Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them
Originally published on Mon March 5, 2012 1:46 pm
Think about something it took you a really long time to learn, like how to parallel park. At first, parallel parking was difficult and you had to devote a lot of mental energy to it. But after you grew comfortable with parallel parking, it became much easier — almost habitual, you could say.
Parallel parking, gambling, exercising, brushing your teeth and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns, says New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg. His new book The Power of Habit explores the science behind why we do what we do — and how companies are now working to use our habit formations to sell and market products to us.
How Habits Form
It turns out that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a "habit loop," which is a three-part process. First, there's a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.
"Then there's the routine, which is the behavior itself," Duhigg tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "That's what we think about when we think about habits."
The third step, he says, is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future.
Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.
"In fact, the brain starts working less and less," says Duhigg. "The brain can almost completely shut down. ... And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else."
That's why it's easy — while driving or parallel parking, let's say — to completely focus on something else: like the radio, or a conversation you're having.
"You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all," he says. "And that's because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine."
Studies have shown that people will perform automated behaviors — like pulling out of a driveway or brushing teeth — the same way every single time, if they're in the same environment. But if they take a vacation, it's likely that the behavior will change.
"You'll put your shoes on in a different order without paying any attention to it," he says, "because once the cues change, patterns are broken up."
That's one of the reasons why taking a vacation is so relaxing: It helps break certain habits.
"It's also a great reason why changing a habit on a vacation is one of the proven most-successful ways to do it," he says. "If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you're on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren't there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life."
It's not just individual habits that become automated. Duhigg says there are studies that show organizational habits form among workers working for the same company. And companies themselves exploit habit cues and rewards to try to sway customers, particularly if customers themselves can't articulate what pleasurable experience they derive from a habit.
"Companies are very, very good — better than consumers themselves — at knowing what consumers are actually craving," says Duhigg.
As an example, he points to Febreeze, a Proctor & Gamble fabric odor eliminator that initially failed when it got to the market.
"They thought that consumers would use it because they were craving getting rid of bad scents," he says. "And it was a total flop. People who had 12 cats and their homes smelled terrible? They wouldn't use Febreeze."
That's when Proctor & Gamble reformulated Febreeze to include different scents.
"As soon as they did that, people started using it at the end of their cleaning habits to make things smell as nice as they looked," he says. "And what they figured out is that people crave a nice smell when everything looks pretty. Now, no consumer would have said that. ... But companies can figure this out, and that's how they can make products work."
Companies can also figure out how to get consumers to change their own habits and form new ones associated with their products or stores. The megastore Target, for example, tries to target pregnant women, says Duhigg, in order to capture their buying habits for the next few years.
"The biggest moment of flexibility in our shopping habits is when we have a child," he says, "because all of your old routines go out the window, and suddenly a marketer can come in and sell you new things."
Analysts at Target collect "terabytes of information" on its shoppers. They have figured out that women who buy certain products — vitamins, unscented lotions, washcloths — might be pregnant and then can use that information to jump-start their marketing campaign.
This can get tricky: One father was upset after receiving coupons for baby products in the mail from Target addressed to his teenage daughter.
"He went in and said, 'My daughter is 16 years old. Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?' and the manager apologizes," Duhigg says. "The manager calls a couple of days later ... and the father says, 'I need to apologize. ... I had a conversation with my daughter, and it turns out there's some things going on in my house that I wasn't aware of. She's due in August.' So Target figured it out before her dad did."
On breaking habits
"What we know from lab studies is that it's never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure — that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change."
On his bad habits
"I felt like I had a lot of habits that I was powerless over. ... I have a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old. And I remember when my 3-year-old was 1 1/2 or 2. I was writing the book. We would feed him chicken nuggets or other stuff for dinner, which was the only stuff he would eat. And it was impossible for me to stop from reaching over and grabbing his chicken nuggets. It was a struggle every night not to eat his dinner because a 2-year-old dinner is designed to taste delicious and to disintegrate into your mouth into carbs and sugar. And so, I was really interested in this, and I wanted to exercise more and I wanted to be more productive at work."
"The weird thing about rewards is that we don't actually know what we're actually craving."
