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Habits of Mind

How the Neurology of Habits Can Assist L&D

Why do we do what we do, over and over? New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg was curious about how we form habits and how we might circumvent these patterns, and so he researched and wrote, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. The book examines science’s new understanding of the neurology of habit formation and how this research plays out in real world examples.

Marketers have long studied consumer’s buying habits and have become increasingly sophisticated in anticipating future purchases. Duhigg reviews how brand managers at Proctor & Gamble were able to save a new product, Fabreze, from extinction by watching how people cleaned their homes. Fabreze was designed as a scentless product that would remove bad household odors. What the researchers discovered was that people who had homes with bad odors were not likely to notice that there was a problem and didn’t see a need for the product. But what people did appreciate was spraying a nice fragrance at the end of a cleaning session in order to signal a job well done. When researchers went back to the lab and added a pleasant fragrance, the product was a success.

How might Learning and Development professionals also benefit from Duhigg’s research on habit formation to facilitate the transfer of learning? There are some lessons to be learned. Duhigg says habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings. To overpower a habit, we must recognize which craving is driving the behavior. In L&D, instead of immediately jumping to change a behavior, we must first identify the root cause, or craving, that drives the behavior.

Duhigg uses the example of his habit of going to the cafeteria every afternoon to buy a chocolate chip cookie. He had to first identify the real craving behind the behavior. For example, was it hunger or boredom or the need for social interaction? It turns out that his real craving was for socializing, so he modified his routine to get up and go talk with someone every afternoon instead of going to the cafeteria.

The science of habits can be applied to both individual and organizational change. “Habits are a really big deal within companies,” Duhigg said in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “And what we’ve learned is that a huge amount of whether a company succeeds or fails is based not on sort of the big strategy decisions that people make, but on the habits that emerge within the organization.”

In the book, Duhigg recounts a powerful story about former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill when he was CEO of Alcoa and was able to turn the failing company around by focusing on one thing: safety. O’Neill knew that he couldn’t just walk in and tell employees to change, so instead he asked them to make the workplace safer and set up processes to make it easier to do so. O’Neill knew that if he disrupted one habit, others would follow. When employees designed processes to be safer, they were also more productive and the company became profitable.

“Some habits seem to have a disproportionate influence, Duhigg said. “When a keystone habit starts changing, it seems to set off a chain reaction that changes other habits.”

Another approach for introducing change is illustrated by Duhigg on how program directors manipulate radio listeners into liking a new song. The secret is “dressing something new in familiar old clothes in order to make the unfamiliar seem familiar.” The example is played out with the song, “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. It was labelled a sure-hit by program directors in 2003, but when the unfamiliar song was first played on the air waves, people changed the channel. Program directors began playing the song between two familiar hit songs, and subsequently, “Hey Ya!” became a hit.

What can L&D practitioners take away from The Power of Habit? First, changing a habit starts with identifying the craving that is driving the behavior, so learning practitioners need to dig deeper in their needs analysis in order to ferret out what cravings are behind organizational habits. Second, from Duhigg’s research we see that focusing on a keystone habit for an individual or organization can bring about positive change in related behaviors. And third, because people naturally resist what’s unfamiliar, it’s best to introduce new concepts couched between familiar ideas to increase the likelihood of acceptance of the new.