Imagine that the world is behaving in a way and you know that by changing or adopting a small behavior in the world population, there will big a huge benefit for everybody.
How would your start changing the behaviors of the world population ?
OK … let’s start small first … how would you start adopting healthier behaviors for yourself ?
Let’s focus on a concrete example:
In some small city on this planet, people were forming crowds and than they would start getting violent. This was something that was happening on a regular interval – days.
People were starting to gather in the city plaza and over the course of several hours, the crowd was growing in size. Food vendors would start to show up when the crowd was getting big enough and at some point, somebody from the crowd would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose – a lot of violence.
Some observer proposed to the mayor that food vendors to be banned from selling goods in the plaza and this proposal got accepted.
The next day … the same old story, people were starting to gather in the city place, the crowd was growing in size … and at some point people would get hungry or thirsty and in lack of any vendor to provide them with these things, they would go home and no violence would be triggered.
Who would’ve though that regular crowd violence could be ended by altering their behaviors?
📌 The habit loop – how habits work
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 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.
Conserving mental effort is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, such as a predator hiding in the bushes or a speeding car as we pull onto the street.
🧠The Habit Loop:
- Cue – a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use
- Routine – can be physical, mental or emotional
- Reward – helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future
Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic. The cue reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually a habit is born.
Habits aren’t destiny. Habits can be ignored, changed or replaced.
The habit loop is important because it reveals a basic truth: when a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in the decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus on other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.
📌 The craving brain – how to create new habits
At some time in the history of people living on this planet … people were not brushing their teeth. Not because they were healthy or because toothpaste was not invented … toothpaste had been invented and people were already having big healthy issues with their teeth … but they were not brushing their teeth.
How can one create the habit to brush teeth for an entire country, or continent ? What would be the kind of cue and reward that will fuel the particular habit of brushing teeth?
It seems that even when we find the right cue and reward … it is not enough to build a habit. The missing piece in order to build a habit is craving. It turns out that craving makes cues and rewards work – craving is what powers the habit loop.
Craving + Cue + Reward = Habit
Habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop. Take for instance smoking. When a smoker sees a cue – say, a pack of Marlboros – the brain starts anticipating a hit of nicotine. Just the sight of cigarettes is enough for the brain to crave a nicotine rush. If it doesn’t arrive, the craving grows until the smoker reaches, unthinkingly, for a Marlboro.
Or take email. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the momentary distraction that opening an email provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until a meeting is filled with executives checking their buzzing BlackBerrys under the table, even if they know it’s probably only their latest fantasy football results. (On the other hand, if someone disables the buzzing – and, thus, removes the cue – people can work for hours without thinking to check their in-boxes)
Out of an interview with a person that got into the habit of using a room freshener we find the following quote “If I don’t smell something nice at the end, it doesn’t really seem clean”
Coming back to the issue with creating a habit of brushing teeth for an entire country … how can one create a craving for brushing teeth ?
It seems unlike other pastes of the period, one in particular contained chemicals and ingredients to make the toothpaste taste fresh.
People started to expect – they craved – that slight irritation / taste of fresh. If it wasn’t there, their mouths didn’t feel clean.
Once people craved that cool tingling – once they equated it with cleanliness – brushing became a habit.
“Customers need some kind of signal that a product is working. We can make toothpaste taste like anything and as long as it has a cool tingle, people feel like their mouth is clean. The tingling doesn’t make the toothpaste work any better. It just convinces people it’s doing the job” Tracy Sinclair – brand manager for Oral-B.
Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier. It’s as true now as it was almost a century ago. Every night, millions of people scrub their teeth in order to get a tingling feeling; every morning, millions put on their jogging shoes to capture an endorphin rush they’ve learned to crave.
📌 The golden rule of habit change – why transformation occurs
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking. They follow the habits they’ve learned”
If you identify the cues and rewards, you can change the routine. At least, most of the time. For some habits, however, there’s one other ingredient that’s necessary: belief.
A series of interviews with the players from a football team revealed that without belief, during crucial, high-stress moments, everything would fall apart.
“We would practice, and everything would come together and then we’d go to a big game and it was like the training disappeared”.
Interviewing players after crucial, high stress moments they used the following phrase “Well, it was a critical play and I went back to what I knew” or “I felt like I had to step it up”.
What they were really saying was they trusted the habits system most oft the time, but when everything was on the line, that belief broke down.
It seems that belief is the ingredient that makes a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
The precise mechanisms of belief are still little understood. But we do know that for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible. Also it seems that belief is easier when it occurs within a community.