AQR Book Club – Gillian Tett’s Anthro Vision

I was kindly hosted by the AQR’s Book Club to talk about Gillian Tett’s fantastic Anthro Vision.

We had a lively debate afterwards. It’s always great to chat with peers and learn from their experience. I took away a several tips that will help my daily practice.

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How to see around corners: Gillian Tett’s Anthro Vision

In the world of insight, Anthropologists are the coolest kids in the room.

They voyage into the unknown and embed themselves in world they are researching. Personal judgement and experience inform their work as much as their training and rules of engagement. To outsiders there’s something enigmatic to their practice.

They’re the Fonz kicking the soda machine. Us researchers are timid Richie Cunningham, looking on in wonder in our knitted cardigan.

Anything which shines a light onto their approach is readily appreciated. In her highly readable book Anthro Vision, Gillian Tett demystifies the enigmatic world of Anthropology and its main method, ethnography.

It’s relevant not just to researchers but to all business decision makers.

Tett is Executive Editor at the FT, and started life as an anthropologist before a twist of fate brought her to journalism. She is known as being one of the few financial commentators who foresaw the 2008 financial crisis. Why her?

In her words, she relies on “Anthro vision” – using an intellectual framework derived from Anthropology “that enables you to see around corners, spot what is hidden in plain sight, gain empathy for others, and fresh insight on problems”.

She lays out her thesis in the opening pages:

“Many of the tools we have been using to navigate the world simply are not working well. In recent years we have seen economic forecasts misfire, political polls turn out to be wrong, financial models fail, tech innovations turn dangerous, and consumer surveys mislead. These problems have not arisen because these tools are wrong or useless. The problem is such tools are incomplete; they are used without an awareness of culture and context, created with a sense of tunnel vision, and built assuming that the world can be neatly bounded or captured by a single set of parameters.”

Analytical tools that ignore context have limits: Tett argues that we should use these methods in combination:

“…trying to navigate the 21st century world only using the tools developed in the 20th century, such as economic models, is like walking through a dark wood with a compass at night and only looking down at the dial. Your compass may be technically brilliant and tell you where to aim. But if you only focus on the dial, you walk into a tree. Tunnel vision is deadly. We need lateral vision. That is what anthropology can impart: anthro vision.”

The core principles 

The core principles are straightforward. We are shaped by our environment so what is “normal” to you may not be considered “normal” elsewhere.

We need to spend time with people who are different to us to understand their lives and mindsets. Doing so makes it easier to gain insight on our own world.

Exploring how daily habits are shaped by rituals and symbols is a shortcut to understanding, as is being on the lookout for what people aren’t talking about (“social silence”).

Overall: we’re trying to understand the micro-level to draw macro-level conclusions.  

Social silence

It was identifying “social silence” that led Tett to first question, then explore then hypothesise about problems in the world of sub-prime mortgages, eventually predicting the financial crisis. Tett embedded herself with Bankers – swimming in an alphabet soup of CDOs and CDSs, at conferences or in PowerPoints or the “Bloomberg Village” of their trading terminals. This group were “using rituals and symbols to create and reinforce social ties and worldview” – creating a shared cognitive map that poorly represented reality.

“Precisely because the financiers were such a close-knit intellectual tribe, with little external scrutiny, they could not see whether their creations were spinning out of control. And because they had such a strong creation myth about the benefits around innovation, they were averting their eyes from risks.”

Considering their world with “worms-eye view” made her question their model-based moral disengagement”. Understanding the micro-level to draw macro-level conclusions is core to Anthropology and dramatized in the film the Big Short:

“A financier went to Florida and bumped into a pole dancer who had taken out multiple mortgages she could not possibly repay. The experience of seeing a living breathing human at one end of the financial chain showed the contradictions in the craft…The birds eye view of the financiers was the polar opposite of the worms-eye view of an Anthropologist”

The lesson we can take from all of this? We can all embrace the principles of anthropology to look again at our world with fresh eyes. To see the collective beliefs which sit between us: stories, metaphors, biases, mindsets and culture.

It’s to Tett’s great credit that even whilst talking about the most arcane worlds imaginable her prose is compelling. She’s more concerned with storytelling than epistemic navel-gazing and returns again and again to examples of how this analytical lens leads to new insights. The greater theme is being open, widening your lens, allowing room for the unexpected, and space to rethink what you know.

As a journalist juggling deadlines and squeezing time into CEO’s diaries, Tett is pragmatic about using academic methods in the real world. It’s not possible to embed yourself as a participant-observer for months on end.

