We’re delighted to welcome back to Our Hen House Angela G. Colantonio, who is giving us a unique and important look into The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg.
Review by Angela G. Colantonio
Do you ever find yourself thinking, What’s the key to getting my mom to put soy milk – rather than cows’ milk – in her morning coffee? Or, How do I sneak more veggies into my own diet? Or even, How can I convince my workplace cafeteria to offer vegan options every day of the week? And, my favorite go-to thought, How do we make the world go vegan?
The answer to these questions may be as simple as changing people’s habits. In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012), Charles Duhigg explains the fundamentals of habits, and how individuals, organizations, and societies can change their routine behaviors.
As I read this book, another thought occurred to me: There is much to be learned here for anyone interested in changing the world for animals.
The Habit Loop
The first step in understanding the power of habit is to recognize the existence of the habit loop, in which a cue triggers an automatic response – or routine – that is then reinforced by a reward. This basic cycle of cue-routine-reward is driven by purely physical, emotional, and neurological cravings, and once habits are established, your brain no longer participates in decision making. Instead, more primitive regions of the brain, mainly the basal ganglia, direct your behaviors.
Think about what this means when it comes to vegan advocacy. How many times have you explained to someone all the horrors, cruelties, and injustices inherent in animal agriculture, and watched them as they nodded vehemently, only to see them then order their standard hamburger for lunch? What are they thinking?!, you ask yourself. Well, the answer is that they’re probably not. That’s why animal activists need to understand the basic principles of habit to effect lasting behavioral change. Because, in order to influence someone’s behavior in a way that can save animals, you literally have to change their minds. When habits change, new neural networks are established in the brain.
To change habits, Duhigg writes, we need to become more “aware of the cues” and cravings that trigger our behaviors, and then “replace our routines” with desired habits that provide a similar “reward.” When it comes to food choices, our cue to eat is usually hunger, or a time of day; our routine is to have a meal; and the reward is satisfaction, pleasure, and renewed energy. We need to interrupt this cycle right at the start, with the cues and cravings, which are probably rooted in desires for certain tastes or physiological cravings for certain nutrients. Once cues and cravings are recognized and made conscious, eating routines can easily be replaced with vegan fare, which can not only satisfy our cravings but have the added bonus of being immeasurably morally gratifying. As we all know, there are compassionate, plant-based alternatives to meet all our cravings for comfort, flavor, and tradition. Perhaps this process is what makes Meatless Mondays so successful (aside from the appealing alliteration); the day of the week is a cue to leave meat off the menu, replace non-vegan dining options with more compassionate routines, and be rewarded with a healthy, satisfying meal.
In addition to recognizing cues and cravings, Duhigg also points out that replacing routines is more easily accomplished if we can adopt routines that seem familiar. For example, he describes how during World War II, the government organized a Committee on Food Habits to convince Americans to consume more leftover organ meat by presenting it in more familiar forms. This highlights the importance of embracing transition foods, such as plant-based meats and cheeses, when guiding someone to adopt a vegan lifestyle. So go ahead and slap some Tofurky slices between the bread you use to make your kids’ lunches, or veganize your family’s favorite pizza toppings.
Making It Stick
So, how do you solidify people’s new vegan habits? How do you help them override the temptations to nibble a bit of addictive cheese or sample an oppressive piece of milk chocolate? At this point, appealing to people’s thought processes to get them to adopt beliefs, a familiar technique for animal advocates, becomes a bit more effective. As Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit, belief often comes out of tragedy or community, and, when it comes to animal rights, there are plenty of both to go around. One way to help people believe in their newfound vegan habits and the underlying principles of equality, justice, and unconditional compassion is to encourage them to visit farmed animal sanctuaries, where visitors can confront the tragedy of animal agriculture through the stories of individual animals, and develop a sense of community through a common bond to help them.
Sealing the Deal
Nudging someone to change their eating habits to include more vegan options is indeed important, but getting them to adopt a completely vegan lifestyle is, obviously, the real goal. Duhigg explains that to get somebody to make a major commitment, keystone habits – habits that can spill over and influence other life habits – must be addressed. Two examples of keystone habits discussed by Duhigg are willpower and self-discipline.
What makes keystone habits have such a great impact? Small wins, or a network of incremental achievements, build on each other into something bigger, something greater, with far-reaching effects. Among the techniques that must be adopted to help someone make shifts in keystone habits are compassion and kindness. These are indeed familiar values to vegans, but we do not always apply them to those who are not vegan. While this inclination may be somewhat understandable, in light of our knowledge of the horrific suffering that animals undergo every day, I like to remember that compassion and kindness are not just virtues – they are strategies to effect change. Being criticized or being subjected to orders, rather than suggestions, can actually diminish the willpower of the people you are trying to reach, and can make lasting change less likely.
The Big Picture
In addition to his analysis of how to change one habit, one person at a time, in The Power of Habit, Duhigg also discusses how to approach changing social habits – patterns of behavior that occur across populations. While these patterns can be difficult to discern, if we can do so, and can also understand how to shift them, such shifts have the power to change the world, once they reach a critical mass. Social movements begin with friendships and expand through the weak ties connecting communities. They are then sustained through leadership, which can help those who participate adopt new habits that provide them with a sense of identity and control.
When these three elements of successful social movements are fulfilled, they become self-propelling. One of the keys to a successful social movement is the existence of extensive social networks with friendships that bridge social strata. It is therefore no surprise that the vegan community is poised for success. Largely made up of people who embody compassion, nonviolence, and equality, providing them with the motivation and ability to connect with many different groups, the vegan community has already begun to thrive on the extensive use of social media to reach out to a wide audience.
This review would not be complete without an unfortunate disclaimer, and a heads-up. Although a variety of anecdotal evidence is included in The Power of Habit in order to illustrate the principles of changing habits, animal experiments on mice and monkeys are discussed. These examples are not only disturbing and distracting, they are obviously unnecessary, as the book clearly demonstrates how much we can learn from historical events or human experiments, especially using current technology to monitor neural activity.
The information Duhigg puts forth in The Power of Habit is vitally important for anyone who wants to effect lasting change, not only in themselves, but also in the world. If you know a habit exists, you can change it. Indeed, in addition to using this book as a tool for better advocacy, many vegans and animal advocates might do well to consider how they can also benefit from the power of habit to improve their daily behaviors – to get more sleep or consume more whole foods – and to be better, healthier activists overall. As we look forward to a new year of fresh starts, which for so many of us includes goal setting, consider using The Power of Habit to change the world for animals.
Angela G. Colantonio is a graduate student earning her Master in Public Health degree with the hopes of helping improve the health of people and the environment through a plant-based diet and lifestyle. She currently works as a research assistant for studies investigating childhood obesity prevention and food insecurity. In her free time, Angela, a vegan of three years, enjoys absorbing as much information on veganism as she can through books and blogs, volunteering for local organizations that promote public health and animal welfare, and sharing time with her beloved companion animals –Nella, a poodle, three happy hens, and a trio of rabbits.