On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama and got arrested. She helped turn the civil rights movement from an esoteric legal battle into a mass popular struggle. This struggle started in Montgomery, where local Black residents boycotted the local bus system. Parks and the civil rights movement show how social habits can spur political change. Usually, a group of people with shared social habits starts a movement, and the whole community joins in because of those habits. Then, effective leaders create new habits among the movement’s adherents.
At first, Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement might seem irrelevant to this book’s focus on habit change. But it’s helpful to remember that Duhigg sees habits as the foundation for most human behavior—both individual and social. This means that he views society as a mass of collective habits. In turn, social movements are really just large-scale efforts to change these collective habits. This makes it easier to understand why Duhigg views the civil rights movement as similar to Paul O’Neill restructuring Alcoa. Namely, civil rights activists began adopting and spreading new, more just habits with respect to racial segregation in the U.S. Meanwhile, other social habits (such as friendship and community cohesion) were like the keystone habits that helped these new political habits spread. For readers who consider Target’s tactics from the last chapter unethical, the civil rights movement shows that habit modification can also be a force for good.
Rosa Parks was far from the first Black passenger to resist Montgomery’s segregated bus system. But unlike the others, she was a respected member of her community, and her friends came to her defense. She volunteered at numerous organizations across town, and she knew people of all social and economic classes across Montgomery’s Black community.
Duhigg believes that Rosa Parks’s protest habits spread because of her unique social position and the unique social habits in her community. In fact, he argues that Parks’s social position was the result of her own personal social habits, like attending various clubs. This again shows how Duhigg views habits as central to people’s identities.
When Parks was arrested, her mother called the local NAACP leader, E.D. Nixon, who bailed her out. Nixon also called another of Parks’s friends, the white lawyer Clifford Durr, to defend her. Parks agreed to let Nixon and Durr pursue her case in court to challenge Montgomery’s segregation laws. Then, her close friend Jo Ann Robinson, a teacher and activist, organized the bus boycott with the help of her teacher colleagues. They were passing out flyers less than 24 hours after Parks’s arrest. Duhigg argues that they helped because protecting one’s friends is a natural social habit.
Parks’s close friendships were key to launching the bus boycott. If she didn’t have good friends in powerful places, Duhigg implies, her arrest would have gone unnoticed, and the bus boycott would not have gotten off the ground. Again, for Duhigg, this matters because friendship is really a social habit. After all, people’s feelings of love and concern for their friends are usually automatic. Moreover, friendships fit the basic criteria of habits: they’re long-term, consistent, and foundational to people’s lives.
Next, the Montgomery bus boycott spread because of another social habit: the peer pressure that held the Black community together. The sociologist Mark Granovetter found that people consistently help not only their friends but also casual acquaintances and friends of friends when they ask for help in a job search. In fact, “weak ties” are especially important to finding jobs because they allow people to access a wider social and professional network. Sociologists have shown that gossip, public opinion, and political movements also generally spread through weak ties. Specifically, they depend on peer pressure: people follow their groups to avoid the consequences of flouting those groups’ expectations.
The peer pressure associated with “weak ties” is a powerful social habit because it encourages wide networks of people to work together and agree on key issues. Thus, while peer pressure generally has a negative connotation, Duhigg suggests that it can also be a force for good. Individual people and families in Montgomery might not have wanted to participate in the boycott—after all, it was often difficult for them to get to work without taking the bus. However, they knew that they would face moral judgment from their community if they abandoned the boycott. Therefore, peer pressure convinced thousands of people to choose the common good above their own self-interest.
In 1964, hundreds of students helped register Black voters in the South in a push known as Freedom Summer. But, knowing they would face violence from white vigilantes, hundreds who signed up also chose not to go. The sociologist Doug McAdam studied their applications to try and figure out why. He determined that the single most important factor had to do with which clubs students belonged to. Students went to Freedom Summer if their friends and acquaintances in these clubs also went—or, in other words, because of their strong and weak ties. Once these students promised to go to Freedom Summer, McAdam explains, they would have lost their reputations if they withdrew. But students whose peers didn’t sign up for Freedom Summer, too, were more likely to withdraw.
Pulling out of the Freedom Summer could have affected students’ friendships (strong ties) and reputations (weak ties). In other words, while they may have originally signed up for the Freedom Summer because of their moral principles, students actually followed through with their plans because of peer pressure. Thus, McAdam’s research demonstrates that peer pressure helped spread the civil rights movement to people who weren’t directly impacted by segregation—like white students in the North. In turn, this again shows that social habits like peer pressure can be a profound force for good. Specifically, they can push people to act for the benefit of a larger group.
After Rosa Parks’s arrest, E.D. Nixon called a young local minister, Martin Luther King Jr., to explain what happened and ask for support. Then, he called dozens of others and set up a meeting at King’s church. They got every Black church in Montgomery to agree on a one-day bus boycott. When a local newspaper reported on their plans, thousands of Black residents throughout Montgomery decided to join in. The morning of the boycott, bus after bus drove by King’s window, empty. Meanwhile, hundreds of people attended Rosa Parks’s trial. Duhigg concludes that “the social habits of weak ties” turned the bus boycott into a city-wide movement. And social habits created by Dr. King’s leadership kept it going.