On spirituality and habits
"When [Alcoholics Anonymous] started, there was no scientific basis to it whatsoever. In fact, there's no scientific basis to AA. The 12 steps that are kind of famous? The reason why there's 12 of them is because the guy who came up with them — who wrote them one night while he was sitting on his bed — he chose them because there's 12 apostles. There's no real logic to how AA was designed. But the reason why AA works is because it essentially is this big machine for changing the habits around alcohol consumption and giving people a new routine, rather than going to a bar or drink. ... It doesn't seem to work if people do it on their own. ... At some point, if you're changing a really deep-seated behavior, you're going to have a moment of weakness. And at that moment, if you can look across a room and think, 'Jim's kind of a moron. I think I'm smarter than Jim. But Jim has been sober for three years. And if Jim can do it, I can definitely do it,' that's enormously powerful."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting the show last week while I took some time off. You know how when you spend time away from work, you want a little bit of a fresh start when you return and not just fall back into the old routines, which means changing some habits? And that's really hard to do.
My guest knows why it's so difficult to break old habits and form new ones, but he also says it can be done. Charles Duhigg is the author of the new book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business." Duhigg is an investigative report for the New York Times. He co-authored the series on the hidden cost of the iPad and other digital devices. The series focused on Apple as an example of how large electronics firms outsource a lot of their manufacturing to factories in China, where working conditions are often abysmal. We'll talk about that a little later.
Charles Duhigg, welcome back to FRESH AIR. One of the reasons I'm interested in your book is because I have habits I'd like to break, and I have other habits I'd like to form, and I find it really hard to break or make a habit. I'm so kind of stuck in certain behaviors.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So I was interested in learning what I could from your book, and one of the things you talk about how - is how there's a part of the brain where habits seem to be formed, and it's called the basal ganglia.
CHARLES DUHIGG: Right.
GROSS: What's happening there? What do neurologists know about this?
DUHIGG: Every habit has three parts, and scientists call this the habit loops. There's - the first part of the habit is the cue, and this is the trigger that tells your brain to, sort of, go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold. Then there's the routine, which is the behavior itself, and that's what we usually think about when we think about habits.
And then at the end of a habit, there's a reward, something that your brain likes, that tells it: remember this pattern for the future. And so, when scientists began learning about the basic neurology of how habits form, and they were studying this part of the brain named the basal ganglia - which is one of the oldest parts of the brain and is very much involved in emotion and memory and pattern recognition - what they found was that very often, animals or people would make decisions in the thinking parts of their brains, the prefrontal cortex, the parts that are from an evolutionary perspective, relatively recent.
But as those decisions became more and more automatic, as a rat learned how to run through a maze, or people learned to recognize that there's doughnuts in a doughnut box, as a cue gets established and associated with a behavior or routine and a particular reward, the brain starts working less and less.
And in fact, the brain can almost completely shut down because the thinking parts of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, is essentially goes to sleep when a habit is occurring. Your basal ganglia takes over. And this is a real advantage because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.
Even though it's hard to learn how to back your car out the driveway at first, once it becomes a habit, you can do it almost automatically and think about something else, like the meeting that you need to go to today or what's on the radio.
GROSS: And the funny thing about that is - I'm glad you mentioned driving - maybe I'm just addled, but sometimes I'm driving, and I don't even remember getting to where I am. I've been thinking so much about something totally unrelated to the drive that I've totally tuned out the drive.
DUHIGG: It's amazing, isn't it, that you can basically do these incredibly complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all. And that's because of this capacity of our basal ganglia to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine.
But for that to happen, there has to be a cue, and there has to be a reward. That's kind of how the brain takes what are called behavioral chunks and assigns them these automatic principles is the brain says OK, look for something that tells you which habit to use, a cue or a trigger.
So for instance, I'm sure that when you get into your car, and you back it out of the driveway, you probably do it almost the same way every single time. or we know from studies, for instance, that when people tie their shoes or brush their teeth, they actually use the exact same cues and do it the exact same way. They'll always do their left shoe first or their right shoe first, or they'll always brush their lower teeth or their upper teeth first.
They're probably not even aware of this, but because...
GROSS: The funny thing is - yeah, can I just say something about that? Like I brush my teeth the same way all the time, and I don't even think about it. When I think about it, I'm not sure which part I do first.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUHIGG: Right, you can hardly remember, right?
GROSS: Seriously, I can't remember because it's not a conscious behavior. I can only do it if it's unconscious.
