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.
The problem for Starbucks is that most of their employees are high school graduates, or high school students or recent high school graduates, people with no professional experience. And the problem is many of you know, with being a high school student or recent high school graduate is that you act like a high schooler or recent high school graduate. You act like a moron, right? Like, I acted like a moron for an entire decade after I graduated. And for Starbucks, this is a problem because they had employees who couldn’t deliver customer service. This became particularly a problem in the age of YouTube and I’m going to show you why.
Before I show you something, imagine for a minute that you work at Starbucks, you oversee $250 million a year in advertising. You’ve had a long day, you come home from work, you sit on your couch and you open a beer, you turn on the TV. And this is what you see.
[Video: She was a loyal customer of Starbucks, loved the coffee, loved the service but that changed a few weeks ago. That day the New Yorker got steamed, not by what was inside her cup, but something written on the outside. That’s when she called Nina Pineda, and ordered a special brew of fully caffeinated [inaudible].
“When you looked at it, what did you think?”
“I was shocked. I didn’t understand why they would do that,”
Vicki Reveron is talking about this Starbucks cup. On the side, a Starbucks employee wrote what she ordered, a caramel frappuccino. But instead of scrawling her name on the side, she says he wrote the B-word.
“It says B****, my name is not b****, it’s Vicki,” ]
So have you ever wondered ideally what $250 million sounds like going up in flames all at once? Turns out it sounds like my name isn’t B, it’s Vicki. Starbucks went and did an investigation over what happened here. Vicki was served by this kid named [Dwartha], 19-year old kid, employed for eight months, he’d been doing a great job. The night before Vicki comes in, he had a fight with his mom. And his hour of seven into an eight-hour shift and this woman comes in, who orders this coffee with a bad word on it. Drinks the entire cup of coffee. Goes home. Changes clothes into a nice blue blouse. Comes back to the Starbucks, calls a TV camera. Waits 45 minutes for the TV camera to show up. And then gives this interview. It’s a long way of saying if [Dwartha] might have been totally right, right? But it doesn’t matter. For Starbucks this is a disaster. It doesn’t matter how rude a customer is. Starbucks delivers customer service. This is their basic promise. They are going to treat you nicely regardless of who you are.
So Howard Schultz and his team, there’s been incident after incident like this and they have this meeting to try and figure out how are we going to fix this, because this keeps on happening. What they discovered — they decide is we need to increase our employees’ willpower. What they notice is that about 10% to 15% of their employees would do great. And then they would have this one shift where they would fall apart, usually about 6.5 to 7 hours into a shift. And they figured what they needed to do is figure out how to give their employees willpower to make it through that eight-hour shift, so they don’t do something stupid like write a bad word on a cup.
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.
Only one of these kids was able to make it the entire ten minutes. Let me show you which one.
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.
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?
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.
What you instead do is you say at 3.15 in the afternoon instead of going up to the cafeteria, I’m going to stand up and I am going to walk over to someone’s desk. Because I think part of the reason why I’m going up to the cafeteria is that it’s fun to gossip with my friends and all my friends are in the cafeteria. So instead of going up there I’m going to look for someone else to go gossip with. And at 3.15 you stand up. That’s your cue. You walk over to someone else’s desk, in this case a guy named Michael Barbaro. And you gossip about whoever happens to be out of earshot for the next twenty minutes. And you decide I’m going to gossip hard. That’s your reward. And then you go back to your desk and I don’t really like to brag about these things. But since then I’ve lost about twenty one pounds and it’s worked out pretty well for me. Thanks.
The point being, this is what we know about habits. They have cues and rewards. And if you decide ahead of time, if you engage in this mindfulness in your life, where you’re aware of what’s driving these nearly subconscious behaviors, where your brain actually turns off, if you indulge yourself, to pay attention to the things that otherwise kind of happen at the periphery of our consciousness. We know from study after study, you have the ability to change any habit in your life.
Thank you very much.
FOR FURTHER READING:
- Why You Feel Anxious Socializing (and What to Do about It): Fallon Goodman (Transcript)
- How To Find Joy When You Love An Alcoholic: Kim Moore (Transcript)
- Psychological Abuse – Caught In Harmful Relationships: Signe M. Hegestand (Transcript)
- Pet Loss Grief; The Pain Explained: Sarah Hoggan DVM (Transcript)
- Chemistry For Your Sex-Starved Marriage: Jessica Gold (Transcript)