Many bestselling detergents leave clothes smelling nice. The scent, one is apt to conclude after reading The Power of Habit, is probably added as a nifty reward, part of a behavioural cue-routine-reward cycle: a mini-craving for the scent keeps you buying the detergent. Bestselling books like Duhigg’s, one is apt to suspect, are crafted around similar cycles to get browsers buying and keep readers reading on.
The formula has thrived since the earliest gurus, through Reader’s Digest, Dale Carnegie and all the rest: address a universal need (in this case, the need for a degree of control over our habits); find and outfit a parade of dazzling success stories; allow the sweet smell of vicarious success to make readers feel good about themselves. Using it for a book, many a counsellor has earned a tidy fortune and podium presence. But by mating it with what begins as a journalistic survey of recent research in the neurophysiology of habit, Duhigg, who works for the New York Times, has engendered a chimera. One giveaway limb is the 12-page appendix, ‘A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas’, weak with the generalisations of a non-expert. An apology, perhaps, for what earnest readers may not have found in the preceding pages.
The research Duhigg writes about is path-breaking, but only in the sense that it enhances our understanding of what happens in our central nervous system during and after habit formation. It doesn’t change what behaviourists have long known and put to good use, creating elaborate and flexible protocols of observation, goal-setting and rearrangement of payoffs to alter or eradicate old habits, or instil new ones. In fact, progressive goal-setting is as old as the legend of Milo of Croton, who daily hoisted a bull-calf on to his shoulders till he was one day carrying a full-grown bull. Cognitive therapies such as rational-emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) have built on purely behaviourist protocols, intervening by untwisting the flawed thinking—‘The only thing that will calm me down is a joint’—that often feeds habits. These methods have worked exceptionally well with common problems, especially the habit of depression, simply and druglessly. Lapses are routinely planned for. Subjects are taught to think through end-of-the-world catastrophisations and get back to the programme in a relaxed yet dogged manner.
Duhigg makes no mention of these methods. It’s almost as if the book started out by promising only the first half of its subtitle (Why we do what we do...) and was re-engineered around the more saleable second (...and how to change). Another complaint is that it doesn’t make meaningful distinctions between processes that change individuals and those that change organisations and societies. What worked for Michael Phelps is vastly different from how Paul O’Neill turned around Alcoa, as both are from how Martin Luther King Jr electrified the Montgomery bus boycott. The book also fails, but profits nevertheless, by pitching itself at too many audiences—would-be wunderkinds of advertising, management maharathis, seekers of the leadership grail, self-improvement book addicts. Read it for the stories and the story-telling.