to run faster and faster as finding the chocolate becomes more of an automatic habit, the rat starts thinking less and less and less. This graph on the bottom is a simplified neurological graph of the 150th iteration through that maze. What you’ll notice is this deep valley there, right? That’s the same value you would see if the rat went to sleep.
Now all of us have had — there’s a researcher named Wendy Wood who followed around a couple of thousand people to see how much of our daily behaviors were habits. And what she found is that about 40% to 45% of the decisions we make actually every day aren’t actually decisions, they’re habits. And if somehow I could get 150 sensors into your head, this is exactly what I would see. Your mental activity dropping off in the middle of that habit. When you remember waking up in the morning, or walking in the subway and now you’re at your desk but you don’t remember what happened in the middle. Or when you decided that morning to have a salad but you get to lunch and you order a hamburger just like you did yesterday. This is what’s happening.
Your brain is kind of turning off with these two interesting exceptions. At the beginning of the habit, when the rat would hear the click, there’d be this burst of activity, and then essentially the brain would power down. And then at the end when it found the chocolate, it is if the rat would sort of shake itself awake again and notice what was going on. Within neurology this is such an important idea and finding this become known as the habit loop. And what it says is that every habit history components, there’s a cue which is like an automatic trigger for a behavior to start. And then a routine which is the behavior itself and then finally a reward that helps your brain remember that pattern for the future.
Every habit has cues and rewards. And for years everyone from Aristotle to Oprah, when they talked about habits, they focused on the routine on the behavior. But what we’ve learned the last decade is that it’s the cue and the reward that influence how habits function.
Just to give you an example of this. Does anyone here exercise? It’s a young audience. Anyone here wished that they exercised? Okay. So there was an experiment that was done in Germany where they took an audience like this and they said all of you should exercise. And then they took about a third of the audience, and they said okay, look, this is what I want you to do. Choose a cue, like always put your running shoes next to your bed. Or go running with the same group of friends. And then when you get back from working out, give yourself a small piece of chocolate. This is counterintuitive, because not many people exercise in order to eat chocolate, or at least not quite that directly.
And yet what the researcher suspected is that even though all of you think that you want to exercise, your brain thinks you’re a liar. And that you hate exercise, and the only way that I can trick you and exercise is give yourself a reward you genuinely enjoy like a small piece of chocolate. And in fact, six months after they did this, they found that 58% of those people were more likely to be exercising and they’d stopped eating the chocolate. Because their head brain had learned there is endorphins and they can’t avoid these neurotransmitters that reward us for physical activity. But you kind of have to bootstrap your brain into believing that those rewards are real with a reward that you genuinely enjoy. Like chocolate.
All of which brings me kind of in probably to Starbucks. And what Starbucks can teach us about teaching in mindfulness. What does Starbucks sell? Coffee, right? No, wrong, Starbucks doesn’t say – Starbucks kind of sells coffee. They give you coffee in exchange for your money. But if you talk to Starbucks, what they will tell you that they actually sell is customer service. This is why they can pay — they can charge you $4.50 for a latte that costs about $0.13, is because when you walk in, there’s a wood paneling and soft music and there’s someone who asks your name and they write it in big cursive letters, right? This, Starbucks believes, is the centerpiece of their entire business model, is customer service.