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Kill Your Wife While Sleepwalking or Get Goldman Touch

Charles Duhigg
Charles Duhigg is the author of "The Power of Habit." Source: Random House via Bloomberg

Pull the lever and watch the slot machine spin apples, gold bars and lucky 7s. When the wheels stop, you see 7 to the left, 7 to the right, and half a 7 in the middle.

Did you lose -- or did you almost win? If you’re addicted to gambling, it’s a “near miss,” for sure. So you pop in another coin and tug.

Like a Wall Street trader, a slot player craves the mental rush of winning. Yet all the while his brain is stuck in a rut, as Charles Duhigg shows in “The Power of Habit,” a refreshing exploration of how we form habits and how we can change them.

Habits, good and bad, shape our lives every day, from the first cup of coffee in the morning to the last sip of wine before bed. Some are conscious, others not: Goldman Sachs Group Inc. cultivates habits to curtail risk, while sleepwalkers wracked with anxiety have killed their loved ones.

Yet research shows that habits are, at base, simple neurological loops, says Duhigg, a New York Times reporter.

The loops have three steps. First there’s a cue that triggers a craving: A smoker spots a pack of Marlboros, for instance. Then comes a routine (lighting up), which brings a reward (a hit of nicotine). Cue, routine, reward. Repeat.

These loops get burned into the more primitive core of our brains, where a golf-ball sized knob called the basal ganglia stores our routines. The good news is that even pernicious habits can be altered, if we understand how they work.

Not Destiny

“Habits aren’t destiny,” Duhigg writes. “Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears.”

Neurological case studies have been feeding us intellectual catnip ever since Oliver Sacks published “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Duhigg serves up a tangy sampling from scientific studies on habit formation.

We meet a chronic nail biter, a gambling addict who squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a somnambulist who murdered his wife in his sleep.

The process that creates habits is illustrated by a retired aerospace technician named Eugene Pauly who suffered catastrophic brain damage and couldn’t remember any new information for more than a minute or so.

Pauly couldn’t recognize his own house, draw a map of the block where he lived or identify the door that led to the kitchen. Yet he was able to find his way around at home, fix meals and go out for walks.

Riots and Baristas

Habits explain more than individual behavior, it turns out. Duhigg got interested in the subject while covering the war in Iraq, where he learned that a U.S. Army major had stopped city riots by modifying a single routine.

The officer, a self-described “hick” from Georgia, persuaded the mayor to keep food vendors off plazas where volatile crowds gathered. Some weeks later, as angry chanting echoed near a mosque and dusk came on, people became hungry and left instead of hurling bottles and rocks.

Duhigg goes on to show how harnessing habits can change the fortunes of football teams, corporations and more. Procter & Gamble Co. tapped the habitual urges of consumers to turn Febreze odor remover into a $1 billion business, he explains.

Goldman Sachs bakes risk assessment into every decision it makes, Duhigg says. Starbucks Corp. taught baristas routines for staying cool when customers’ tempers flare.

Changing Society

Habits can even change society, Duhigg argues, showing how the social patterns of friendship and community helped turn a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, into the epicenter of the U.S. civil-rights movement.

Duhigg offers no magic formula for surmounting bad habits. He does show how you can unknot your mental loops and retie them.

Have you put on weight by munching candy bars at work? Then change your routine. Instead of wandering to the cafeteria, take a walk around the block. Or buy an apple instead.

Above all, wake up and realize that you have a choice.

“If you believe you can change,” Duhigg writes, “the change becomes real.”

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” is published by Random House in the U.S. and Heinemann in the U.K. (371 pages, $28, 12.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(James Pressley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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