Book by Charles Duhigg
Review by Ryan Scheckel
School of Art
Texas Tech University
Charles Duhigg’s investigation into the science of habits, biological and chemical, psychological and sociological, offers little direct relevance to higher education or academic advising applications yet holds many specific illustrations from which the academic advisor can draw useful connections and meaningful insights. Intended not as “a recipe for rapid change,” but instead “a framework for understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they might change” (p. 275), the text is delivered in three lengthy sections of framework with a brief appendix to serve as guide. Duhigg, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist with The New York Times, “first became interested in the science of habits eight years ago, as a newspaper reporter in Baghdad” (p. xvii), and his investigative and narrative skills are on full display throughout. The academic advisor would be well served to make notations along the way as the many illustrations prove intriguing and can easily distract from any ideas generated for advising applications.
Duhigg lays the foundation for the remainder of the text in the first section, detailing both the neuroscience and the social conditioning concepts behind what he calls “the habit loop” (p. 19). Consisting of three parts – cue, routine, and reward – the habit loop serves as the touchstone for the subsequent deviations from brain science into professional athletics, commercial advertising, mutual aid groups, and much more. Reading this section, one cannot help but consider their own personal and professional habits; the reader is encouraged to do so. Yet the academic advisor will likely also begin thinking of ways to work the habit loop into their advising practice.
The habit loop is next applied to organizations and the concept of a “keystone habit” (p. xiv) is detailed. As Duhigg explains, keystone habits are “initial shifts” in routine that “start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold” (p. 109). The author states in this section that keystone habits are “why some college students outperform their peers” yet does not cite in the text any specific research for further inquiry (p. 101). There are, however, still many opportunities to make connections to working with college students, from starting with small wins to developing willpower and utilizing crises to implement sweeping changes. Perhaps the most tantalizing concept in this second section for those in higher education is the prediction and influencing of customer habits by retailers.
The third section finds the author taking his greatest liberties with the examples he marries to the general concept of the habit loop. To wit, Duhigg depicts the Montgomery Bus Boycott in terms of social habits. The section concludes with an exploration of moral and legal responsibility for habitual behavior, which some may find disconnected from the larger narrative. The section nonetheless carries with it concepts worthy of consideration by academic advisors, including the “social habits of friendship”, the “power of weak ties”, and leaders offering “new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership” (p. 217).
Drawing on “hundreds of academic studies” (p. xvii), The Power of Habit is a far-ranging exploration of the many ways habits are expressed from individuals to organizations to societies. There are multiple jumping-off points for academic advisors to determine applications and consider concepts for further use but, in the end, it is just that: a start.
The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. (2012). Book by Charles Duhigg Review by Ryan Scheckel. New York: Random House. 400 pp., $28.00, (Hardback), ISBN # 978-1-4000-6928-6