This was an essay I wrote in high school 4 years ago on the book The Power of Habit. Pictures have been added. I hope you enjoy!

Is it our thoughts, decision making, or environment that shapes us into who we are? All these are crucial elements that humans encounter and experience on a daily basis but few know how they actually work. The novel, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg explains what drives humans behaviour and their actions through habits. It goes into detail about a habit loop, in which many humans live by on a daily basis without realizing it. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do; therefore, excellence is not an act but a habit.” Successful people are not successful because they are lucky; it is because of their good habits which set them apart from any ordinary individual. The knowledge of knowing how habits work, plus the ability to change bad habits will improve the living of any individual but, only if the individual believes it is possible.

Good habits are hard to create but knowing how a habit works is the first step to change. The first step in order to change is to know how habits emerge. Habits are the brains way to conserve energy. The more habits that are produced, the less the certain individual has to think. The basal ganglia is an organ located in the brain which is responsible for controlling habits. It is heavily influenced by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is a reward endorphin. Habits create neurological cravings for these certain endorphins which can alter behaviour. When a habit has emerged, the brain completely stops participating in decision making. Habits are powerful but, extremely delicate because they are involved in so many aspects of daily living. First off, a habit is created by a cue, followed by a routine and then a reward. (As shown below)

Figure 1: Habit Loop

Figure 1 shows the habit loop and all habits follow this pattern. One day Claude Hopkins, a prominent executive was approached by a friend about a business idea. At the time Hopkins was a part of a successful industry known today as advertising. The product was called Pepsodent, a minty toothpaste. Hopkins needed a cue to market the idea while educating the public about toothpaste. So the trigger or cue was focusing on tooth film that covers people’s teeth. The cue of tooth film could trigger the habit so people would use the product. Hopkins created ads that said “Just run your tongue across your teeth, you’ll feel a film — that’s what makes your teeth look off colour and invites decay” (47). At this moment Hopkins had a cue, tooth film. So as part of the habit loop the next step is the routine, which is brushing the teeth. Then, the reward of it all is the clean white teeth. This particular habit is used by millions of people every morning and night.

The interesting part of it all is Hopkins was not selling toothpaste, he was selling a sensation.

The minty tingling sensation when toothpaste is used is what creates the neurological craving; toothpaste is not supposed to foam in the mouth but it is created that way so the people have some idea that the product is working. An extremely simple idea created an enormous business in which is still used today in everyday living.

An experiment was conducted by Wolfram Shultz a professor at the University of Cambridge. Shultz wanted to test the habit loop with monkeys and measure the effects on the brain(P. 46). Julio (the monkey) was given a task to touch a lever when a colour shape appeared on a screen in front of him. The object that showed up on the screen were: yellow spirals, red squiggles or blue squares. Whenever he touched the lever he would get a drop of blackberry juice and there was a tube connected to the Julio’s mouth so the juice would arrive instantly. After several trials of the experiment, Julio realized that the computer screen was a cue for a routine, then he started expecting the reward. Throughout the experiment Shultz was monitoring Julio’s brain levels and more specifically looking at the dopamine being released. Naturally, Julio received his reward of blackberry juice his brain activity would spike suggesting happiness.

As the experiment progressed Julio started anticipating the blackberry juice, meaning the habit was becoming stronger. Julio’s brain was saying “I got the reward!” before the juice had reached him. By Julio skipping the cue and routine on the habit loop, this created a craving for the juice. Shultz decided to modify the experiment by occasionally sending the juice once the routine was completed, sometimes not at all. Julio’s mood was affected and when the juice would not arrive he would become angry or make unhappy noises. This showed Julio craved the blackberry juice. Anticipation of the reward created a craving that the monkey could not resist. Julio would sit in front of the computer screen for hours waiting for his reward.

This is commonly seen at casinos, as gamblers will waste thousands and thousands of dollars as they are anticipating winning the big jackpot. Cravings are powerful that can alter behaviour to satisfy the craving. Knowing about the habit system will allow individuals to identify their own habits and improve them. Taking key points out of the experiment with Julio, people can learn to control their craving such as looking at a cell phone frequently or even eating junk food too often. Habits are engrained into the brain so profoundly that most decisions that are made are not well thought out. Changing habits is the way to improve the productivity of everyday living.

The book, Power of Habit, has had a profound impact on my life and has allowed me to create habits that keep me healthy and sharp. It is a must read for anyone looking to start good habits. It goes into great depth on how to change and remove un-wanted habits.

Do you have any of these habits?

Sleeping in
Brushing Teeth
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