The 19th century psychologist William James observed, "All our life ... is but a mass of habits."
Ad men in the 20th century took this aphorism to heart. It wasn't enough to simply sell a product; the goal was to hook consumers and keep them coming back.
In his new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg, a business reporter for The New York Times, explains how some companies have achieved enormous success by altering people's habits. By luck or design, they've been tapping into a powerful psychological pattern: the "habit loop."
The habit loop is a three-part process. First, "there's a cue, which is kind of a trigger for an automatic behavior to start unfolding," Duhigg tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne. "There's a routine, which is the behavior itself ... and then there's a reward, which tells our brain whether we should store this habit for future use or not."
Toothpaste is a perfect example of how companies put the habit loop to use. About a hundred years ago, says Duhigg, no one in America brushed his or her teeth. But when one of the nation's most prominent advertising executives, Claude C. Hopkins, heard about a new toothpaste called Pepsodent, he thought he could make a killing.
"Claude C. Hopkins had made his name creating habits around products and making them famous," Duhigg says. "He had these two simple rules: make a product into a daily habit — find some simple cue, something that's going to trigger the consumer — and second of all, you have to give them the reward. ... He intuited [the habit loop] years before laboratories had proven that it exists."
The cue Hopkins used to sell his toothpaste was the filmy plaque that forms naturally on teeth. "For years, people had felt a film on their teeth and had never worried about it, and you don't need toothpaste to get rid of it," Duhigg says. But Hopkins drew people's attention to it by creating posters that read, "Get rid of that film. Pepsodent gives you a beautiful smile."
"For the first time, people started buying toothpaste. Hopkins actually started the tooth-brushing habit in America with Pepsodent," Duhigg says.
Duhigg points out that the toothpaste's mere ability to remove plaque would not have been enough to enshrine tooth-brushing into a daily routine. A reward was needed: In this case, it was the tingling, clean feeling you get after brushing your teeth. When consumers did not brush their teeth, they missed that feeling.
"This gets to how habits work," Duhigg says. "The reason why these cues and rewards are so important is because over time, people begin craving the reward whenever they see the cue, and that craving makes a habit occur automatically."
The science of habit-forming can be used not only to sell products, but also to transform people or entire companies. To do this, Duhigg says, you have to target a particularly significant behavior he calls a "keystone habit."
"If you can change a keystone habit, you unlock all these other patterns in someone's life or in an organization," Duhigg says.
He provides the example of Alcoa. When Paul O'Neill took over as CEO, the relationship between managers and employees had long been fraught — some 15,000 workers had recently gone on strike.
"When he first got hired, everyone expected him to come in and say, 'I'm going to concentrate on profits and efficiency and making people work harder.' But instead what he said was, 'My No. 1 priority is transforming worker safety habits within this company, so that we have zero injuries' — which is a big deal in a company where all of your employees handle molten metals," Duhigg says.
By focusing on worker safety and examining how an inefficient manufacturing process is dangerous to employees and produces subpar aluminum, O'Neill found a way to bring the entire corporation in line.
He catalyzed a series of better practices and habits throughout Alcoa, making it one of the world's most profitable and efficient companies.
"One of the characteristics of a keystone habit is that it creates a culture. That's why it seems to have such a profound influence on other patterns in our lives," Duhigg says.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The 19th century psychologist William James once said all our life is but a mass of habits. It's certainly something ad men in the 20th century used to a great advantage. As our colleague Renee Montagne learned, getting people to buy a product over and over again means literally creating in them the habit of using that product.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In his new book, "The Power of Habit," New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg explores the science behind forming and changing habits and how that knowledge has been successfully employed in business, beginning with a rather basic set of behaviors, what he calls the habit loop.
CHARLES DUHIGG: There's a cue which is kind of a trigger for an automatic behavior to start unfolding. And then there's a routine, which is the behavior itself, and this is usually what we think of when we think about habits. And then there's a reward. And the reward is what tells our brain whether we should store this habit for future use or not.
MONTAGNE: Let's begin, as you do in the book, with a particular habit that seems like it's been around from the beginning of time but in fact is about 90 years old: the habit of brushing your teeth with a toothpaste. And in this case we're talking about Pepsodent.