DUHIGG: And here's what's really interesting is if we were to follow you around, I'm sure that you would brush your teeth the exact same way at home because you have the exact same cues that are triggering the tooth-brushing habit. But if you go on vacation - and we know this from studies - if you go on vacation, and all the cues are different, you'll brush your teeth in a different way without even noticing it.
You'll put your shoes on in a different order without paying any attention to it because once the cues change, the habit becomes broken up.
GROSS: That's one of the reasons why vacations are so refreshing: You get out of certain ruts.
DUHIGG: That's exactly right, and it's also a great reason why changing a habit on a vacation is one of the proven most-successful ways to do it. If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you're on a vacation because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren't there anymore. And so you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life.
And what's interesting is that, you know, a big part of the book is about personal habits, but almost half of it is about organizational habits and societal habits. And what we found is the same type of patterns exist among hundreds or thousands of people throughout, say, a company or an organization, and they react to cues and rewards in very similar ways.
So there's this analog to personal habits, which are organizational habits, and you change them by paying attention again to the cues and the rewards and this habit loop that seems to drive almost unconscious behavior.
GROSS: So what habits have you changed since writing this book?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUHIGG: So one of the reasons I got really interested in this is because I felt like I had a lot of habits that I was powerless over. I mean, I feel like I'm a pretty professional, you know, willful, I have a lot of self-discipline, and yet there's all these things.
I have a three-year-old and a 10-month-old, and I remember when my three-year-old was about one and a half or two, and I was writing the book, we would feed him, like, chicken nuggets and other stuff for dinner that he would - the only things he would eat.
And it was impossible for me to stop myself from reaching over and grabbing his chicken nuggets. I mean, it was like a struggle every night, not to eat his dinner. Because a two-year-old's dinner is designed to basically taste delicious and disintegrate in your mouth into like carbs and sugar.
And so I was really interested in this, and I wanted to exercise more, and I wanted to be more productive at work. And I didn't want to - I felt powerless over these small, little, stupid things, like for instance getting a cookie every afternoon. I had this bad habit where every afternoon I would get up, and I would go up to the cafeteria, and I would buy a chocolate-chip cookie.
And I actually put a note on my monitor that said no chocolate-chip cookie today. And yet every day, I managed to ignore that note and go eat a cookie. And I have to say actually the cookie habit is completely gone.
GROSS: How did you break...?
DUHIGG: Do you want me tell you how I did it?
DUHIGG: I asked a whole bunch of psychologists, right? I would call them up, and I would interview them, and then at the end, I would say: So let me ask you how I should fix my cookie habit, which not the best use of their time, I think, to be giving free advice.
But what all of them said was the same thing. They said that we know that a habit has this structure: a cue, a routine, a reward. You need to figure out what is the cue and the reward for your behavior and then use that to start changing it.
And so I ran some experiments. First I focused on the reward. And at the outset, you would think that the reward for eating a chocolate-chip cookie would be a chocolate-chip cookie, that it would be tasty.
GROSS: Or more precisely sugar.
DUHIGG: Exactly, exactly, this burst of energy. So this is what I did. So the first day of my experiment, I went up to the cafeteria, and rather than eat a chocolate-chip cookie, I ate a candy bar, a huge burst of sugar. And then the next day, I went up the cafeteria, and usually I'd chat with colleagues when I was getting the cookie.
The next day, I went up, and I had an apple. And then the day after that, I went up, and I had a cup of water. And each time, I kept everything else the same. I'd go up, I'd chat with my colleagues, I'd have either a cookie or a candy bar or a cup of water, and I kept track of whether I had this cookie urge. Did it feel like the habit had been satisfied?
And what I figured out was, I wasn't going upstairs to the cafeteria because of the cookie, I was going up to chat with my colleagues. The cookie was essentially this convenient excuse that I had fallen into for socialization, and that was actually the reward that I was craving. So once I changed that, once I went up and got water instead of getting a cookie, but I still made a point of talking to my colleagues, the cookie urge went away.
Then I had to figure out what the cue was. And I figured out that the urge hit every day at about 3:15 to 3:45. Now, there's this kind of interesting principle of habit studies. Psychology, is the golden rule of habit change, which says that if you want to change a habit, what you have to do is don't try and change everything at once.
