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The Power of Habit 

By Charles Duhigg – Random House

Habit is the basic substrate of our lives, so basic that its influence is easy to ignore. The Power of Habit tries to peek behind the curtain and reveal the mechanisms of habit — so that readers can grab the levers for themselves and take control.

The book begins with a story of someone who has done just that, replacing destructive habits, like drinking and smoking, with productive ones, like exercise. The question is: How? Answering that question involves understanding many things: how crises turn ossified routines malleable, how social networks dampen or amplify habits, and how some keystone habits (regular exercise, for example) can cause a chain reaction that makes other habits easier to adopt.

Charles Duhigg is a New York Times business writer and, since publishing The Power of Habit in 2012, he has won a shared Pulitzer for the newspaper's series of articles about Apple. Although his book's three sections discuss habits at individual, organizational and societal levels, Duhigg's business background is apparent throughout. The examples he draws from business and his insights on organizational habits are the book's most robust and engaging.

Corporations, themselves simply collections of social habits, are well aware of the power of habit — and not just for engineering their own corporate cultures. The vast cosmos of data compiled on the American consumer's habits is staggering and not a little disturbing. This information is bought, sold or traded for marketplace advantage. What companies like Target can do with that data is downright creepy. Complex data analysis, for example, lets Target guess with surprising accuracy whether a woman might be pregnant and, if so, when her due date might be.

Of course, Target has discovered that its customers find these predictive abilities to be just as unsettling as they sound. So the store has learned to camouflage its targeted approach. When Target believes a woman is probably pregnant, based on items she has already purchased, it will send her a personalized set of coupons. But the items the store wants her to buy — baby wipes, formula, a stroller — will be sandwiched between other items so that the mailer's contents appear arbitrary.

DJs use what we know about habit in a different way, to habituate audiences to the sounds of new and unfamiliar — and thus displeasing — songs. OutKast's "Hey Ya"? Test audiences hated it. Only months of careful sandwiching between well-loved hits inured and eventually endeared audiences to the song.

With so many organizations already paying attention to our habits and devising methods to engineer them, perhaps it's time we did the same.

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Anthony Correale

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