Friday, February 17, 2012

They Know What We Want Before We Do.

There's a fantastic New York Times article by Charles Duhigg out now, focusing on the intersection between data, marketing, the habits of shoppers, and the science of habit-forming. It's all over twitter today, with a great deal of focus on a relatively small portion of the article--namely, that Target is able to use statistics on shopping habits to determine when someone is pregnant, and even get a ballpark due date. I can understand why that might have been the section that was pulled out (after all, what could be a better tagline than TARGET KNOWS A BABY IS COMING BEFORE THE FAMILY DOES) but it's a relatively minor anecdote in the article (People tend to change habits during major life events; pregnancy, marriage, divorce, etc).

Here's what I think people should really be talking about:

  • Humans are creatures of habit, just like all other living things.
  • The habit cycle is predictable, and can be harnessed.

As an information scientist, I'm certainly drawn to the predictive aspects of big data and statistics. As a mind- and program-hacking student, however, I'm especially interested in the analysis of the "habit loop." It goes something like this:

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 (Duhigg).

Duhigg goes on to say that as habits form, we become less conscious of them, making them harder to break. Still, it's possible, especially if you're familiar with the various cues and rewards in your life.

If not, start experimenting! Rewards are easier to pinpoint--just ask yourself "What am I getting out of this?" When you think you have an answer, try an alternate reward that would provide the same benefit. Cues, on the other hand, can be tricky, but tend to fall into a few major categories: Location (Where are you?), Time (When is it?), Emotional State (How do you feel?), Other People (Who's around?), or the 'immediately preceding action' (What did you just do?). If you see yourself starting your habit, ask those five questions, and you might gain some insight into your habit loops.

Science is cool - Go use it!

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