Instead, figure out what the cue is, figure out what the reward is and find a new behavior that is triggered by that cue and delivers that same reward. So for me, I knew that the cue was about 3:30 in the afternoon. I knew that the reward was that I needed to socialize. I wanted to socialize with other people. And the routine was that I was going up and getting a cookie.
So I just changed the routine. Every day now at about 3:30, I stand up, and I look for someone to go gossip with, and I go gossip with them for 10 minutes, and then I go back to my desk, and I - this sounds hokey, but it's like magic. I have not had a cookie urge in months, and I've actually lost 12 pounds as a result. It's - yeah, kind of amazing.
GROSS: So I don't say this to challenge your integrity as a reporter, but tell me, didn't you still have sugar cravings once you gave up those cookies?
DUHIGG: No because it turns out I didn't actually have sugar cravings in the first place, right? That's the weird thing about rewards is we usually don't know what we're actually craving. So when you - so some people crave sugar, right, and they think - and they say I eat a cookie because I think I crave sugar, and they're right, they crave sugar.
But very often, it turns out that we're craving something that we're not fully conscious of. And what we found is companies in particular know this. Companies are very, very good at understanding, better than consumers themselves, what consumers are actually craving.
You know, there's this example in the book of Febreeze, this product that Procter & Gamble sells, that was a huge flop when they first introduced it because they thought that consumers - Febreeze is the stuff that you spray on fabric, and it takes all the bad smells away.
And they thought that - at first that consumers would use it because they were craving getting rid of bad scents. And it was a total flop. People who had, like, you know, 12 cats, and their homes smelled terrible, they wouldn't use Febreeze.
And then Procter & Gamble added a whole bunch of perfume to it so that it had its own special scent, and as soon as they did that, people started using it at the end of their cleaning routines, their cleaning habits, to make things smell as nice as they looked.
And what they figured out is that people crave a nice smell when everything looks pretty. Now, no consumer would have said that. You and I probably had no idea that we crave a particular if we just finish cleaning our house. But companies can figure this out, and that's how they can make products work.
GROSS: I can guarantee you, by the way, I don't crave perfume after I'm done cleaning.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUHIGG: Perfume scents, they drive me crazy, so...
It's true. So some people don't like them at all.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. He's the author of the new book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Charles Duhigg. He's a reporter for the New York Times. His new book is called "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business." You describe - well, you quote William James here as saying that belief in the ability to change is one of the foundations of the ability to change.
So like in other words the more you believe you can change a habit, the more likely you are to be able to actually change it.
DUHIGG: That's exactly right, and we know this from sort of laboratory experiments as well as real-world experiments. So, one of the chapters tells the story of Alcoholics Anonymous. When AA started, there was no scientific basis to it, whatsoever. In fact, there still is no scientific basis to AA.
Like the 12 steps that are kind of famous, the reason why there's 12 of them is because the guy who came up with them, who wrote them one night while he was sitting on his bed, he chose the number 12 because there were 12 apostles. There's no real logic to how AA was designed.
But the reason why AA works is because it essentially is this big machine for changing the habits around alcohol consumption and giving people a new routine rather than going to a bar or drink. But it doesn't seem to work if people do it on their own.
And when I spoke to psychologists and to psychiatrists about why that was true, what they all said was at some point, if you're changing a really deep-seated behavior, you're going to have a moment of weakness. And at that moment, if you can look across a room and think to yourself, you know, Jim's kind of a moron.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUHIGG: I think I'm smarter than Jim. But Jim has been sober for three years. And if Jim can do it, I can definitely do it. That's enormously powerful. You have to actually believe in your capacity to change for habits to permanently change.
GROSS: Now, the breakout chapter of your book, the celebrity chapter of your book, is about Target. And let me just give a little backstory here: One of the premises in - when you're writing about business is that marketers and advertisers, what they want to do is change old habits and create new habits. So if you're buying the competition's stuff, and that's your habit, they want to break that habit and form a new habit to buy their stuff.
Or if you have a big life-changing experience, then they want that life-changing experience to create new habits that will lead you to buy their products, which lead us to the chapter on Target.
And you talk about how Target is really anxious, as a lot of marketers are, to go after pregnant women. Why do they want to advertise to pregnant women?
