Monday, March 25, 2013

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

You want to know what's backwards? As kids, we ask "why" of everything. As adults, we cease to question "why" of everything. We get selective. We accept a whole lot of "what" exists and "what" works, but we pry a whole lot less into "why" it exists and "how" it works.

From where I stand, that's a shame. That's a whole bunch of shame. The world doesn't become any less fascinating and new when we age. Or at least, it doesn't have to.

Charles Duhigg would respond -- and he wouldn't be wrong -- that an accepting brain is a habitual brain, and a habitual brain is an efficient brain. If we got bogged down in the "why" and "how" of every question, we would never accomplish anything in our daily lives. And to a point, I agree. If I questioned how I put toothpaste on my toothbrush every  morning, brushing my teeth would require both more time and more energy.

But when I encounter something new, I want to know all about it. I'm not satisfied with learning that habits exist, that they can be changed, that corporations use my habits to manipulate my purchasing behavior. I'm not satisfied with shallow answers to "why" and "how," like "habits exist because your brain internalizes a routine following a certain cue, in order to obtain a certain reward." I want to know why the brain does that in the first place, and how the heck this lumpy gray matter can organize itself in such a complex arrangement.

Some books go into those nitty gritties. I appreciate those books. As a kid, I sometimes asked "why" ad nauseam -- but beyond the pleasure of annoying the questioned adult, I always wanted to find out where the rock bottom of explanation was. More often than not, I found a "why" or a "how" deep enough to quench my curiosity. Deep enough where I could learn something that I didn't know before, and that I could not extrapolate on my own. Deep enough where I discovered another piece of the universe.

I wish more books took it upon themselves to dig deep. The Power of Habit will help me out at my next cocktail party. It taught me cool facts. It granted me an awareness of my habits and my ability to make decisions. But it didn't grant me any thorough understanding, the kind of knowledge that I could apply to the wider world. And the shame is, it could have. It could have dug deeper.

Why didn't it?

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