Weak ties fueled the Montgomery bus boycott, just like they fueled the Freedom Summer: people agreed to do the right thing because they knew that their community was counting on them. But Duhigg shows how the boycott succeeded because these weak ties came together with two other kinds of social ties. The first was the friendships (or close ties) among community leaders like Nixon and Dr. King. The second was the community’s support for Dr. King’s leadership and faith in his message.
In 1979, the Baptist pastor Rick Warren was planning to build a new congregation. But he didn’t know where. He spent months studying maps and census records, and then he settled on Saddleback Valley, a fast-growing part of Orange County, California. Warren’s inspiration was Donald McGavran, an evangelist who tried to Christianize people around the world by appealing to their social habits—or, in other words, through marketing. Now, Warren’s church has more than 20,000 members and nine campuses, and he is so influential that he even performed a prayer during President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
The Montgomery bus boycott shows how existing communities can mobilize for change based on their social habits. In contrast, Rick Warren harnessed social habits in order to build and mobilize new communities. Similarly, whereas most churches ask people to change their lives and behavior for the sake of religion, Warren instead changed his church to adapt to people’s lives. His counterintuitive approach to building community shows how understanding habits can give people the power to shape their societies.
Rick Warren’s worldview is based on turning faith into a social habit. People complained about boring sermons, bad music, and the rigid dress code. So he let them wear anything, played electric guitar music, and gave clear, practical sermons. In a year, he had two hundred congregants. But he was overworked. He had a panic attack during a Sunday service and fell into a serious depression. He realized that he needed to simplify his role in the church.
Rick Warren understood how habits drive people’s behavior and how the most powerful habits are social ones. Therefore, he built a successful church through social habits. Specifically, he merged church services with people’s familiar, pre-existing routines. Instead of treating church as a special social space for people to visit once a week, he presented it as an extension of their ordinary lives. This is very similar to how Target made targeted ads familiar by mixing them in with other coupons, or how record executives made “Hey Ya!” a success by playing it between sticky songs.
Warren decided to have his congregants meet weekly, in small groups. This made church a key social habit—people get to join the big crowd on the weekend but work with their small groups during the week. Like in the Montgomery bus boycott, the strong and weak ties worked together to create new social habits. However, at first, Warren’s small groups mostly just got together and gossiped. They didn’t really study the Bible; they needed better leadership. But Warren couldn’t go to all of them individually. Instead, he built a curriculum to teach them Christ-like good habits during their group meetings. This illustrates how communities help spread compelling ideas by teaching people new habits.
After using the power of habit to convert people to his church, Warren next started using it to spread his church’s teachings more effectively. Of course, Warren’s purpose was also to teach his followers new habits—like Duhigg, he thinks that good habits are the key to living a good life. Like Alcoholics Anonymous groups, Warren’s weekly Bible study groups sought to give people a consistent, safe, personalized environment for forming these new habits. Meanwhile, Warren’s large weekly services reinforced the weak ties that connected his whole congregation together.
Two months into the Montgomery bus boycott, the Black community started to give up. The police were harassing them, and it was becoming harder and harder for them to go to work. Then, someone bombed Dr. King’s house. A crowd formed outside, and the police asked King to calm them down. King preached about nonviolence and reframed the civil rights movement as an act of love, not a fight. He argued that the bus boycott “was part of God’s plan” and told the crowd that they needed new habits—like “meet[ing] hate with love.” Over the following weeks, even as bombings continued, the boycott strengthened. Meanwhile, churches held mass meetings, where congregants committed to King’s principles as a unified group.
Throughout the book, Duhigg has repeatedly pointed out how stress makes new habits difficult to sustain. For instance, he noted that alcoholics tend to relapse during crises unless they can gain strength from their belief in a higher power. Similarly, the Montgomery protestors nearly gave up on the boycott, until Dr. King’s speech reminded them that their fight had a greater cosmic and national significance. This shows that groups need to believe in themselves in order to sustain habit change, just like individuals do. And Dr. King’s philosophy gave them something powerful to believe in.
As their movement spread, Black Montgomery residents shed their fear. Even when they were arrested and attacked, they responded with love and forgiveness. The movement grew stronger and stronger over time. Duhigg argues that Dr. King’s teachings spread a new set of behaviors in the community. Through these behaviors, the protestors built a new identity for themselves. This allowed the movement to spread across the South and eventually reach Washington. When he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Johnson praised activists as defenders of democracy and justice. Duhigg concludes that movements depend on habits—the social habits of tight friend groups, the social habits of larger communities, and the individual habits that participants learn through membership in those communities.
The protestors built a set of shared values and habits around Dr. King’s philosophy. This illustrates the third and final of Duhigg’s points about social habits: people learn new habits by joining and participating in communities. Then, the habits they learn transform their lives and identities. On a large enough scale, they can also transform society as a whole. In fact, Johnson’s praise shows that the civil rights movement transformed habits and values across the whole U.S., far beyond the communities that actually led it. In turn, King’s ideas have also become foundation to certain visions of American democracy and identity.