DUHIGG: Well, pregnancy is one of these very unique moments in our lives, when all of a sudden our habits become flexible. So as you mention, and you're exactly right, one of the hard things for marketers is that because a habit is this thing that happens kind of unthinkingly, it's very hard to convince people to change, for instance, their toothpaste-buying habits. In fact, most people probably don't even know what toothpaste they buy, they just recognize the box on the shelf. Or what kind of cleaning supplies they buy.
But there are these moments, it turns out, in our lives when our habits are kind of up for grabs. For instance, one of those is we know from a study that happened in the 1980s that when people move homes, buy a new house, the type of coffee that they buy is likely to change. Or when people get divorced, they're more likely to start buying a new brand of beer.
Now, most consumers don't actually recognize that this change is happening because who would pay attention to coffee or beer. They're more concerned with buying a house or getting divorced.
The biggest moment of flexibility in our shopping habits is when we have a child, because when you think about it, all of your old routines sort of go out the window, and suddenly a marketer can come in and sell you new kinds of things.
GROSS: So one of the things that Target really wants to do is find out who's pregnant and so that they can start, you know - so that they can get a head start on marketing to them. And just give us some idea of how Target knows who's pregnant without the pregnant person saying to them: Hey Target, I'm pregnant.
Target collects terabytes of data on its shoppers. And you're exactly right: What they want to do is they want to identify pregnant women before they have a baby and before anyone else knows they're pregnant so that Target can get their coupons in there first.
DUHIGG: So what they do is they look through all of this data of shoppers that they've collected, and they assign every single shopper that they can a unique identification number, which is known as the guest ID number within Target. And they link to that guest ID all the information they can: what you've purchased previously. When they send you an email, do you open it? If they send you coupons, do you use those coupons? They buy information about where you live, how much money you probably make, are you married or divorced, do you own your house, or do you rent. Have you ever been foreclosed upon?
They want to create this very individualized portrait of every single shopper, and once they can look at that, they start looking for patterns that suggest that someone is pregnant. And those patterns are kind of surprising.
So one of the analysts - and I spoke to the guy who ran this program, who kind of built this model. One of the analysts figured out that women who start buying, all of a sudden, a lot of unscented lotion might be pregnant. And then they started looking at what else those women bought, and they were able to run these little experiments because they have a baby registry. So they have a whole bunch of people who they know are pregnant, who told them what their due date is.
And if you buy unscented lotion, and then all of a sudden you start buying certain vitamins like zinc or magnesium, then that means that you're probably pregnant, and you're probably in your second trimester. And if you wait a little while longer, and that same person starts buying washcloths and cotton balls and hand sanitizer, which they've never purchased before, then you can use this information.
And there's about 25 different products to figure out, within a two-week window, what that woman's due date is. So even if this person has never told you that they're pregnant, in fact maybe they haven't even told their parents that they're pregnant, Target, by looking at their shopping patterns, can figure out not only if they're pregnant but when their likely delivery date is, and that gives them an enormous power to send them coupons at precise moments.
GROSS: OK, so that leads right into a story that you tell about Target, and it's the story of a father who comes to Target and is really angry because...
DUHIGG: Because his daughter got these coupons in the mail for pregnancy stuff. And he walks in, and he tells the manager: My daughter is 16 years old. Like why is she getting this stuff? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant? And the manager says I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry.
And they guy goes home, and the manager calls a couple of days later, and he says look, I just want to apologize again. And the father says: Well, actually I need to apologize to you. I had a conversation with my daughter, and it turns out there are some things going on in my house I wasn't aware of. And she's due in August. So Target figured it out before her Dad did.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Charles Duhigg is the author of the new book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Duhigg is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Charles Duhigg, author of the new book "The Power of Habit." It's about how we make and break habits. Duhigg is an investigative reporter for The New York Times.
We're going to talk about the series he recently co-authored, about the human cost of the iPad and other digital devices. The series investigated working conditions in factories in China, where Apple and other computer companies outsource a lot of their manufacturing.
You've co-authored a series of investigative articles about a factory in China that Apple outsources to for the iPhone, the iPad. Dell has outsourced there. Who else?
GROSS: Everyone. OK.
DUHIGG: Literally every single device that you carry in your pocket or that you use, it's almost guaranteed that it's been built in China and probably by Foxconn, which manufactures 40 percent of the world's electronics goods.
GROSS: The series was about what working conditions are in this factory, what Apple maybe did and didn't know about it, and why they outsource in the first place to China.
