Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Sometimes it feels like nonfiction writers (particularly when they're of this particular brand of popularizier, pulling together a lot of information) seem to run out material on their actual subject and start to pull in stuff that is only tangentially related. It was mostly excusable but still a little weird when Susan Cain suddenly stopped talking about introverts in Quiet and started talking about highly sensitive people, even though she'd stated mere pages before that we don't really know what the correlation between these two things are.

It's even stranger here, when Duhigg starts to meander over to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and trying to relate that to habits when what he's really talking about is community cohesion and how groups come together on issues and not in the least about habits. It's like he suddenly forgot what a habit is, and tried to start to shoehorn a whole lot of other things into that umbrella term that really in no way fit.

(The other half of that particular chapter, on Rick Warren, is arguably about habits and fits with the general book just fine. But the civil rights movement stuff feels like he either was a) padding a book that was coming in too short or b) forgetful of his own damned topic.)

Also, he then went veering off into instinct and calling that just another type of habit, and it seems a little bit like he has a hammer, as the old saw goes, and every human reaction is a nail.

The Power of Habit is not that good. There are some interesting bits, but there are a lot more problems. It was interesting to read about habits and habit formation and some examples of how people have used these techniques to change personal and corporate habits. But here are the issues I had, once I'd gotten through that stuff.

1. It is the same damned diagram used probably 50+ times throughout the book. Once you have the cue-response-reward thing down, you don't need to throw that little diagram in again, with different clip art at each point, but with the exact same text and point. Again, are we padding for space? Because I got it the first time. By about the 10th time, I started to think that maybe you thought that I, your reader, was an idiot.

2. Waaaaaayyyyyyy too uncritical of corporate capitalism. That's a personal issue, but given that it's all about how corporations are good when they look at their habits and reform them and bad when they don't look at their habits, but could be good if they just reformed them, there's an issue. (Particularly when Goldman-Sachs is used as an example of a paragon of conscious habit-forming leading to great corporate whatevering.) He isn't look at those habits and their use and the influence they have on the world around them, he's looking at how corporations try to set habits, and seems to regard any sort of conscious action along those lines as an unfettered good. No matter that habits, even conscious ones, particularly in a corporation, could still be pernicious, either to employees, the market, or people in general.

Even the chapter on Target, for which he says he was sued, read more about how great it was that Target was pushing the envelope on how to collect information on habits and exploit it to tap into the exhausted, sleep-deprived new parents market to increase their personal market share than it was what stuck out to me - a clarion cry for being a lot more aware of what information you are giving corporations without even realizing it, and a desperate need for some conscious, non-corporate-sponsored thought on what is and isn't acceptable in this arena.

There is some interesting stuff here, but it's really fairly basic, and you could read the first chapter and get pretty much as much as I got from reading the whole book. If you're ra-ra corporate capitalism, you might like the yarns. If his examples fill you with vague dread rather than excitement, you might be me.


  1. Sounds like this book falls into the same non-fiction sub-genre as Malcolm Gladwell and the 48 Laws Of Power. Books that give a shallow examination of a topic, topped with interesting ideas that aren't backed by research, and are meant for folks who only read one or two books a year. The idea is that by reading the book, you become Better At Business, and the magic pixie dust of Habits, or Laws Of Power, or Outliers or whatever will give you a competitive edge at the office.

  2. That is EXACTLY it. In every way.