DUHIGG: Exactly. About 100 years ago, no one in America brushed their teeth. No one was ever using toothpaste. So this one guy discovered a new toothpaste named Pepsodent, and he went to a friend of his - one of the nation's largest advertising executives - and said I've got this stuff and I think we can make a killing. Now, the guy he went to, Claude C. Hopkins, had made his name creating habits around products and making them famous. He had these two simple rules: make a product into a daily habit, find some simple cue, something that's going to trigger the consumer; and second of all, you have to give them the reward, just like the habit loop that we just spoke about. He kind of intuited it years before laboratories had proven that it exists.
MONTAGNE: So his cue, which he figured out for Pepsodent toothpaste, was what?
DUHIGG: The film you feel on your teeth. For years people had felt a film on their teeth and had never worried about it. And you don't need toothpaste to get rid of it. But what he said was: I can use this. And he created these posters that said: Get rid of that film, Pepsodent gives you a beautiful smile. And what happened was, for the first time people started buying toothpaste. Hopkins actually started the toothbrushing habit in America with Pepsodent.
MONTAGNE: OK. But it wasn't just people worrying about the film on their teeth. That, as you write, would not have turned it into a daily routine that everyone did.
DUHIGG: That's exactly right. What every consumer said was, well, after I brush my teeth, my mouth kind of tingles. And if I forget to brush my teeth, I miss that tingling, I crave that tingling. This gets to how habits work. The reason why these cues and rewards are so important is because over time people begin craving the reward whenever they see the cue. And that craving makes a habit occur automatically.
MONTAGNE: You give an example of changing a habit that you call a keystone habit, and the example has to do with the company Alcoa.
DUHIGG: That's right. For some reason there are certain habits that seem to matter more than others. We call these keystone habits. And if you can change a keystone habit, you unlock all these other patterns in someone's life or in an organization. And the best example of this is Alcoa, the largest aluminum company on Earth when Paul O'Neill took it over, and Paul O'Neill later became Treasury secretary. When he first got hired, everyone expected him to come in and say I'm going to concentrate on profits and efficiency and making people work harder. But instead what he said was my number one priority is transforming worker safety habits within this company so that we have zero injuries, which is a big deal in a company where all of your employees handle molten metal.
MONTAGNE: How did the crescendo of other better habits fall out of changing one habit?
DUHIGG: One of the characteristics of a keystone habit is that it creates a culture. That's why it seems to have such a profound influence on other patterns in our lives. For a long time, all the managers and the employees had kind of been at odds. In fact, there had been this huge strike of 15,000 workers at Alcoa. And then Paul O'Neill comes in and says here's something that both of us can agree on: We need to change our habits around worker safety. And management and workers were able to sit down at the same table, and all of a sudden they realized to change those habits, to make safety automatic, you have to do certain things - like, for instance, you have to look at your production line. When does the manufacturing process get out of whack? Because an out-of-whack manufacturing process is dangerous to employees. It also creates subpar aluminum. So if we make it safer for employees, if we bring everything in line, we actually make better aluminum also. By focusing on this one keystone habit, worker safety, Paul O'Neill set off a series of changes through the corporation that made it one of the most profitable companies on Earth and one of the most efficient companies ever.
MONTAGNE: There's another example you use. It's for a particular product, Febreze, which is a pretty successful product now. But when it was introduced back in the '90s, it was a tough sell.
DUHIGG: Febreze today is one of the most successful products on Earth. It earns more than a billion dollars a year. But when it was first released it was a complete flop, because Febreze is this amazing spray that you can spray onto any fabric and it makes smells disappear. So if you have a dog on your couch and your couch terrible, if you spray Febreze on it, the smell just is eradicated. But the problem is that Procter and Gamble's marketers who were selling Febreze discovered people who have bad smells in their lives don't smell them after a little while. The cue for this habit completely disappears in people's lives. So what they did is they completely reformulated Febreze. It used to something that was scentless. They invented a perfume that was strong enough to withstand the Febreze formula and poured it in so that Febreze had its own smell. And then instead of selling it to people who have bad smells in their lives, they decided to sell it to regular people who just clean their homes as the final step, the reward, in a cleaning routine. They decided to piggyback on an existing habit.
MONTAGNE: The habit of cleaning and then the good feeling you have after you've put the final touches on some cleaning.
DUHIGG: Exactly. It's that feeling at the end - oh, I just vacuumed the carpet, it looks so nice. And now I can give a little spray of Febreze and all of a sudden things smell delightful. It's like a signal to myself that I've done a great job. All Procter and Gamble had to do was look for the cues and the rewards and all of a sudden this product became a huge seller.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
DUHIGG: Sure, absolutely.
MONTAGNE: Charles Duhigg is the author of "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.