Before we get into some of the details of your reporting, what has the impact of this series of articles been so far?
DUHIGG: It's been gratifyingly significant. Apple has made a number of changes that they've announced. They have released the names of all of their suppliers. So we know 156 companies that supply Apple with parts that eventually become iPhones or iPads. And that was secret for years and years and years because Apple didn't want that information out there.
Apple has also launched a new project to go in and do additional audits with a group called the Fair Labor Association. And I should say, Apple has for the last couple of years had one of the most vigorous auditing systems of its suppliers. So it's not as if they're completely starting something new, but they are building upon and expanding a system that was there before that didn't seem to be working as well as it could have.
And Foxconn, the company that we wrote about, just announced that they are increasing wages for workers. They're cutting overtime. You know, I don't know how much of this is credit we can claim versus the fact that this is an issue that people recognize they need to deal with and that there have been people talking about this for years. But we're seeing sort of some dramatic and very fast changes in working conditions in Chinese factories.
GROSS: So describe some of the worst conditions that were reported in the series.
DUHIGG: Life inside a Chinese factory is very harsh, particularly by Western standards. On average, a Chinese laborer will work at least 10 hours a day and spend 12 hours inside the factory. Many of them are standing up the entire time, or they're sitting on backless stools. Life is very, very regimented so you don't have a lot of time, for instance, for - you get a break and you get bathroom breaks but things move very fast and so you can't, you can't slow down at all.
And when you are done working - and you're not earning very much money - you're usually earning maybe up to $17 a day, including your overtime pay- when you're not working, you're living in these dorms where it's, you know, seven to 10 people stuffed into one room. They're not particularly pleasant places. And in some factories there's these very serious health risks.
What we wrote about is that one factory in particular, they had ordered workers to start using a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens rather than rubbing alcohol and their skin absorbed the poisonous chemical. And in another factory, in fact two factories that manufacture iPads, there were explosions that killed four people and injured dozens. So they're not great places.
GROSS: Why do Apple and other computer and electronic companies like to outsource to Asian countries like China? What are the advantages?
DUHIGG: There's basically two advantages, the first of which is that actually building things is no longer rewarded by stockholders or the capital markets, right? The reason why Apple is so profitable and so valuable is not because it builds things. It's because it designs things. Building has become a commodity, so they've outsourced that capacity and they've kept the valuable parts, which is coming up with the idea and figuring out how to make the idea real.
The other reason why is because in the last 15 or 20 years, all of the supply chains, all of the manufacturing infrastructure, has moved China. And once it's there, it's almost impossible to build elsewhere. Now, America still does a lot of manufacturing and in the most part we do advanced manufacturing, specialty manufacturing. But low-level manufacturing, that's really an Asian game now. Because once you have a guy next door who can builds screws and on the other side a guy who can make your glass, it doesn't make any sense to move your plant somewhere else. You want to be able to go next door and buy what you need.
GROSS: Tell the iPhone glass story.
DUHIGG: Well, the iPhone glass story, so about six weeks before the iPhone went on sale, Steve Jobs had been caring around a prototype in his pocket. And at that point it had already been unveiled to the public. The screen was made out of plastic, like all cell phones up to that point. And Mr. Jobs would carry it around in his pocket and he carried his keys in his pocket and the screen got scratched up and he said this is totally unacceptable. I'm not going to sell a product that can get scratched just from carrying it in your pocket. I want to use this glass, this strengthened glass for our screens. And you need to figure out how to do it the next six weeks because this thing is about to go on sale.
And the only company that could do that was a Chinese company because they were able to basically transform their entire factory in two days and provide a dozen engineers who were living in dorms, on-site, and devote themselves to creating a way to cut this strengthened glass and then deliver it to Foxconn. And at Foxconn you're able to wake up 8,000 workers at midnight and have them on the assembly line within 18 minutes so they can start putting it together. That's why he was able to make this change so quickly.
GROSS: So China's flexibility and rapid response comes at a cost, which is a lot of workers will be awakened at midnight and asked to work overtime in uncomfortable situations for not a lot of overtime pay?
DUHIGG: That's exactly right. Yeah. The reason why we're living through this amazing golden age of kind of technology gadgets is because we have this entire nation that can build them almost as fast as they can be dreamed up. It's an incredible ability.
