January 3rd, 2013

Duhigg’s Error: Where The Power of Habit Goes Awry

By Neale Martin

Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, brings renewed interest to the critical role of habits in our lives. Unfortunately, the book is fatally flawed. The author of the New York Times bestseller makes several critical errors regarding habits and their implications. Though professionals familiar with habit-based marketing know better, The Power of Habit is receiving wide readership and its unsound concepts will undoubtedly confuse those new to the subject. I’ve outlined a few of the major problems with the book here for easy reference.

Duhigg's Flawed Habit Model

“This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.”
– Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Duhigg’s model of habit formation is both overly simplistic and structurally incorrect.
His model describes three steps to habit formation: Cue, Routine, and Reward. Duhigg omits the critical role that context plays in habit formation and habitual behavior; indeed, cues develop and operate within contexts. Duhigg also fails to explain how a stimulus becomes a cue. His use of the term “reward” is also inappropriate. “Feedback” would be the correct choice, because “reward” ignores the fact that feedback mechanisms might be punishing instead of reinforcing.

Duhigg confuses addiction with habits.
In synthesizing research literature, Duhigg conflates addiction and habit research to state that craving is a central driver of all habit formation. The vast majority of habits do not involve craving, and in those that do, craving is a consequence of habits—not a cause.

Duhigg’s prescription for habit change is dubious at best, demoralizing at worst.
To change a habit, Duhigg claims, one need only replace the routine component inside the cue-routine-reward loop. Not only does this fly in the face of copious literature on the challenges of altering habitual behavior, it defies common sense. Duhigg’s recommendation that you can maintain existing cues and rewards and simply switch out the intervening routines implies that we have conscious control over our unconscious processes, a self-contradictory notion. Changing contexts, removing old cues, creating new cues, and changing feedback mechanisms are all important steps in changing habitual behavior.

Duhigg’s use of stories to support his thesis leads to narrative fallacies.
Humans are prone to lend credence to a linkage of ideas arranged into a compelling story that would otherwise arouse our skepticism—this is known as the narrative fallacy. Duhigg tells a number of interesting stories with colorful characters where great changes are attributed to his particular brand of habit change. In describing why Rosa Park’s arrest sparked the civil rights movement, he states, “So when she was arrested, it triggered a series of social habits—the habits of friendship—that ignited an initial protest.” One could just as easily attribute the results of the Rosa Parks story to the influence of social networks or to support Malcom Gladwell’s “tipping point” hypothesis. Duhigg’s similarly facile explanations for the success of Tony Dungy’s football coaching, Paul O’Neill’s ALCOA strategy, and the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous gloss over highly complex situations with the thin patina of his habit model.

When I wrote Habit: The 95% of Behavior That Marketers Ignore almost four years ago, I felt confident that numerous other books would be published following along the same lines of research and conclusions that I had drawn. And while books such as Nudge, Sway, How We Decide, and Thinking, Fast and Slow have added much to our understanding of the complexities of the human mind, flawed publications like The Power of Habit represent the antithesis: narratives that confound more than they inform.

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