Charles Duhigg on The Power of Habit (Full Transcript)

Now, luckily for them there had been a whole bunch of research that had been done into willpower. Most of you’re probably familiar with this, because since I come from teaching background, the most famous of course being the marshmallow test, I assume you guys heard of the marshmallow test. For anyone who asks, this is how it works. There is this research in the 1960s at Stanford. He had a four year old daughter. He took her and a whole bunch of her friends and he put them in a room one by one, he put a marshmallow in front of them and he would say, okay, look here’s the deal. You can eat that marshmallow. I’m going to leave the room for ten minutes, if when I come back the marshmallow is still there, then you will get a second marshmallow. Now I actually have myself a four year old at home. And so I can tell you that putting a marshmallow in front of a four year old is like putting crack cocaine in front of an addict, like there is nothing more tempting. This experiment has been replicated.

Let me show you some tape of what happens when you put a marshmallow in front of a four year old.

[Video Presentation]

Only one of these kids was able to make it the entire ten minutes. Let me show you which one.

[Video Presentation]

So this guy — he does his experiment right. He finds that about 10% to 15% of the four-year olds they could resist a marshmallow. He writes his results, it’s in late 1960s, publishes it and nobody cares, nobody pays any attention. And a couple years later, his daughter is in fifth grade, remember she’s one of the test subjects. He’s talking to her and he’s like trying struggling to get her to tell him about her day. And he’s asking about her friends and she says, well, Susie keeps on getting into trouble, that Jimmy’s doing well in class. And he realizes he’s listening that the kids she says are doing well are the same kids who had managed to resist the marshmallow.

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So he goes, he finds them in middle school. He finds them in high school, he finds them in college and post-college. One of the largest studies that’s been done as many of you know. And he finds that the kids who managed to resist the marshmallow were more successful than their peers by a statistically significant amount. He finds that they were getting their homework done more frequently and they’re showing up for class more time. They were more popular in high school, not necessarily because they were like prettier or richer but because they were just better at being friends. They got into better colleges, they got better jobs, higher paying jobs, they got married earlier and stayed married longer.

As many of you know there’s literally been hundreds of studies on willpower since then, most notably by Angela Duckworth at University of Pennsylvania and all of them have found that willpower seems to be the single greatest correlation with future success, more so than high IQ, more so than having rich parents with a lot of resources. Willpower seems to be this thing that prepares people for life.

And for Starbucks, this is fantastic because this is exactly what they want. They want to teach their employees willpower. But the question is how do you teach people willpower? And the answer is through habits. By choosing a reaction ahead of time. And by making people conscious of what they’re going to do when they feel hot blooded, in a cold blooded state. But in economics this is known as the hot-cold empathy gap. Basically in the morning when you wake up and you’ve had a big breakfast, you are certain that you are going to eat healthy and have a salad that day. And as soon as you walk into the cafeteria and you’re hot blooded, you decide the hamburger looks a lot better. So how do you preserve that decision making from the morning into the moment of temptation? How do you create more willpower?

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What’s really interesting is if you look at the tape, and turn off the sound on this one. The kids who failed at this are kids who constantly remind themselves about the marshmallow. Like watch this kid, he even tries to ignore it. He hits the plate and reminds themselves, these kids, like they all do these things where they can’t help not paying attention to the marshmallow.

Now contrast that with the kid that I showed you who actually resisted for ten minutes. When researchers asked him what he did, he said that half way through he decided that he was not going to look at the marshmallow. That he was not going to pay any attention to it. That if he had to think about the marshmallow he was going to imagine a frame around it. So that it reminded him of a photo. This is how we teach willpower. We teach people to make a decision ahead of time that they apply when they see a cue. And then we give them a reward. That kid who resisted the marshmallow, he said that he had decided ahead of time. If he could make it the whole ten minutes, he was going to shove both marshmallows into his mouth at the same time. And that’s exactly what he did.

So how do you change habit? How do I change my cookie habit? The answer is by premeditating the cues and rewards, by deciding ahead of time. What you’re going to see when you see that trigger and then what your reward is going to be. And it has to be specific saying I’m going to lose weight. Doesn’t work? Saying I’m not going to eat a cookie today. Does not bring you success.

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