The Power of Habit: Book Review

Well, I am sad to say I wasn’t that impressed.  It is definitely written by a journalist rather than by an academic.

Absolutely you should read or listen to one of the author’s many interviews on how he broke his afternoon cookie habit, but once you’ve done that, you really have the substance of the worthwhile portions of the book.

Why do I not like this book that I was predisposed to like?  Well, I don’t trust or believe it.  He uses a lot of examples that I’ve seen before but that illustrate completely different concepts and were set up to illustrate different concepts and don’t actually fit in the way that he’s saying if you look at the original research (plus he’s got the simplified journalist-reported version of the marshmallow experiment based on something that doesn’t really exist rather than the original studies).  Secondly, the narrative often seems more important than the truth.  He doesn’t have a good conceptualization of the idea that correlation is not causation and will force causation where it doesn’t actually belong because that is what makes the story look good.  I suspect he’s done that in some of his reporting of people’s stories as well– they seem too simple, too uni-directional, to be true.

And he is aware of these flaws– rather than footnotes or traditional endnotes, he has chapters of notes in the back of the book sorted by page number.  They’re difficult to connect with the narrative.  But anytime I found myself going, “Wait a minute… that’s not right,” I would flip to the back and there would be an admission that no, what he was glibly saying didn’t actually pass fact-checking.  The government official in question says that yes, although the infant mortality rate decreased, he cannot take credit for it.  (But phrased in a way that makes the official sound humble, which flows with the narrative Duhigg has created about him, rather than as someone who wants to make it clear that correlation is not causation.)  There’s a huge debate about whether or not 12-step programs like AA work, with general scholarly opinion finding that they don’t, which he notes in a note.  For a reporting story about a hospital, he notes again that he’s compiled different stories and has left out the ones that disagree rather than agree with his narrative (but phrased in a way that makes it sound like those who disagree are lying).  Almost every time I thought something was too pat to be true or I knew that the actual research wasn’t so simple, I’d flip to the back and there would be a note admitting that no, it isn’t so simple.

But he didn’t let that interrupt his storylines.

So yes, I think his story about how he broke his cookie habit is useful and compelling.  You can find it in the appendix.  But the rest of the book, not so much.  More disappointing than Malcolm Gladwell.  (Interestingly, I overheard one of DH’s audible books by Doris Kearnes Goodwin while reading The Power of Habit and figured out why academic historians have problems with popular historians… so much attribution without evidence.  It hurts!)  The book is not without value, but many of its stories and conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

I do, however, still strongly recommend Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney.  Probably the best types of these books are collaborations with academics and reporters.  (Or occasionally there will be a great book written by an academic who also happens to be a good popular writer.)

19 Responses to “The Power of Habit: Book Review”

  1. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    “so much attribution without evidence. It hurts!” This. And I’m not even a proper historian—maybe a historian of the book, but with more training in literature than in history. But I read a LOT of academic history, and every now and then pick up some more popular work and keep sputtering “But . . . but . . . now come on . . . uh-uh. WHAT is your source here? No. I know I’ve read something that totally debunked THAT idea.” And so on. It makes me see why some academic historians dream of writing for a larger audience: someone needs to do popular history more responsibly. It isn’t going to be me, but I’m glad some people want to do it, because there is a need.

    • Debbie M Says:

      Ugh, journalists. How can so many of them be so terrible? I can’t stand reading stuff like this either. There’s so much we do know that there’s really no excuse for just making stuff up that sounds good. Of course there’s plenty of interesting stuff we don’t understand, but just making stuff up and pretending it’s from science is dangerous and gives scientists a bad name.

      Of course one of my friends recently quit a PhD program because scientists in her field were lying liars as well, which really made me angry. I love science! I need it to be real!

  2. Ana Says:

    Good, I’ll skip this one. I also really couldn’t get into Willpower, because of the disconnect (rage) with how psychologists think glucose works in your brain and how it ACTUALLY works in your brain. Oh, and the horrible part of how women make terrible decisions when they have their periods because of increased blood flow to the lady parts. WTF.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t remember that part (the increased bloodflow thing). Though one of my coauthors says that in his field, Baumeister is mostly known for being misogynistic (his other strand of research is MRA-like), so it’s plausible I missed it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Now #2 thinks she should read Willpower too, to see if I agree with one or the other perspective! Hm!

  3. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    I was underwhelmed, too (not as thoughtfully underwhelmed as you, but underwhelmed).