Tett describes how she and other practitioners rely on a toolkit of methods:

  • Unstructured observation, open-ended interviews and accompanied activities; 
  • Within the confines of a structured interview, you can still save time for unstructured, open-ended discussion at the end;
  • Giving people a blank sheet of paper and getting them to draw out how the different points of their world fits together;
  • Using photo diaries and collages to allow people to illustrate what concepts mean to them – undirected and on their own terms.

It’s all about supplementation and triangulation. Pragmatism trumps purism:

“Anthro vision should not replace other intellectual tools, but complement them. Just as adding salt to food binds the ingredients and enhances flavour, adding anthropological ideas to disciplines such as economics, data science, law or medicine creates a deeper, richer analysis” 

In summary? Adjust your mindset and you’ll spot new opportunities

Three things we can all do differently are: 

  • Cultivate an insider-outsider perspective by looking at situations as an outsider would – and asking “the dumb questions”.
  • Collaborate widely, combining methods and tools from other disciplines. Like ingredients in a meal, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • Develop expertise in both data and human understanding, because this allows you to spot the gaps and opportunities that others can’t.

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The limits of self-knowledge: why knowing about cognitive biases isn’t always enough

My friend Joe was always terrible with money. And when I say terrible, I mean a complete train-wreck.

Aged 18, living away from home for the first time led to joyous abandon with cash. A student loan, an overdraft and a credit card. Free money!

After his first term he had opened five current accounts in order to enjoy five £1000 interest-free overdrafts. Before long he was robbing Peter to pay Paul, cascading money between accounts to meet each bank’s cashflow requirement. He knew he’d have to repay the money one day but he just couldn’t stop himself in the moment: another round, another trip to the takeaway, another pair of jeans – not to mention a Nokia 3210 and a Minidisc player (it was the 90’s people!)

Anyone remember minidisc players? The ‘must have’ music device for the late 90s.

Things came to a head one summer night where, one by one, all of his cards were refused at a cash machine. He laughed it off but we could tell he was worried.  

It all ended out OK for him, luckily. A summer job and a parental loan. Lots would have not been so fortunate. He got to fail safely.

And, kudos to him, he was a changed man afterwards.

Having learnt he couldn’t resist the thill of spending, he rationed his access to money. One savings account. A current account with a weekly direct debit. A new routine taking out cash on a Monday morning and making it last all week. 

His solution was to re-structure his environment to remove all temptation. Behavioural scientists call this approach a situation selection strategy. Joe met his goals:

“…not through knowledge per se but by using knowledge ahead of time to structure environments that restrict the amount of damage we would otherwise inflict on ourselves when faced with strong representations or emotions.”

It’s not that different from deciding not to have chocolate in the house if you can’t resist eating it, or pre-booking a taxi on a night out to make sure you don’t drink too much. 

He wasn’t relying on self-control in-the-moment, but engaging in “meta-cognition” – thinking about how he thought.

New research

A new working paper from Harvard Business School this month explores this notion and digs into how behavioural scientists should consider intervention design. Authors Ariella S. Kristal and Laurie R. Santos argue that there are two different classes of bias.

The first group are what they call encapsulated biases. These are like mental equivalent of admin-only files on your computer – they run in the background in our brain and are “cognitively impenetrable” by their very nature. The consequence? They are hard to overcome – knowing about them doesn’t make a difference in-the-moment.

In Joe’s case present bias – a tendency for instant rather than delayed gratification – was at the root of his spending. He tried and failed to stop himself spending many, many times… but the in-the-moment thrill of swiping a card was a vortex which pulled him in. He had to think around the problem.

The authors point to other encapsulated biases too – like the halo effect, loss aversion and the empathy gap relating to hot/cold affective states. By contrast, attentional biases are “cognitively penetrable” meaning they can be overcome through awareness. But we still fall prey to them if we’re busy or have limited attention. 

Why is this important?

Because it gets us to more effective behavioural interventions. “More information” is often presumed to be the solution to any problem. Yet, it rarely is. Evidence like this emboldens practitioners, helping us choose and evaluate behavioural interventions more effectively.

Encapsulated biases are best tackled at the root. Like Joe and his spending – you might need to go upstream and re-create the conditions for the behaviour. 

