Most readers are likely to associate the word “habit” with individual behaviors (like eating healthy food, exercising regularly, and practicing good hygiene). But in The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg argues that these aren’t the only kinds of habits that affect people’s lives. Instead, he shows that groups, organizations, and even whole societies also depend on the same kind of automatic, unquestioned habits as individuals. This happens because habits are contagious—they can catch on in social groups of any size, whether because of power, peer pressure, or love. In fact, many habits that appear to just impact individuals are actually rooted in social life. Thus, Duhigg’s point about the importance of habits and habit change applies as much to collectives as it does to individuals. He concludes that social groups develop different collective habits from one another because of their different underlying dynamics; these habits then shape how groups evolve and ultimately determine whether or not they achieve their goals.
Duhigg argues that, like individuals, social groups of all sizes depend on habits that make them succeed or fail. This is most evident in small groups of like-minded people, who tend to bond around particular habits and norms. For instance, Alcoholics Anonymous helps people quit drinking in large part because of the group habits it teaches people—AA members learn to habitually come together, tell their stories, and analyze their triggers and mistakes. In addition to replacing drinking, AA also exposes recovering alcoholics to others who have successfully stayed sober for longer. Thus, in AA meetings, small groups build a set of shared habits, which help them recover from their addictions.
Similarly, entire organizations can share and rely on particular habits. Duhigg cites Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter’s influential book An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, in which the authors argue that institutions’ routines define their identity, give them consistency, and determine whether they achieve their goals. One example of this is Starbucks’s focus on self-discipline and willpower in employee training. By promoting these key values, Starbucks creates a shared culture for its workforce, helps employees cope with professional and personal setbacks, and ensures better customer service. Duhigg even argues that Starbucks owes its success to this training program, which shows how habits can define and shape institutions as much as they can define and shape people.
Entire societies also have specific habits, which have important consequences for their success. For example, Duhigg argues that the civil rights movement was largely about a shift in habits. Americans started changing the day-to-day habits that sustained segregation, while learning to respond to racist violence with inclusive messages of love, tolerance, and hope. According to Duhigg, Americans first learned these habits from civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but they are now central to American democracy. In fact, King’s principles and habits have even transformed American identity, to the point that many Americans view diversity and tolerance as defining features of their national story. This shows how powerful habits can shape entire societies.
Social groups have distinct, meaningful habits because habits are fundamentally social—they form and change when people come together. Duhigg argues that this can happen in many ways. The first and most direct way is simply through power. Leaders can impose new habits on their followers, like Paul O’Neill did by forcing all of his workers to prioritize safety when he became the CEO of Alcoa. But leaders can also change habits by inspiring their followers. Duhigg cites Dr. King’s influence as a clear example of how moral leadership can spread new kinds of habits throughout a group or society. Next, habits can spread through strong personal and social connections. Namely, groups of people who share close ties—like families, groups of friends, or even AA chapters—often build good habits to help one another out. For instance, the Baptist pastor Rick Warren had his congregants meet in small groups because he knew that this would help them befriend and support one another. He believed that this personal connection would help them sustain a Bible study routine. This shows that small, unified groups can be one of the best places for habits to form and spread. Finally, habits also spread through weak social ties, or peer pressure. To protect their reputations and avoid rejection, people imitate others in a group—including by taking up their habits. For instance, Duhigg argues that the Montgomery bus boycott during the civil rights movement was largely successful because Montgomery’s Black community felt obligated to participate for the sake of the common good. Because networks of casual acquaintances and friends-of-friends tend to be extensive, they can spread new habits far and wide.
For Duhigg, then, there’s little difference between the way habits work for individuals and the way they work for groups, organizations, and entire societies. Just as individuals are defined by their habits but also have the power to change them, groups and institutions always function according to certain ingrained routines but can still transform themselves by changing these routines. And just as individual bad habits (like overeating or compulsive gambling) harm a person’s health, collective bad habits (like unequal power structures or a culture of disrespect) can threaten the strength and sustainability of an entire organization. Not only is it limiting to only talk about individual habits—it’s also wrong, because even individual habits tend to be rooted in a larger social group. Thus, individual and collective habits are always tied together. Often, changing one is the first step toward changing the other.
