36 pages 1 hour read

Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2012

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Summary and Study Guide


Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business investigates the science behind habit formation in the human brain. Drawing on corporate case studies and pioneering scientific experiments, Duhigg analyzes how individuals, organizations, and societies can use the knowledge of habit formation to change their behaviors. Published in 2012 by Random House, the nonfiction book has reached a broad public readership and landed on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller lists.


The Prologue explains that habits are unconscious behaviors that can rule our daily routines. Scientists have shown that the human brain cannot discern between good or bad habits, allowing both types to replay in a loop. Despite their power, our habits are not set in stone.

Chapter 1 tells the story of Eugene Pauly, who lost his memory due to an illness. Researchers discovered that despite Eugene’s memory loss, he was still able to form new habits. Here Duhigg explains the habit loop, which includes a cue, a routine, and a reward, and which he references throughout the rest of the book.

In Chapter 2, Duhigg examines two corporate case studies. The first is the story of Pepsodent toothpaste, which marketing expert Harry Hopkins sold to an American public who had rarely brushed their teeth. Decades later, Proctor and Gamble adopted a similar strategy for selling their Febreze freshening spray. Both companies understood that manipulating consumers’ cravings would help to sell their products.

Chapter 3 explores the “golden rule” of habit change, which contends that we can never fully eliminate our habits, we can only change them. Using multiple case studies, including the story of Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bob Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous, Duhigg explores the process of changing only the routine portion of the habit loop (cue > routine > reward) while keeping the cue and reward the same.

Chapter 4 investigates keystone habits, which are the types of habits that play critical roles in our lives. Once altered, keystone habits begin to affect other, related habits. Leaders can learn to improve their organizations by targeting a single keystone habit first. Duhigg tells the story of Paul O’Neill, who took over as CEO of the aluminum company ALCORA. O’Neill targeted a keystone habit in the company—worker safety—a step that ultimately improved other organizational habits.

Chapter 5 details the role of willpower in the process of changing our habits. Companies can teach employees willpower, thereby improving both the individual and the organization. Duhigg draws on the case study of Starbucks, a company that dedicates time to training its employees in willpower. In Chapter 6, Duhigg points to two organizations that had historically weak organizational habits. The Rhode Island Hospital and the London Underground both experienced moments of crisis in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, providing their leadership an opportunity to reshape institutional routines.

Chapter 7 investigates how large corporations, such as Target, use consumers’ spending habits to better sell their products. Because humans prefer things that are familiar and are wary of unknown products, companies have learned to package new objects in recognizable surroundings. Duhigg calls this marketing strategy the familiarity loop.

Chapter 8 evaluates how habits function within larger communities. Using two case studies, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the expansive Saddleback Church in California, Duhigg shows how strong and weak community ties propel social movements forward. Without community ties, social movements fail.

In Chapter 9, the author questions whether individuals are culpable for their bad habits. Duhigg examines the stories of two people who both found themselves in trouble with the law. The courts found one person guilty of their actions and the other innocent, although both were acting out of instinct and habit. The key difference between the two, Duhigg explains, was one person’s awareness of her bad habit.

In the Appendix, Duhigg offers some short steps to addressing our habits. The author cautions that there is no single, quick fix for changing our routines.

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