And if you don't mind, I mean this kind of is a little bit of like a tenuous link, but it actually gets back to - this reporting that I did about Apple was actually informed by the reporting I had done for my book. Because one of the reasons why Apple is able to do what it is, is that these nations have developed these cultural patterns - or in the case of Apple, sort of these organizational patterns, these organizational habits that allow this stuff to happen so quickly, far more quickly than has ever happened in the history of mankind, and as a result we're living through this amazing period of technological innovation.
But like every habit that exists in someone's life or in society, there is a cost to it, right? A habit has a cost and that's why we call it a habit. And in the case of manufacturing in China, the cost is that you have these lives that I think would shock the American sensibilities.
GROSS: My guest is Charles Duhigg. He's a reporter for The New York Times and his new book is called "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business." This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. We're talking about the recent series he co-authored about the exploitation of Chinese workers who manufacture many of our digital devices.
Do you think that the series you've co-written about the factory in China that Apple and a lot of other electronic manufacturers have outsourced to affects Steve Jobs' legacy in any way?
DUHIGG: I actually don't think so. I mean what's been really interesting is since we been doing this series, Apple's stock price has just continued exploding upwards, right? They are the most valuable public company in the world. And Steve Jobs is this revered figure. Can you imagine anyone else, any other businessman, who when they died you would have seen this outpouring of emotion and reaction? I mean he's kind of this singular figure of our age in terms of innovation in business. And so I don't think so.
I'd love to think, I mean I write articles because we want to make a positive change in this world and we believe that informing people about how the world works or how their lives works gives them the tools to become, to embody change, to create change. But the truth of the matter is, it's just a series of articles and I think it's going to be a footnote in Steve Jobs' memory. It would be nice if it would be more, and hopefully people will read these things and they make different choices as a result, but I think it's probably expecting too much for us to...
GROSS: Well, how would you like to see it affect Jobs' legacy?
DUHIGG: What I would hope is that people are aware of where their products come from and how their choices have consequence. Right? The reason why bad Chinese factories exist, or harsh Chinese factories exist, is because consumers at this point demand a brand-new phone every year. If two years went by without a new iPhone or without some new gadget or gizmo, people would be howling, right? We're a culture that has become accustomed, habituated to receiving all of these new devices that kind of blow our minds every single year. But people don't think about the cost of that.
It's not like a magic factory where all of a sudden we can create something new and wonderful and there's no one who has to bear the cost of it. It's just that the cost is completely out of sight. And so I think what we would hope is that people will become more educated consumers and that they'll say, listen, if you're disturbed by the conditions in this Chinese factory, let the company know.
I don't expect that anyone's going to stop buying iPhones, but people don't have to stop buying iPhones. In the past, this happened 10 or 15 years ago with the textile industry, right? Nike and shoes. When all these things came out about Nike running sweatshops, it's not like people stopped buying Nikes. They just started talking about the fact that the shoes came from sweatshops and that was enough of a brand risk for Nike that Nike changed. And you're already seeing Apple change right now.
GROSS: They're being very fast about it, is what you're saying. As fast...
DUHIGG: They're being very fast.
GROSS: ...as they change the iPhone.
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DUHIGG: Yeah. Yeah, they're changing as fast as they change the iPhone. And I think the one thing you can say about Steve Jobs' legacy is Tim Cook is a different person than Steve Jobs. And Tim Cook, I think, does care very deeply. Many, many people inside Apple care very, very deeply about conditions overseas. And my reporting indicates that one of the reasons why we're seeing such rapid shifts is because of Tim Cook and that we probably wouldn't have seen them under Steve Jobs.
GROSS: This is paradoxical in part because the working conditions at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino have always been so appealing - at least that's how it's always seemed. You know, it's always seemed like it's a wonderful, creative, open atmosphere to work in. I've never worked there, I can't speak first hand, but it is what I've read and what I've heard. And so to hear about the contrast between that creative, open environment and the conditions at the factories where the products are actually produced, it's a big difference.
DUHIGG: And there's an interesting paradox there, right? Like why was this allowed to happen at Apple? One of the interesting things about Apple is that they have had this culture of secrecy, this habit of intense secrecy for years and years and years. It's been a big part of how Apple was successful.
