Thinking consciously, unconsciously, and semi-consciously – Part III

November 5, 2012

This is Part III of a short series on the topic of decision making; specifically the not-quite-conscious decision making that can be influenced by external cues.  In Part I we discussed “deliberation without attention” and how cues can affect the unconscious mind.  In Part II we moved to the semi-conscious mind and how habits are triggered by cues – and then followed by the next two steps of the “habit loop,” routine and reward.  Below we delve into author Charles Duhigg’s (“The Power of Habit”) recommendations on how to change habits on either the personal or organizational level. 

In a separate interview in Wired , Duhigg says he finally identified the secret to changing was the “keystone habit.”

I felt like I had willpower in some areas of my life, and that I had created successful habits — I could get myself to work really easily, I could get myself to think creatively when I needed to — so it didn’t make any sense to me that there were other parts of my life where I seemed to be powerless. I wanted to understand why…

The way you identify keystone habits is that you look for things that have emotional resonance.  When I talk to companies about how they changed, what people often say is, “The way I discovered the keystone habit is, I tried to figure out what kind of change scared me the most.  Not ‘worried me the most,’ not ‘concerned that the numbers weren’t going to line up’; scared me the most.”  That’s how you know.

Even so, it remains harder to change habits “because making a conscious decision occurs in the prefrontal cortex.  And to influence the basal ganglia, you have to target these cues and these rewards, these almost kind of animalistic reactions.”  Duhigg illustrates this with a fantastic example drawn from marketing history:

Claude C. Hopkins, who is totally forgotten today, but about 100 years ago was like the most famous adman in America. And back at that point, nobody brushed their teeth. It was actually something that just sort of the upper classes did, almost to show off that they had money every so often.

And Hopkins had a friend who had found this new toothpaste named Pepsodent. So Hopkins said, look, if you give me a stake in the company, I’ll help sell Pepsodent. And so he had intuited that you need this cue and this reward.

And so the cue was that film that you feel on your teeth if you haven’t brushed in about a day. People for eons had had that film. And no one had ever minded it. But Hopkins put up all these ads that say, if you feel that film, then that’s a bad thing. You need to get rid of the film.  And he thought the reward was a beautiful smile, giving people whiter teeth. Turns out that he was right about the cue, and wrong about the reward. It takes so long for toothpaste to make your teeth whiter that that’s a terrible reward, because it would take months for anyone to see it.  But the guy who had invented Pepsodent had actually added into it these chemicals and these oils to make it taste like mint. And a secondary impact of that was that they were irritants that would make people’s gums and tongue tingle… They started to equate that tingling with cleanliness. And it happens so quickly– when you brush, it happens right away– that that became a reward in and of itself. And so when people would walk out the door to work or they would lay down in bed at night and they didn’t feel that tingling, they would feel like their mouth was unclean…  (W)ithin five years of Hopkins starting to advertise Pepsodent, like half of America was brushing its teeth every day. And historians say it’s because of Pepsodent.

That example deals with changing consumer behavior, which is simply an aggregate of individual habit changes.  For a look at how an organization changed it’s habits, Duhigg picked a more recent example:  Alcoa in the late 80s/early 90s.

(B)asically the same framework seems to apply within a company.  There seems to be this cue that triggers a kind of automatic behavior.  And then people just do things automatically.  And then there’s a reward, which is usually financial or promotions or something like that.

One of my favorite examples of this is Paul O’Neill of Alcoa, the largest aluminum company in the world when he took over.  He focused on creating a new habit around worker safety within the company.  And it was very deliberately designed around this habit loop.

He would choose a cue, which is that any time anyone got injured, the unit vice president had to write a report within 24 hours explaining why it happened and how they were going to prevent it.  So the cue was an injury.  And the routine was writing this report.  And the reward was that the only people who got promoted were the people who took worker safety seriously….  (T)his is what O’Neill knew… if you could start one keystone habit shifting, it would set off this chain reaction.  And that’s what happened inside Alcoa, is that when habits around worker safety started to become more malleable, all of a sudden the culture of the company started to change.

For years, Alcoa had been riven with internal strife…  And then O’Neill comes in and he says, OK, our number one priority is changing worker safety habits.  And what he’s really saying to the company is, we are going to start valuing every single employee.  Every single person who works here matters to us.  And it completely changed the dynamic of the relationship between employees and management.

(T)he other thing that’s interesting is it’s not just the company culture.  It’s also that when you’d ask him, so how do you actually make a factory safer?  What he says is, well, the way you make it safer is you have to analyze how work gets done.  You look at people’s work habits and you analyze, where do accidents occur?  When is it going off the rails?

And it turns out that the way to make a work safer is to do it right every single time.  And of course, if you do it right every single time, if you create the right procedures, then not only is it safer, it’s also more efficient.  It’s better quality aluminum that you’re producing.

So O’Neill actually said, I want to make workers more safe.  I want to change worker safety habits.  And everyone could sign on to that.  What he was actually saying was, I want to make every single factory more efficient and more productive and producing a higher quality product, because that’s how we make things safer.  But if he had come in and he had ordered greater efficiency, everyone would have rebelled, all the workers at least.  But you come in and you say, I want to make everything safer, that’s something everyone can sign onto.

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