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How Habits Are Formed

Imagine you have always bought a sandwich at the shop across the road. But today, you see the deli next door offers the same sandwich with a twist: grass, bacon AND rotten apples. “Wow, this sure looks like a nice, interesting place”. You are delighted and decide to try it. Other people see you and decide to also join the line. “This must be an excellent deli”. In the end, more and more people shop at the deli due to a phenomenon known as herding. You evaluate how good/bad something is based on other people’s behaviour.

But similarly, there is also self-herding. That is, you evaluate how good/bad something is based on your own behaviour. Once you start to like the hideous sandwich, you start to line up behind yourself (i.e. your previous behaviour of seeing the delicious sandwich and having a nice experience). Once the behaviour is reinforced, it forms part of unconscious behaviour, and hence often random conduct. It is then for this reason that I believe in the familiarity heuristic – old adage of “people prefer the familiar” (see the Marketing Implications). And doesn’t this phenomenon, to a certain extent explain habits?

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, explains how habits are formed and sustained.

The part of the brain responsible for habits is the basal ganglia deep within the brain that is tasked with the recollection of patterns and acting on them. In other words, habits. This part of the brain also make the behaviour unconscious. which explains why we are unaware of our habits occurring and why they are so hard to get a hold on – because they are part of your unconscious.

Essentially, habits consist of three parts: cues, routines and rewards.

Essentially, habits consist of three parts: cues, routines and rewards. You smell the same sandwich (cue) and at exactly 12:00 go to the deli, pay for the sandwich and enjoy it (routine – that is, if you can enjoy a sandwich with grass and rotten apples) after which feel ‘satisfied’ (reward).

The focus should be on modifying the routine and having a plan to determine what the routine is that you want to break.


Marketing Implications

Once people purchase a product/service that they like, they are not easily going to try something different. Think of people that are ‘set in their ways’ of going to the same holiday spot year after year. Or people that have just started a new job, that take the same route to work for the first month, just because they are familiar with that route even when they know there is probably a shorter route to work.

The most important thing is to determine what habits people engage in and what is the ‘routine’ between the cue (that sets of the habit) and the reward after purchasing a product, for example.

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Werner van Zyl
Phone: +27 84 810 22 74
Fax: 086 604 8175