Attentional biases on the other hand allow for more moderate interventions. The authors give the example of the planning fallacy (where people systematically underestimate the time/costs associated with completing a task). A successful approach might be to ask people to break down the activities which make up the task and consider them in turn. Anything which might bring the right elements of the decision top of mind is likely to work: a checklist, a benchmark, or even an accountability mechanism (e.g. making hiring decisions are made public). This aligns with Daniel Kahneman’s most recent book, Noise. He recommends what he calls “decision hygiene” to mitigate bias, as well as taking the human out of the loop and using algorithms for important decisions.

Ultimately this research is a welcome reminder that we cannot think through every decision in minute detail as we experience it. We need shortcuts to get through our day. But as these shortcuts sometimes lead us astray, from time to time we need to plan ahead to bring out the best in ourselves. 

As for Joe now? Starting budgeting lessons early with his 8 year old son.

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How should we be talking to people about Behavioural Science?

A panel discussion at the MRS Behavioural Science Summit, September 22-23 2021

In the past 15 years behavioural science – a new discipline, still mapping its boundaries – has emboldened researchers. They have realised that research through a behavioural lens is better because it closes the “say-do” gap. It gets us to the truth, ensuring organisations make better decisions and are more profitable. 

However, Behavioural Science can come across as a complex discipline requiring a new vocabulary.

How should practitioners communicate Behavioural Science in an accessible manner? How do we convey its benefits without dumbing it down or scaring people off?

I am delighted to be discussing these issues with a brilliant panel (Anthony Tasgal, Elina Halonen, Cameron Belton, Juliet Hodges) who have over 50 years combined experience applying Behavioural Science both client and agency side, in public, private and healthcare settings.

Our discussion covers:

  • How do you approach your first project with someone new to BeSci?
  • How much should you simplify?
  • Are all behaviour change models equally valid?
  • How do clients “sell it in” to their stakeholders and how could their agencies assist?
  • “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory”  

Ever curious – the group have been learning from other disciplines, codifying new approaches and moving research forwards. It feels like our industry is at an inflection point; primed and full of possibility.  

The conference takes place in a couple of weeks and you can get your tickets here.

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Loss aversion as a customer retention tactic

Chances are you’ve got a few subscriptions on the go. Definitely a phone, probably a streaming service and maybe even a food delivery box.

Chances are you’ve questioned the value of one of these when your circumstances changed.

Chances are when you’ve come to cancel, in the moment you’ve had second thoughts.

This was the situation I found myself in. Our household had two TV subscriptions we weren’t really using one of them. I was adamant that I was going to cancel. I sat down to get on with it.

Login details? Check. Account screen? Found. Review membership: clicked through. Cancel membership! But they had got in there first.

‘Simon, you’re only half way through that box-set. How about a special offer, just for you? Get a monthly discount: £5 per month for 6 months (normally £9.99).’

My mind flashed to cosy evenings on the sofa contemplating Tony Soprano’s many troubles.

‘Sure, we’d not watched it in a while, but what would my wife say if it disappeared from the TV menu? Half price is pretty good, after all…’

Before I know it I’ve clicked on the offer and I’m signed up.

Loss aversion

Lots of decisions in life are like this. What you expected to be clear and obvious can end up fuzzy and ambiguous in the moment. When faced with making a decision it’s often easier to put it off: keeping your options open is tempting.

In my case the pre-allocated offer meant I’d be losing out if I left. It made me question my decision to cancel – I’d no longer have the TV content, and I’d have missed out on having it half price.

That feeling of loss is uncomfortable. Nobel Prize winners Kahneman and Tversky showed how people avoid it at all costs: it’s a real motivator for our behaviour. Through a series of clever experiments they proved the pain of losing is twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. What’s more, this “loss aversion” is a stable, observable pattern in human behaviour – a cognitive bias. We feel it so strongly because of its evolutionary origins, passed down to us by our ancestors preoccupied with collecting enough food to survive the winter.

What impact does it have on customer retention?

Once you notice one brand using loss aversion as a retention strategy, you start noticing it everywhere. But does it make a measurable difference?

To answer this question, my colleagues at Trinity McQueen and I undertook a controlled experiment. Using two independent nationally representative samples of 1000 UK adults. Each saw a different message designed for customers at the end of their phone contract. We asked a simple question:

Imagine your smartphone contract is coming to an end this month. Your network provider sends you a letter asking you to sign up for another 12 months at the same price, with the offer shown adjacent.

The messages had an identical benefit (an extra 5GB of data): one was expressed as a pre-allocated gain which people would forgo if they didn’t renew (“We have already credited your account”), the other as a traditional formulation (“If you sign up you will receive”).

