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Harnessing the power of habits

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Think back to how you started your morning.

In a nutshell

  1. Habits are automatic, auto-pilot behaviours we repeat over and over again.
  2. Cues trigger the actions and rewards reinforce the behaviour. 
  3. Hacking habits can put behaviours on autopilot, resulting in enduring behaviour change.

When you were getting ready, did you have to think about brushing your teeth, tying your shoelaces, or grabbing your phone on the way out the door? Can you even remember doing any of those things?  

You probably sailed through your morning routine with barely a hitch, because these are actions you do daily with limited conscious thought. These are habits – automatic, auto-pilot behaviours we repeat over and over again.

The beauty of habits is they happen without us fully registering we’re even doing these actions.  

How do habits work? 

How is it possible that we’re moving through our day without conscious thought? We’re responding to triggers and reinforcers.  

Cues in our environment and lifestyle that prompt the habit into action – a trigger. This can be a sound (alarms – wake up) an item we have around us (seeing a kettle – put coffee on), or a preceding behaviour (I washed my hands, then I dry them).  

Once completed, the behaviour results in a reward which helps reinforce that key behaviour. Rewards and reinforcers can be a feel-good factor, an incentive or positive reinforcement from others.  

Once habits are established, we may no longer need the reinforcing reward.  

habit loop diagram

“Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life” Gretchen Rubin 

Putting our behaviour on autopilot 

Habits dictate much of our daily lives, saving us mental energy.  

Think about brushing your teeth again. The triggers for this behaviour may be a preceding behaviour – eating breakfast, seeing your toothbrush as you brush your hair, or feeling fuzzy teeth in the morning. These triggers prompt the teeth brushing behaviour.  

The reinforcers that help establish the habit are the delicious fresh minty feeling, and the positive reinforcement of fresh breath around others.   

In fact, the nice tingly feeling you get after brushing your teeth is one of the first great examples of using habits in marketing, as Charles Duhigg outlines in his book The Power of Habit. Back in the early 1900s, an advertising executive named Claude Hopkins was looking to sell Pepsodent, a toothpaste. His marketing campaign was so successful he instilled toothbrushing as a daily habit into the lives of Americans, who previously had barely brushed their teeth at all.  

How? He identified a cue, a reward, and a neurological craving. “Just run your tongue across your teeth,” read one of the Pepsodent ads crafted by Hopkins. “You’ll feel a film—that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.” An obvious cue (the feeling of a film) and reward (having teeth that feel clean and look good) launched Pepsodent into public consciousness.

And on top of that, Pepsodent inadvertently created a neurological craving. The mint oil and citric acid used to flavour and preserve the toothpaste created a cool, tingling sensation by gently irritating gums. Once people associated this feeling with cleanliness, they started to crave it – if they didn't feel the mild irritation, their mouth didn't feel as clean. Pepsodent exploded, and was so successful other toothpastes imitated the feeling – now we all expect a fresh tingling as part of our toothbrushing routine.  

Now imagine you could make people’s behaviours – whether choosing your product or carrying out an action you want them to take – as automatic as brushing their teeth every morning.

Why is it important to consider habitual behaviour? 

Outcomes are often determined not by big, life-changing decisions, but seemingly trivial, repeated acts. For instance, our health outcomes are very dependent on the food decisions and amount of activity we do each day.

And eating can be a habitual behaviour that drives us to consume more than we need to. As one study by David Neal and Wendy Wood found, people will just as easily eat stale popcorn as fresh while watching a movie. Because the cinema environment is such a powerful trigger, it doesn’t matter whether the popcorn is fresh or not – it’s a habitual action, which people are carrying out almost unconsciously. Understanding these environments, triggers and resulting habitual actions can help us guide people to making better food choices and achieve better health outcomes. 

The impacts of climate change are dependent on how everyone decides to travel, what products we decide to buy, what we spend our money on each day.  For example, how we get to work is largely defined by habit. Opting to drive instead of walking or cycling is a habitual behaviour, and hacking this habit could steer people to making choices that are better for the planet. 

Understanding how habits drive repeated behaviour is important for a vast number of marketing and communications campaigns. After all, many products and services are intended for regular and repeated use and purchase rather than a one-time purchase.  

Many organisations have goals and targets for ongoing and enduring behaviour change – we don’t just want people to cycle to work once and never do it again, we don’t want people to quit smoking for just one day, or file their taxes correctly for just one financial year.  

We’re looking for enduring and ongoing change over time.  

To achieve this lasting change, we can tap into the power of habits. You want to embed choices and actions into the lives of your target audience by putting their behaviours on autopilot, so they aren't giving conscious thought to actions that can shape their health, financial wellbeing, or state of the environment. 

In this way, habits are so much more than just small actions that form our morning routines – they can play a role in implementing long-lasting change in areas of real impact.

Reach out to us today to hear more about how we can help you tackle big challenges with our understanding of human behaviour.

Lindsey Horne
Behavioural Insights Lead
With a background in neuroscience and applied behavioural science, Lindsey works across behaviour change projects with social and government clients. Her approach to behaviour change is holistic, from broader cultural and social change through to behavioural economics and nudges.

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