Kicking the Habit: A New View of Addiction

Kicking the Habit: A New View of Addiction

By Nina Emkin 07/04/12

In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg offered readers a new way of looking at how to change their behavior. Now he tells The Fix how his methods apply specifically to addiction.

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In his best-selling book about the science of habit formation, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg debunks conventional wisdom about habits and the ways they manifest in individuals, groups and society as a whole. In the book, he examines the downfall of a compulsive gambler, the behavior of a Super Bowl-winning coach and the restructuring of an industry giant. He also cites Alcoholics Anonymous as one of the largest and most successful attempts at wide-scale habit change. Duhigg spoke to The Fix about how our habits, whether we’re aware of them or not, are responsible for our behavior—and what that has to do with addiction.

There’s a diagram in every chapter of the book that is a simple line drawing of a habit loop. Can you explain what that is?  

What we know from neurological experiments is this: there’s a cue, which is a trigger for a behavior. Then the routine is the behavior itself. And finally, there’s a reward. When people think about habits, they tend to focus on the routine or the behavior. But what we’ve learned is that it’s actually the cues and rewards that have this huge influence on how habits unfold and how to change them.

Alcoholics Anonymous will deliver a reward that’s similar to drinking. AA encourages people to develop alternative habits that help them stop drinking.

How does the AA methodology fit into the “cue, routine, reward” cycle?

When AA first emerged, what was notable was that it had a relative lack of science in its background. There wasn’t a lot of scientific rigor, which raises the question as to why AA has been so effective. In the last decade, researchers have started looking at AA seriously for the first time. The conclusion they’ve come to is that AA works because it creates a new routine for the habit loop. 

When people change their habits, they need to find a new behavior that’s triggered by the old cue. If you used to have a bad day and come home from work, that’s the cue. Then you’d go to the bar; that’s the routine. And then you’d have a relief of tension; that’s the reward. 

Alcoholics Anonymous uses a similar cue and reward. But instead of going to the bottle, they suggest you go to a meeting, where other members will try to guarantee you can have an emotional, cathartic experience. You’ll be invited to talk about your problems. Alcoholics Anonymous will deliver a reward that’s similar to drinking. AA encourages people to develop alternative habits that help them stop drinking.

You write about how AA isn’t just about changing habits—you argue, in fact, that habit replacement alone will eventually fail. The x factor, you say, is faith. Can you explain that? 

There are some basic questions about Alcoholics Anonymous. Why is AA so effective? Why can some people curb their habitual dysfunctions around alcoholism and addiction but then relapse during stressful periods? Why do some people experience stress acutely and others don’t?

One of the findings, when looking at these inflection points, was that the people who made it through had some type of faith or belief in the process and the program and in their own ability to avoid relapse. There’s a huge element of faith. The group experience is designed to allow people to practice faith and belief. 

Researchers believe that being able to believe in yourself and your ability to withstand temptation is like a muscle. You have to practice it to get good at it. AA gives you an opportunity to practice [flexing that muscle]. There’s faith in a Higher Power; faith in fellow attendees; faith in oneself. The theory is, by the time you hit a crisis, you’ve practiced believing in yourself and it’s that much easier to stay committed to [sobriety].

One of the most interesting things you write is that habits can’t be erased—they can only be replaced. That’s obviously important information for someone trying to quit drugs or smoking or eating junk food. What’s the difference between eradicating a habit and replacing a habit?  

We know from neurological studies that once you establish the brain circuitry associated with a specific habit, it never goes away. It’s the nature of how neurology works. Behavior is represented in our brain by a neural pathway. As the behavior becomes more automatic, the pathway becomes thicker, which makes it easier to perform.

If you stop doing that behavior, the pathway doesn’t go away; it just goes dormant. The next time you are in an environment with the same cue and reward, the pathway will be reactivated. You can’t extinguish a habit. The best you can do is hope to avoid the specific cues and reward. [If you’re trying to replace a bad habit with a healthy one,] the best thing to say is not “I’m going to stop doing x”; it’s to say, “I’m going to do y instead,” in a way that responds to a similar cue and provides a similar reward. You want to essentially say, “I’m going to overwrite that old pathway.” That’s more much effective.  

When you were writing about sweeping institutional changes at the multinational, multi-billion-dollar company Alcoa, you talked about keystone habits. What is a keystone habit, and what are the effects of changing a keystone habit?

Keystone habits relate to the idea that some habits have more power than other habits. They set up a chain reaction. For example, when people start exercising, they tend to start eating better; it spills over. People who exercise also have a higher tendency to use their credit cards less, to procrastinate less at work, and to do their dishes earlier in the day. That makes less sense, though, because going running doesn’t seem to have anything to do with how frequently you use your credit card. But what researchers think is that exercise habits are keystone habits: they spill over into other types of patterns because there’s something about some habits that change a person’s self-image. Someone might think, “The type of person who exercises habitually isn’t the type of person who spends money senselessly.” And by targeting keystone habits, you can create a disproportionate change in your life. Other things begin to change automatically. 

There’s also a fascinating chapter about Tony Dungy, the football coach. You describe how he trained his players to “react” habitually to everything they saw on the field rather than making discrete decisions in every situation. How much of building healthy habits is training yourself to react to specific stimuli instead of actively making choices?  

A habit is always a reaction. It’s always triggered by a cue. There’s always a reactive element as opposed to a cognitive, proactive element. You can make choices to develop certain habits. I think that’s what Tony Dungy did. He said to his guys, “You’re going to have habits [no matter what], but I just want to give you better habits: habits we design, rather than habits that emerge on their own.”

People can do the same thing. They can design a particular habit and then rely on that to shape their life.