Quicklet on Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

by Karen Watkins

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    • About the Author
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Charles Duhigg was a reporter in Iraq a decade ago when he heard about an army major who was analyzing videotapes of riots. He wanted to see if he could detect any patterns that might help him stop the riots before they began. He did.

First, a small crowd would gather in a plaza. Within a few hours, they would begin to chant angry slogans. Spectators would show up. Food vendors would arrive. Time would pass. The chanting would get louder. More time would pass. The spectators would remain in a relatively small space, except around dusk when they got hungry. They’d buy some food, then return to their original spot.

That was the pattern for most, but there were some who would march into the middle of the crowd, back out to the edge, back to the middle. Those were the troublemakers. One would throw a bottle, another would throw a rock. Within 15 minutes, there would be a full-scale riot.

The major told Duhigg that after observing this pattern, he scheduled a meeting with the town’s mayor. He made  what must have seemed like an odd request. Would it be possible for the police to keep food vendors out of the plazas?

The mayor said yes.

A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near a plaza. As the afternoon wore on, they began chanting angry slogans. Spectators showed up. Time passed. The chanting got louder. More time passed. Dusk fell. But this time, there were no food vendors to feed the crowd. Some went home to eat. Some went to restaurants. By 8PM, nearly everyone was gone. The riot never happened.

Duhigg asked the major what made him realize that something as simple as getting rid of the food vendors would end the riots.  

The major said that the U.S. military had taught all about habits--how they’re formed, how they’re broken. The U.S. military, he said, was “one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history” and that understanding habits was “the most important thing” he’d learned in the army.

Duhigg became intrigued by habits and their power.

“That’s what this book is about,” he writes. “Changing habits isn’t necessarily quick or easy. But it is possible. And now we know how.”


How do you sell a record that people hate?

That was the problem for Steve Bartels, promotion executive at Arista Records. The song was “Hey Ya!” by OutKast. He thought it would be a sure hit. He convinced radio stations to play it, but listeners hated it so much, they turned the dial.  

The problem was “Hey Ya!” didn’t sound like other songs. People want to listen to their favorite songs or songs that sound like their favorite songs.  But Bartels wasn’t ready to give up.


During World War II, meat was scarce, but organ meat was plentiful. The problem was getting housewives to serve it. They weren’t familiar with it. The solution was to make it seem familiar by “camouflaging it in everyday garb.”

The government sent out mailers telling women their husbands would “cheer for steak and kidney pie” which would contain a little steak and a lot of kidney. Butchers gave out recipes for meatloaf made with liver. Organ consumption rose by 33% during the war.


Arista decided the secret to making “Hey Ya!” a hit was to make it familiar. To do that, they sandwiched it between “sticky” songs, songs that keep the listener listening. Some songs are sticky because people like them. Some are sticky even though people hate them. Men say they hate Celine Dion, but they don’t switch the station when her songs come on.

It worked. People got used to “Hey Ya!” Then they started to crave it. It sold more than 5.5 million records and won a Grammy.  


In 2000, the YMCA spent a fortune updating their facilities assuming that’s what people wanted. It did bring more people in at first, but it didn’t keep them there. Research showed that to keep people coming back, the gyms had to be friendly. Employees had to know their names. Classes needed to encourage people to make friends.

“It’s a variation of the lesson learned by Target and radio DJs: to sell a new habit—in this case exercise—wrap it in something that people already know and like, such as the instinct to go places where it’s easy to make friends.”



All of us are simply a bundle of habits.


Rosa Parks was not the first black person who refused to give up her seat to a white person.  Then why did her refusal spark the civil rights movement? Because it was more than an individual act of defiance.

It was aided by social habits, “the behaviors that occur, unthinkingly, across dozens or hundreds or thousands of people which are often hard to see as they emerge, but which contain a power that can change the world.” Social habits are at the root of many movements.

Movement start because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. They grow because of the habits of the community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and groups together. They last because participants develop new habits that create a new identity and feeling of ownership.

Rosa Parks was known and respected by whites as well as black. She was active in dozens of clubs and had friends that belonged to the various economic and social strata of Montgomery, Alabama.  

When a bus boycott was called, her friends and acquaintances signed on.


Say you’re an executive at a company. Another executive is looking for a job at your company and asks you to put in a good word. If the person is a stranger, the answer is no. If the person is a close friend, the answer is yes. But if the person is an acquaintance?

Studies have shown that more people get their jobs through acquaintances, or “weak ties,” than through friends. We tend to know what our friends know. But weak ties give us access to new information.

“The power of weak ties helps explain how a protest can expand from a group of friends into a broad social movement. Convincing thousands of people to pursue the same goal is hard. There’s a tool that activists have long relied upon to compel protest. It’s a form of persuasion that has been remarkably effective over hundreds of years. Peer pressure.”


In 1979, Rick Warren was a Baptist pastor without a church. He wanted to start a congregation for people who didn’t already attend church, but he didn’t know where it should be. He spent months studying census records, phone books, newspaper articles, and maps. He settled on Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California, the fastest-growing region in America. His first prayer group consisted of seven people in his living room.

Today, Saddleback Church is one of the largest in the world with more than 20,000 parishioners. His book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold 30 million copies.

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