Habits never really disappear

Monday, April 12th, 2021

One of the central ideas that Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit is the habit loop:

To deal with this uncertainty, the brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a habit looking for something — a cue — that offers a hint as to which pattern to use.


And at the end of the activity, when the reward appears, the brain shakes itself awake and makes sure everything unfolded as expected.


First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future:


The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.

Habit Loop

Habits never really disappear.


In one set of experiments, for example, researchers affiliated with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism trained mice to press levers in response to certain cues until the behavior became a habit. The mice were always rewarded with food.

Then, the scientists poisoned the food so that it made the animals violently ill, or electrified the floor, so that when the mice walked toward their reward they received a shock. The mice knew the food and cage were dangerous — when they were offered the poisoned pellets in a bowl or saw the electrified floor panels, they stayed away.

When they saw their old cues, however, they unthinkingly pressed the lever and ate the food, or they walked across the floor, even as they vomited or jumped from the electricity. The habit was so ingrained the mice couldn’t stop themselves.


  1. Kirk says:

    Operant conditioning, basically. That’s all a “habit” really is, a conditioned behavior.

    You want new habits, you’re going to need to follow the Skinnerian plan. Period.

    Interesting book to couple with this one would be Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor, who got her start training seemingly “untrainable” animals like orcas and other cetaceans. Fascinating book, once you digest it and apply the lessons to everyday life.

    This “habit” idea is just another aspect of behavior, and behavioral conditioning. Basic principles of behavior modification are the same, whether you’re trying to get your wife to stop running the car low on oil, your kids to stop leaving crap on the stairs, or getting the dog to do tricks on cue. Once you have the insight, you can’t stop yourself from seeing it.

    It’s the foundational basis for why I say so many “leaders/managers” don’t understand how their organizations really work. They’re blind to the influence of the environment that exists within their organization, with regards to behavior of employees and customers. We don’t teach this to people anywhere in life, and it’s a key tool for understanding and influencing the world around us.

    I think that every leader, every parent, should have to demonstrate mastery of the principles by effectively training a dog or other animal. Can’t get your dog to behave? What hope of you having your kids behave, or of making your organization function as you want it to?

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