In fact, I would talk to people in Apple and they would say I have known my co-worker for years, we lunch together; I have no idea what he works in. Or if you go into people's offices in Apple, they'll have tents over their desk so you can't actually see what's on their desk. It's this intense culture of secrecy within the organization and externally and it has given them a great advantage because that way when the new iPhone comes out, everyone is just salivating to see what is actually going to look like.
But the downside of that is that whenever you create an organizational habit, it spills over in ways that you can't anticipate. And so I think there's a lot of Apple employees who've been shocked and really disturbed to learn about conditions in factories overseas. But they didn't know about them because this culture of secrecy made it very difficult for these internal conversations to occur.
And in fact, one of the people that I talked to said that a big problem was that she would go to conferences and she would bump into people who worked for NGOs, non-governmental organizations, kind of these activist organizations, and that she couldn't talk to them at conferences, it was against Apple's rules. So as a result, there was a lot about what was going on inside the factories that she just didn't know about.
GROSS: So the series you co-authored about this outsourcing has had a big impact in the United States and around the world. I just want to change the subject back to the subject of your book, which is...
GROSS: ...habits and how they're broken, how they're created, and how that affects life and business. So my question to you is, I know you've already broken a couple of habits, including having a chocolate chip cookie at 3:30 every afternoon while you were at work.
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GROSS: What habits are on your list to be broken?
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DUHIGG: That's a really – it's a great question. I talk about this with my wife all the time. She has a list.
GROSS: She has her own list for you.
DUHIGG: Of what habits I should change.
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DUHIGG: You know, I'll be honest. The number one habit that I want to change right now, and this is a hard one, I think, for a lot of people, because it's not a physical behavior, is being more present in my children's lives. Right? I have a three-year-old and I have a 10-month-old and it's really easy with kids to kind of mentally check out. Right?
To not fully invest in what they're doing. And I want to change that habit. I've been thinking about creating cues and rewards in order to create a habit where when I'm with my children I'm really investing in them and I'm playing with them and engaging with them. That's the one I'm working on right now.
GROSS: Well, that's...
DUHIGG: It actually makes cookies look pretty easy by comparison, to be honest.
GROSS: Yeah. That's a real life-long task. And I think part of what you're talking about there is just kind of being present in the moment and not being constantly distracted by a story you're investigating or something that you're thinking about. And the difficult thing is for people who do mental work like you do, and like I do in preparing for interviews and reading a lot; it's so tempting to live in your mind all the time and to always have part of you that's thinking ahead because thinking ahead is a good thing, right?
GROSS: And the more you think ahead and the more you're thinking about your interview or your reporting or whatever, the less you're experiencing the moment, for better or worse.
DUHIGG: I think that's – and I think professionals are rewarded for obsessiveness.
GROSS: Oh, that's so true. I think that's so true.
DUHIGG: You look around and, like, what would be...
GROSS: In every field. In absolutely every field.
DUHIGG: Every field. And what would be considered unhealthy behavior if it was a 13-year-old, in a 32-year-old in a law office, it's very healthy. He's going to make partner. And so this obsessiveness, you know, I think the opposite of it is mindfulness, right? Being present in the moment. That is a habit. You can learn that habit of kind of investing in your life as it happens. And so that's what I'm struggling with.
But I think I'm going to succeed. I feel good about it.
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GROSS: Is the pleasure of being with your children enough of a reward?
DUHIGG: It is, but you have to recognize it, right? I mean the funny thing about rewards is that – and we know this from laboratory studies – for a reward to actually be rewarding, you have to recognize the pleasure that you get from it. So very often – chocolate's a good example. If I give you a piece of chocolate, your body recognizes that reward whether you even pay attention to chewing or not.
But when it comes to emotional rewards or mental rewards, the only time you see the chemical, the neurological signature associated with pleasure and reward is if the person stops and actually recognizes that they're enjoying this thing. And so that's what I'm working on right now, is recognizing the enjoyment that spending time with my kids or my wife gives me.
Because you want to teach your brain the right habits by teaching it to crave the right rewards, by changing your behavior to deliver those rewards that you know that you need. But you have to be mindful of that process. You have to learn the structure of it. And so that's what I'm trying to do right now.
GROSS: Well, Charles Duhigg, thank you so much for talking with us. I wish you the best.
DUHIGG: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Charles Duhigg is an investigative reporter for the New York Times and the author of the new book "The Power of Habit." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.