Because habit change is such a powerful tool, it can do immense good—or considerable evil. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg surveys examples that span the whole moral spectrum. Many cases of habit change are obviously morally good—like overcoming violent tendencies or stopping medical malpractice. But when people develop or fail to overcome their evil habits, Duhigg asks, who is at fault? Habits are complicated because, while they are often involuntary, people ultimately have the power to change them. Moreover, habits challenge simple notions of freedom and autonomy because they show that people really only have partial control over their decisions. In fact, powerful organizations like governments and corporations often profit by manipulating people into developing bad habits. It becomes somewhat unclear, then, whether people with bad habits are the victims or the instigators of their own behavior. While Duhigg doesn’t provide a total moral theory of habits in this book, he does suggest that—with very few exceptions—people are ethically responsible for their habits because they’re capable of changing them.
First, Duhigg acknowledges that the tools for habit change that he outlines in the book can also be used for evil, like when people manipulate others’ habits in harmful or unethical ways. For instance, to determine if their customers are pregnant, Target buys and analyzes customer data without those customers’ consent. Duhigg acknowledges that many customers feel violated, manipulated, and surveilled by this policy (which Target hides by mixing targeted ads and coupons with random ones that they don’t expect customers to use). In particular, this policy challenges consumers’ belief that they are truly in control of their decisions—it seems to violate their autonomy by planting ideas in their head. Worse still, the casino company Harrah’s gave compulsive gambler Angie Bachmann free flights, hotel rooms, and credit in order to lure her back to gambling even though she was trying to quit. (She eventually went bankrupt, and Harrah’s sued her.) If it weren’t for the incentives from Harrah’s, gamblers like Bachmann would be much more likely to quit and stay financially solvent. Does this make the company’s behavior unethical? At the very least, Duhigg affirms, Harrah’s took advantage of Bachmann’s bad habits and made it harder for her to quit. But this doesn’t mean she’s not still responsible for her decision to gamble. Thus, Duhigg suggests that manipulation might explain bad habits, but it doesn’t excuse them.
Next, Duhigg concludes that people are morally responsible for their bad habits—as long as they are aware of them—precisely because they still have the freedom and capability to change them. Still, this answer isn’t obvious. Habits are complicated because they are neither totally conscious nor totally involuntary. In other words, they blur the line between free will and coercion. As the neuroscientist Reza Habib has pointed out, compulsive gamblers feel that they can’t stop and genuinely lose control of their free will while they’re playing. If this is true—that people with bad habits don’t behave badly out of their own free will—then they aren’t necessarily responsible for their actions. However, Duhigg thinks there’s a difference between controlling habits in the moment and choosing to reform them at other times. In other words, while compulsive gamblers might not be able to stop once they’ve started betting, they can choose to seek help and change when they’re not in the middle of gambling. Even if people with bad habits temporarily lose control over themselves, then, they regain control in other moments. This means that they still have the power to reform their bad habits.
Finally, Duhigg thinks that knowing about and being able to reform one’s bad habits is enough to be morally responsible for them. He points out that this fits with the ordinary legal concept of guilt: if people freely chose to do something wrong—even if their choice was based on negligence or ignorance—they are morally responsible for their behavior. As a result, people like Angie Bachmann are responsible for their actions, even if they’ve also been manipulated by bad actors. The only exception, Duhigg argues, is in cases where people literally cannot know about their bad habits. He uses Brian Thomas as an example. Thomas accidentally killed his wife during a night terror (an unconscious episode that is like a violent kind of sleepwalking). Neuroscientists know that, during night terrors, the basal ganglia are in control—which means people are acting according to habit and cannot stop their violent behavior. Since Thomas literally could not have predicted, stopped, or known about the danger he posed to his wife, Duhigg agrees with the court that he wasn’t morally responsible for her murder. But this example shows that the bar for escaping moral responsibility for bad habits is extremely high: in most cases, anyone who knows they have a problem also has a responsibility to fix that problem.
Duhigg suggests that it’s unethical to change people’s habits by psychologically manipulating them. But he argues that people are also responsible for their habits, even when those habits are the result of manipulation. For Duhigg, then, people’s ability to control their habits means that they are truly free, autonomous decision-makers. If they can change their habits, they are morally responsible for those habits—even if they struggle or fail to change them. For instance, Duhigg believes that Harrah’s behaved immorally, but that Angie Bachmann was still responsible for her own bankruptcy because she could and should have sought help. (The only exceptions are cases like Brian Thomas’s, when people are literally unaware of their habits.) Thus, people with bad habits are quite often both the victims and perpetrators of evil.
The Moral Consequences of Habits ThemeTracker
The Moral Consequences of Habits Quotes in The Power of Habit
Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.
And in almost every experiment, researchers have seen echoes of Squire’s discoveries with Eugene: Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.
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.
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.
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.
Thomas is the most sympathetic murderer conceivable, someone so close to being a victim himself that when the trial ended, the judge tried to console him.
Yet many of those same excuses can be made for Angie Bachmann, the gambler. She was also devastated by her actions. She would later say she carries a deep sense of guilt. And as it turns out, she was also following deeply ingrained habits that made it increasingly difficult for decision making to intervene.
Every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves. A high school dropout can become a successful manager.
However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it—and every chapter in this book is devoted to illustrating a different aspect of why that control is real.
Perhaps a sleepwalking murderer can plausibly argue he wasn’t aware of his habit, and so he doesn’t bear responsibility for his crime. But almost all the other patterns that exist in most people’s lives—how we eat and sleep and talk to our kids, how we unthinkingly spend our time, attention, and money—those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.
Later, [William James] would famously write that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief was habits.
If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.