DON DRAPER, the womanising star of “Mad Men”, an ad-agency TV drama, is a mere piker compared with Claude Hopkins. Hopkins was the most flamboyant advertising genius of the early 20th century—the man who convinced millions of women to buy Palmolive soap on the basis that Cleopatra had washed with it, and got the world talking about puffed wheat with the claim that it was “shot from guns” until the grains puffed to eight times their normal size.
Hopkins’s greatest achievement was to persuade ordinary people to start cleaning their teeth. He landed the job of selling a new brand of toothpaste called Pepsodent. Hopkins realised that the biggest barrier to selling it was that only a few people bothered to clean their teeth. So he set about changing the habits of a nation—giving people a trigger to justify daily brushing (a “cloudy film” forms on your teeth if you don’t) and promising a reward if you stick to your new habit (a beautiful smile). Before Pepsodent’s launch, only 7% of Americans owned a tube of toothpaste; a decade later, 65% did.
Hopkins is one of dozens of flamboyant characters who parade through the pages of Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”. Mr Duhigg, a New York Times reporter and broadcaster, takes as his starting point William James’s observation, in 1892, that “all our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” We like to think of our daily choices as the result of reason and will. But for the most part they are the products of unconscious habits: habits that at best make our lives more efficient (imagine if you really did have to agonise about everything) and at worse trap us in self-destructive behaviour.
But Mr Duhigg improves on James in two ways. The scientific study of habits has taken off in recent years after decades in the doldrums. Biologists have investigated the way that habits are wired into the cerebral cortex and marketers have looked at the way that they shape behaviour. Mr Duhigg has immersed himself in this literature. James was a fatalist. He once compared habits to water which “hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before”. Mr Duhigg insists that it is possible to divert the water—provided that we learn a few tricks.
“The Power of Habit” is divided into three parts. The first focuses on individuals. It shows how entrenched habits shape individual lives and analyses how those habits can be broken and rearranged. Mr Duhigg argues, for example, that people can be trapped by a predictable cycle: you flag in midafternoon, you eat a biscuit, you feel much better. Pavlovian marketers reinforce these routines by fiddling with the rewards: slot-machine companies have increased the number of near misses because they help to keep people hooked. But people can also escape from the trap by changing the routine. Alcoholics Anonymous has proved so successful in part because it replaces one routine (going to the bar and getting drunk) with another (going to meetings and talking about your addiction).
The second part of the book concentrates on organisations. Mr Duhigg shows how managers can change entire firms by changing a handful of “keystone habits”. Paul O’Neill transformed Alcoa, an aluminium giant, by aiming to establish a perfect safety record. Howard Schultz turned Starbucks into a coffee superpower by focusing his employees on customer service. Changing these “keystone habits” creates a chain reaction, with the new habits rippling through the organisation and changing other habits as they go.
The book’s final part looks at the habits of societies—what Walter Bagehot, an early editor of The Economist, called “the cake of custom”. Mr Duhigg argues that some of the greatest social reformations have been produced as much by rewiring social habits as by agitating for grand abstractions like justice. The civil-rights movement took a huge step forward in freeing what Martin Luther King called a “fear-ridden people” when Rosa Parks refused to do what Alabama’s blacks had routinely done before and sit in a blacks-only section of a bus. The gay-rights movement began to go mainstream when it persuaded the Library of Congress to reclassify books on gay rights from “abnormal sexual relations, including sexual crimes” to a more neutral classification. Rick Warren turned Saddleback Church, one of the biggest in America, into an Evangelical role model by marketing prayer meetings so that churchgoing became embedded in the fabric of people’s daily lives.
“The Power of Habit” leaves many questions unanswered. Is it reasonable, for example, to put a serious addiction like alcoholism in the same category as a predilection for cupcakes? The author also has a penchant for producing endless bits of academic research out of his magician’s hat as if trying to outdo Malcolm Gladwell. Minor gripes aside, this is a first-rate book—based on an impressive mass of research, written in a lively style and providing just the right balance of intellectual seriousness with practical advice on how to break our bad habits.