Monday, May 21, 2012


Know Thyself

There is a new book, The Power of Habit:  Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by a New York Times staff writer Charles Duhigg.  It’s garnering significant popular interest.

The book’s theme of habit, as it is being understood in the light of the new sciences—neuroscience and evolutionary psychology in particular—both encourages me and worries me.  I’m encouraged that according to the author’s reporting, it is possible for each of us to break bad habits and to establish more beneficial habits.  But I’m worried by a new generation of marketers who are tapping into and exploiting our habit-making tendencies. 

Setting the encouragements and worries aside, this portal into the power of habit is one more tool for self-understanding offering special insight into the conundrum of free-will.


Free-will is the keystone of Unitarianism.  In the latter years of the Enlightenment, c. 1800, when the liberals of the New England Church were applying reasonable inquiry into the established religious tradition of the Puritan worldview they inherited, emerging liberals came up with a number of realizations centered on notions of
  1.       the inherent goodness of humankind — in the image of God
  2.       and the essential freedom of the individual to choose her or his way—salvation by character. 
This patently optimistic outlook long defined for me what being a Unitarian embodies. 

However, I’ve never been totally comfortable with declaring the inherent goodness of the human condition.  There are certainly exceptions to the goodness rule: I’ve looked evil in the face of a few my fellow kind.  And in the broader theological context, the Christian tradition, especially the Protestant redactions, rebellion and sinfulness are central to the various systems of reconciliation.  (According to the New England Primer, the Puritan text for teaching children, A is for Adam: ‘In Adams fall we sinned all.”)  A frequent criticism of liberal religion is its lack of understanding evil and sin.

As a Unitarian preacher through several decades, I’ve lifted up freedom.  I maintained that we are essentially in control of our own lives.  We cultivate the free mind to know what is true and accordingly we form our actions.  Such is our nature and with nurture we can be virtuous, living out a noble and purposeful life, while shaping a just society. So I've long declared.

Recently, I’ve been changing my understanding of the nature of the human condition, rethinking, at the very least, the old theological dichotomy between innate depravity and inherent goodness.  We need new terms or categories that can incorporate the insights of the new sciences regarding the human condition. 

My thinking began to change two decades ago when neuroscience and socio-biology, as it was then called, began to reveal how we are hardwired and respond so often from instincts that have assured our species survival.  Tom Wolfe, a favorite writer/public intellectual, in a 1996 article in Forbes magazine declared dramatically “Sorry, Your Soul just Died.”  He was referring to the results and promise of the new sciences that were influencing me, too.  In a reductionist way, he declared the mind/psyche/soul conjunction a temporary result of electro-chemical reactions in the brain.  Wolfe correctly declared that the new sciences not only eroded the traditionalist construct of immortal soul, it altered the liberal belief in the concepts of freedom and free-will.  The ox of science gored in two diametrically opposed positions.

Recently, I’ve been shaken out of my complacent attitudes—what a friend once called those goddamned Unitarian platitudes—by a leading evolutionary psychology, Jonathan Haidt, who points out that one per cent of the human population is psychopathic—outside by the “normal’ instincts of empathy and compassion.    I’ve also pondering brain imagery findings that we act before we think—that our actions come from the unconscious after we instantly rationalize what we do.

I am sobered by this, and yes, also humbled.

The Power of Habit further sobers and humbles me about the human condition.  Research suggests that much of what we do, 40-45 per cent of our behavior, is conditioned by habit, and for good reason, as explained by the book’s author Charles Duhigg in a recent New York Times Magazine article.

“An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, sniffing in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t figure out how to find it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.
“The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.
‘This process, in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks we rely on every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, like making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex. Still others are so complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all.” […]
“The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in [the] lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.
“Habits aren’t destiny — they can be ignored, changed or replaced. But it’s also true that once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making. So unless you deliberately fight a habit — unless you find new cues and rewards — the old pattern will unfold automatically.”
Putting Habits to the Test
Cue.  Routine.  Reward.  These are the three parts of habit-building that the author applied to his own life.  He had been putting on weight, in part by having an afternoon cookie break.  So he began to analyze the cue, routine, and reward aspects of this behavior.  He kept something of a journal and tried experimental behavior.   Everyday around 3:30, he’d leave his work station and mosey over to the cafeteria where he’d eat a cookie in the company of his fellow journalists.  The cue was 3:30.  He came to realize, however, that the cookie wasn’t the reward, but the routine.  The actual reward was socializing with colleagues and friends.  With that realization he was able to eventually omit the cookie.
Reading this, I wondered if church-going here at UCH works like this: The cue, 10:30.  The routine, sitting through an hour or so of words and music structured as a worship service.  The reward, coffee hour and its connection/reconnection with kindred spirits. 
Like a marketer, I mused about the ways habit forming strategies might be a way of building and sustaining a congregation.  One of the author’s examples of corporate-like habits is the very successful/influential  Saddleback Church in Riverside, Califorinia.
It’s marketing, based upon “how companies learn our secrets,” that raises the specter of an Orwellian landscape that we much traverse almost in every moment.  One of the best companies in this habit building area is the merchandiser TARGET.
The example the author uses relates to pregnant women and data mining.  The marketers wanted to identify that a woman was pregnant in her second trimester, then to send her via whatever channels available, coupons and incentives to get her into the store and begin to use it for a variety of purchases.
Here’s the drill, as described by the author in the aforementioned New Times Magazine article:
“[A] fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August. What’s more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny’s habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store. And they know that if they reward her with a printed receipt that entitles her to a free cup of Starbucks coffee, she’ll use it when she comes back again.
“In the past, that knowledge had limited value. After all, Jenny purchased only cleaning supplies at Target, and there were only so many psychological buttons the company could push. But now that she is pregnant, everything is up for grabs. In addition to triggering Jenny’s habits to buy more cleaning products, they can also start including offers for an array of products, some more obvious than others, that a woman at her stage of pregnancy might need.
“[Target] applied [t]his program to every regular female shopper in Target’s national database and soon had a list of tens of thousands of women who were most likely pregnant. If they could entice those women or their husbands to visit Target and buy baby-related products, the company’s cue-routine-reward calculators could kick in and start pushing them to buy groceries, bathing suits, toys and clothing, as well.” …
“In other words, if Target piggybacked on existing habits — the same cues and rewards they already knew got customers to buy cleaning supplies or socks — then they could insert a new routine: buying baby products, as well. There’s a cue (“Oh, a coupon for something I need!”) a routine (“Buy! Buy! Buy!”) and a reward (“I can take that off my list”). And once the shopper is inside the store, Target will hit her with cues and rewards to entice her to purchase everything she normally buys somewhere else. As long as Target camouflaged how much it knew, as long as the habit felt familiar, the new behavior took hold.
“Soon after the new ad campaign began, Target’s Mom and Baby sales exploded.” 
My counsel today is “be informed and aware,” so you can 

  1.  change undesirable habits
  2.   not be exploited by marketers.  

 On a more existential level, habit is grist for the “know thyself” mill: “ponder what it means to be free.”
I conclude with a poem by W. H. Auden.  Written in 1940, it  resonates in 2012.
The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Are you free?  Are you happy?