Angie Bachmann had been a stay-at-home mother for two decades. When her youngest daughter finally started school, she didn’t know what to do with herself. She decided to spend the afternoon at a casino. Over time, she started going every Friday, as a reward for making it through the week. But she carefully limited her gambling. Over time, she improved and started winning money. Gambling was long illegal in Bachmann’s home state of Iowa. Governments have tried to regulate it and other practices they consider to be bad habits. But when Iowa legalized gambling, the state government started making lots of money.
Angie Bachmann’s trips to the casino show how habit loops form over time. At first, when the casino became the reward for her weekly routine, she controlled herself and acted responsibly. But that gradually started to change as her habit loop became stronger and stronger. Bachmann’s behavior and Duhigg’s comments on the government regulation of gambling hint at this chapter’s central question: who is to blame for bad habits, and who is responsible for stopping them?
When Angie Bachmann began caring for her parents, who were dying of lung disease, she started to feel even more distant from her family and friends. So, she started going to the casino more and more. Sometimes, she won—or lost—thousands of dollars in a matter of hours. She had to start borrowing money from her parents. But the casino excited her and soothed all of her anxieties about her family life, so she kept going. Eventually, she went bankrupt. But this was just the beginning of her story.
Bachmann’s worsening gambling problem shows how habits can totally control people’s lives—to the point of overriding their common sense and changing their very identities. Still, Duhigg presents her as a responsible and sympathetic character who understood her problem and just occasionally lost control of herself. This adds to the moral complexity surrounding bad habits. If good people can develop bad habits through no serious fault of their own, Duhigg seems to be asking, then are people really responsible for their habits?
In July 2008, Brian Thomas called the police and admitted to accidentally killing his wife in the middle of the night. He was a lifelong sleepwalker, and the court struggled to decide whether he was truly guilty of murder. Usually, the brain stem paralyzes the human body during sleep. But sleepwalkers’ brains don’t do this—which is why they can do complex tasks like walking, cooking, or even driving while totally unconscious.
Angie Bachmann and Brian Thomas’s bad habits were very different. Bachmann gradually but knowingly developed her gambling habit, which slowly engulfed her whole life. In contrast, Brian Thomas committed a horrible crime in a split-second because of a lifelong habit that he didn’t even understand. Yet Bachmann and Thomas’s habits raise similar questions about moral responsibility, because neither one of them seemed fully in control of their actions.
Other people have sleep terrors: they experience intense anxiety, and the only active parts of their brain are the “primitive neurological regions” responsible for habits like the fight-or-flight response. During sleep terrors, people can’t consciously turn off these habits, even when they’re violent. In fact, hundreds of people have been acquitted of crimes they committed during sleep terrors. During Brian Thomas’s trial, even the prosecution agreed that he was innocent because he killed his wife while asleep. But Duhigg asks why Angie Bachmann wasn’t also considered innocent—as she was also just following her habits.
Sleepwalking and sleep terrors show how powerful the unconscious mind is. After all, the unconscious is primarily responsible for forming and implementing habit loops. Thus, much like Eugene Pauly’s walks around his neighborhood, sleep terrors are automatic, unconscious habits that the conscious mind cannot recognize or stop. This is why Brian Thomas was acquitted: the U.S. justice system generally doesn’t hold people responsible for behaviors that they didn’t consciously intend (or consciously enable through negligence or recklessness).
When Angie Bachmann’s parents died within two months of each other, she was devastated. She also inherited about $1 million, which she used to move her family back to her hometown in Tennessee—where gambling wasn’t legal. But one night, she had a panic attack and went to the casino with her husband. She lost several thousand dollars at the blackjack table, but she still felt much better. The casino company, Harrah’s, had a sophisticated system for tracking and manipulating customers. It started sending Bachmann free plane tickets, hotel suites, concert tickets, and even cash to gamble. One night, she lost $250,000 and didn’t even tell her husband. But the casino kept calling, and she kept thinking that she could win the money back.
Bachmann’s gambling got worse because it became her primary strategy for coping with negative feelings. She developed an addiction because she learned to crave the calm and emotional release that she found while gambling. Meanwhile, much like Andrew Pole at Target, Harrah’s used complex data analytics to try and exploit Bachmann’s addiction. While Target’s targeted coupons don’t necessarily harm its customers, Harrah’s offers clearly do. Therefore, they raise an ethical question similar to Bachmann’s behavior: is it acceptable for corporations to exploit bad habits that people struggle to control?