Social Habits and Cultural Influence ThemeTracker
Social Habits and Cultural Influence Quotes in The Power of Habit
Each change was designed to appeal to a specific, daily cue: Cleaning a room. Making a bed. Vacuuming a rug. In each one, Febreze was positioned as the reward: the nice smell that occurs at the end of a cleaning routine. Most important, each ad was calibrated to elicit a craving: that things will smell as nice as they look when the cleaning ritual is done. The irony is that a product manufactured to destroy odors was transformed into the opposite. Instead of eliminating scents on dirty fabrics, it became an air freshener used as the finishing touch, once things are already clean.
Dabbing a bit of sunscreen on your face each morning significantly lowers the odds of skin cancer. Yet, while everyone brushes their teeth, fewer than 10 percent of Americans apply sunscreen each day. Why?
Because there’s no craving that has made sunscreen into a daily habit. Some companies are trying to fix that by giving sunscreens a tingling sensation or something that lets people know they’ve applied it to their skin. They’re hoping it will cue an expectation the same way the craving for a tingling mouth reminds us to brush our teeth.
What most people didn’t realize, however, was that O’Neill’s plan for getting to zero injuries entailed the most radical realignment in Alcoa’s history. The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to study how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work.
In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa needed to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth.
O’Neill’s experiences with infant mortality illustrate the second way that keystone habits encourage change: by creating structures that help other habits to flourish. In the case of premature deaths, changing collegiate curriculums for teachers started a chain reaction that eventually trickled down to how girls were educated in rural areas, and whether they were sufficiently nourished when they became pregnant. And O’Neill’s habit of constantly pushing other bureaucrats to continue researching until they found a problem’s root causes overhauled how the government thought about problems like infant mortality.
Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially, it has taught him willpower.
“Starbucks is the most important thing that has ever happened to me,” he told me. “I owe everything to this company.”
It may seem like most organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision making, but that’s not really how companies operate at all. Instead, firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions. And these habits have more profound impacts than anyone previously understood.
Now, imagine what you would tell a new colleague who asked for advice about how to succeed at your firm. Your recommendations probably wouldn’t contain anything you’d find in the company’s handbook. Instead, the tips you would pass along—who is trustworthy; which secretaries have more clout than their bosses; how to manipulate the bureaucracy to get something done—are the habits you rely on every day to survive. If you could somehow diagram all your work habits—and the informal power structures, relationships, alliances, and conflicts they represent—and then overlay your diagram with diagrams prepared by your colleagues, it would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy, a guide to who knows how to make things happen and who never seems to get ahead of the ball.
The same kinds of shifts are possible at any company where institutional habits—through thoughtlessness or neglect—have created toxic truces. A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis—or create the perception of crisis—and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.
As Pole’s computer program crawled through the data, he was able to identify about twenty-five different products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to, in a sense, peer inside a woman’s womb. Most important, he could guess what trimester she was in—and estimate her due date—so Target could send her coupons when she was on the brink of making new purchases. By the time Pole was done, his program could assign almost any regular shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score.
This insight helped explain why “Hey Ya!” was failing on the radio, despite the fact that Hit Song Science and music executives were sure it would be a hit. The problem wasn’t that “Hey Ya!” was bad. The problem was that “Hey Ya!” wasn’t familiar. Radio listeners didn’t want to make a conscious decision each time they were presented with a new song. Instead, their brains wanted to follow a habit. Much of the time, we don’t actually choose if we like or dislike a song. It would take too much mental effort. Instead, we react to the cues (“This sounds like all the other songs I’ve ever liked”) and rewards (“It’s fun to hum along!”) and without thinking, we either start singing, or reach over and change the station.
The reason why social habits have such influence is because at the root of many movements—be they large-scale revolutions or simple fluctuations in the churches people attend—is a three-part process that historians and sociologists say shows up again and again:
A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.
It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.
And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.
Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass.
When faced with the prospect of getting arrested (or worse) in Mississippi, most students probably had second thoughts. However, some were embedded in communities where social habits—the expectations of their friends and the peer pressure of their acquaintances—compelled participation, so regardless of their hesitations, they bought a bus ticket. Others—who also cared about civil rights—belonged to communities where the social habits pointed in a slightly different direction, so they thought to themselves, Maybe I’ll just stay home.
This is the third aspect of how social habits drive movements: For an idea to grow beyond a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help them figure out where to go on their own.