  4. Mrs PoP Says:

    I read it several years ago when it first came out and liked it, but held it to a popular standard rather than an academic one. Mostly I was impressed with the level of access the reporter was able to get to Target’s predictive analytics department, since most companies’ predictive analytics abilities (in addition to the actual algorithms) are closely guarded trade secrets.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The thing is, I’m not sure I trust him on any of that stuff because the other stuff that I do know about is so bad. I do remember when the pregnant Target teen story broke in the media though– I assume that’s why people started looking into their analytics.

  5. becca Says:

    LOL I finally got around to reading a Malcom Gladwell book (Blink) and now I know why you use him as your archetype of cotton candy fluffy treatment of relatively neat ideas.
    I am enjoying “Thinking, Fast and Slow“- which was next to Blink on the library shelf. It helps me not be frustrated at people who haven’t converted some cognitively demanding or unnatural tasks to instinctive mental processing to the degree I have.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #2 has heard good things about Thinking Fast and Slow and the research behind it, but I haven’t read that one yet either.

      • becca Says:

        The research seems good and I really enjoy the stories-behind-the-study. That said, the writing is kind of the antithesis of Malcom Gladwell- if you need something light, the book can wait. The interpretations of the research are not always the one’s I’d favor (like there’s a point early in the book where he mentions that people from elite universities like Harvard are more willing to exert more effort in a research study requiring mental work, whereas people from less elite universities are less willing… without even bringing up the obvious potential confound of depleted willpower in the different groups). I haven’t finished it yet, but given where my kiddo is at right now I’m *really* interested in how reading goes from requiring effort to automatic, and I like the big picture model he uses for thinking about that.

  6. Insect Biologist Says:

    I enjoyed this book when I read it a year ago, but I didn’t realize that it was full of inaccuracies. (I have no background in the social sciences.) I wonder if the concept of cue-routine-reward is well-supported? I used that idea (from the book) to get into the habit of doing yoga every day after work, so, in that sense, the concept worked for me. But, as a scientist, I’m well aware that anecdotes are not data. Thanks for the review. It’s good for me to know that if I want to share any of the interesting stories in the book, I need to find out first whether they are true or not!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Pretty sure the cue-routine-reward thing is supported, or at least that’s what the professionals he interviewed suggested. (This is part of the appendix that I liked.) He didn’t give the research basis, but he did quote clinical psychologists!

      • Insect Biologist Says:

        Thanks! (And, sorry for the off-topic, but a very belated thanks for your recommendation for a pencil sharpener that actually works. I used it for the first time over the weekend for a shelf building project, and it made me more happy that I want to admit!)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        re: the pencil sharpener: I KNOW, right?

  7. Debbie M Says:

    I hadn’t heard the cookie story before–thanks for the link.

    I had a similar urge in my junior year of college–after my last class I would get a snack from the snack machine while I was waiting for my mom to pick me up. It never occurred to me to figure out what I was craving and to address that. (I was probably bored and maybe could have satisfied that craving with a fiction book.)

    Instead I focused on the cue. I knew when I stopped going to that school and could afford to go back to my other school, my problem would be solved because the cue would be gone. But meanwhile I just went the brute force route of not letting myself get snacks for a while until the habit went away.

  8. Cloud Says:

    I’ve recently found something similar in the field of management research- I’ll be writing something up for my monthly Vitae column based on “standard practice” and things I’ve read in HBR, and then when I go search for the actual studies to support the statement, I’ll discover that they are far more nuanced than is generally understood. I of course then change my statements to match what the actual studies demonstrate. It has happened enough that I’m now planning to do “journal club” like posts on my real-name blog, to motivate me to go read more of the primary literature.

    One thing I’ll say about the academic vs. popular histories, though- I think it must be really, really hard to make a well-cited academic history read well for someone who is looking for leisure reading, not in depth work. I got sent review copies of two biographies of interesting women in science to read at close to the same time. Both were carefully researched. The first, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe, was written in the academic style and while it was fascinating and I enjoyed it, it was definitely a slow read. The second, Soundings, was written as “creative non-fiction” and it was much easier to read- but it was harder to tell what was well-sourced and what was researched conjecture. I prefer the former, because I like to know what I’m learning- but I can see why a lot of people might prefer the latter.

    That said, I heartily agree that more academic historians should publish for a general audience! And if anyone wants to try it out on a short book (up to about novella length), I might be interested in publishing it… (I have my first book under contract and a second one close, but I’m hoping for at least one more for my nascent micropress this year!)

  9. Weigh In 17 | My Meandering Journey Says:

    […] Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (*aff) and will read that this weekend.  It comes highly recommended on a blog I really enjoy.  I’m also going to read Michael Pollan’s books, most of […]


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