The neuroscientist Reza Habib scanned the brains of problem gamblers and casual gamblers while they looked at a slot machine. Habib found that problem gamblers get more excited when they win and, unlike casual gamblers, also respond to near misses as if they’re almost real wins. This helps explain why they keep gambling for longer, and why casino companies program their slot machines to deliver lots of near misses. For compulsive gamblers, the habit loop simply takes over. In fact, patients have successfully sued pharmaceutical companies when drugs that affect the basal ganglia and brain stem have made them into compulsive gamblers, eaters, and more.
Habib’s research shows that gambling blurs the line between free will and compulsion. Namely, while they are gambling, people simply play out an automatic habit loop—they don’t really make free, conscious decisions. This has important ethical implications. Namely, if gamblers do not truly control their behavior—and their only sin is being born with the wrong brain chemistry—then perhaps they should not be held responsible for their gambling.
In 2006, Angie Bachmann was nearly broke when Harrah’s invited her to a casino. She gambled away the rest of her money—and then her house. If Brian Thomas wasn’t guilty of murdering his wife, Duhigg asks, why was Angie Bachmann considered guilty of gambling away her money? Reza Habib argues that problem gamblers lose control of their free will, just like Thomas did. When Harrah and Bachmann sued each other, however, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Harrah’s and argued that compulsive gamblers must “take personal responsibility” for their actions. But Duhigg asks why people believe that certain habits are easier to control than others.
Bachmann and Thomas’s actions led to tragic suffering, but neither of them truly controlled those actions. Thus, by simply calling for “personal responsibility,” the court seemed to overlook the real moral issue at stake in Bachmann’s case: she wasn’t capable of acting responsibly. Meanwhile, the court also overlooked the way Harrah’s manipulated Bachmann’s habit loop to take her money. At the same time, there’s still an obvious difference between Bachmann and Thomas. Namely, Bachmann could have stopped her bad habits—even if this would have been incredibly difficult.
The philosopher Aristotle thought that habits are an indication of people’s true inner selves. In this book, Duhigg has tried to show that habits are powerful and deeply rooted, but also that they’re not destiny. If people understand the cue-routine-reward loop behind their habits, they can decide to change them. This is why Angie Bachmann is responsible for her actions and Brian Thomas isn’t: Bachmann knew about her bad habits, so was responsible for changing them. But Thomas had no idea that his habits could lead him to murder his wife in his sleep, so he can’t be held responsible for them.
Duhigg’s argument about people’s moral responsibility for their habits ultimately rests on the principle of moral autonomy, or free will. Essentially, he thinks that people are morally responsible for their habits because they can control them through their own free will. It’s true that many habits are difficult to change in the moment, but if Duhigg’s book has proven anything, it’s that people have power to control their habits over time. Brian Thomas is a very rare exception because he couldn’t have saved his wife of his own free will—instead, his free will had no power over his unconscious habits. But Duhigg suggests that the vast majority of habits are more like Angie Bachmann’s: they’re controllable, even if actually controlling them can be very difficult.
In the prologue, Duhigg quoted William James: “all our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” In his twenties, James considered himself a failure and contemplated suicide. But first, he decided to try believing in free will and changing his life. It was a remarkable success. In order to grow, James realized, people have to first make a habit out of believing they can change.
William James’s youth confirms two of Duhigg’s central theses: good habits are the key to a successful life, and people have to believe in themselves in order to successfully change their habits. Of course, this connects to Duhigg’s argument about morality because people who believe that they control their habits are also likely to take responsibility for those habits’ effects.
Duhigg concludes that habits are like water to a fish: they’re everywhere, but they’re easy to forget unless we make a point of looking at them. James also compared habits to water: just like water carves out channels for itself, then repeatedly follows those same paths, people develop habits and then repeat them. But they also have the power to create new paths for themselves.
To conclude his book, Duhigg reiterates the stakes of taking habits seriously. The water metaphors emphasize one of his central points: habits are completely mundane and incredibly powerful at the same time. Finally, Duhigg hopes that his readers can learn to view habits as tools for self-improvement that are fundamentally within their own control.