What we found

  • People are more likely to stay when they the benefit is framed around a pre-allocated gain
  • This magnitude of the increase was significant: there was a 10 percentage point uplift

The lesson?

Losses carry an emotional sting: they tap into our pre-programmed instincts. We are driven to avoid them wherever possible.

Applying these learnings

  • Spend some time with customers understanding the value they are not ready to give up
  • Frame your retention offers with care: try brainstorming a long list of messages then test your shortlist – either in research (monadically) or in a live environment (A/B test)
  • When the time is right remind customers what they value most

Originally published in the Drum, May 2021

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Are we returning to normality or to something else?

Originally published in the AQR’s In Brief magazine, July 2021

As I write, it looks like the covid pendulum is on it’s backwards swing. People are starting to contemplate a return to normality. But what will that normality look like?

The pandemic created an accidental experiment in behaviour change. Our work, rest and play look different now. What new habits will we retain? What behaviours will taper-off? What good intentions will be cast aside as restrictions are loosened?

Rewind 12 months and my overriding memory was how quickly we all habituated to the huge changes foisted upon us. Did we really used to fly 2 hours for a 1 hour meeting? God, why didn’t we just Zoom it? Sometimes you need to be jolted by external events in order to re-evaluate. 

Unintended consequences abound

Online moderation has gifted researchers geographic freedom: qual is better for it. Jaded zone 1-ers can share airspace alongside chirpy Geordies breaking down unspoken assumptions. Many clients now see online groups interchangeably with in person sessions. It’s not hard to imagine hybrid fieldwork becoming the norm – meaning half as many fieldwork trips?  

That word hybrid is cropping up a lot. Many are moving to a model where their brainstorming, teamwork and coaching is done in the office and their concentrated work is done at home. For researchers this is intuitive, mirroring our dualistic natures and the ebb and flow of project work.

The pandemic has been hard for colleagues at the start of their careers, who cannot get the help they need to grow. It’s difficult to develop relationships on a video call. The ties that bind us are better served by spending time together. 

And finally there’s the question of identity. As any self-help book on habits will tell you, to change yourself, first change the context in which you create yourself. Putting on your smart clothes and having a centre of gravity outside the home can make you feel like a different person. We could all benefit from that.

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Nudgestock 2021: celebrating the science of human behaviour

25,000 attended Nudgestock on Friday, Ogilvy Consulting’s festival of behavioural science and creativity.

The festival has blossomed over the years, gaining in popularity and profile. This year saw the best line-up yet, headlined by the godfather of Behavioural Science Daniel Kahneman, and supported by industry luminaries like Dan Ariely & Michael Hallsworth, alongside practitioners, academics and even a few well known names like John Cleese popping in. Why so varied? In Rory’s Sutherland’s view “The best ideas do not emerge within disciplines, they emerge at the intersections between them.”  

It’s a hard event to sum up because of its scope and ambition. The 12 hours included talks, discussions and workshops. The production values were impressive; Rory Sutherland, Sam Tatam and Tara Austin hosted from a TV studio at Ogilvy HQ. They were in their element, and their joie de vivre and sense of fun kept things moving along at pace.

Indeed, this trio ably represent a discipline with increasing momentum. Behavioural science is developing its evidence base as more practitioners across the world start applying its principles. And judging from the attendance many, many people are interested in the science of human behaviour.

I want to pick up on two themes from the day.  


Standing back from it all, creativity feels like the golden thread. Finding counter-intuitive solutions to organisational challenges is never easy. Sometimes the pressure of budgets, timescales and expectations makes it feel nigh on impossible. 

So it’s inspiring when people embrace challenges far beyond our own. Professor David Nutt, ably assisted by Tara Austin, asked the question what if we could create a substitute for alcohol with all the upside and none of the downside?. You can check out the answer here.

Rory Sutherland and John Cleese’s conversation on the theme of creativity had many highlights. Cleese described creativity as “decisiveness at the right time”. He spent years working for TV executives whom “want to know what they are getting before it has been created.” His view? Great ideas emerge from your unconscious. Play – not logic – is the way you get in touch with them. His advice was to postpone the decision until the right time, even if it makes you anxious. Go for a walk, or sleep on it. Your unconscious is unruly and you cannot control it.

I see two implications for us all. Firstly, don’t over-diarise: leave yourself some chance of inspiration. As Amos Tversky observed “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”  

Secondly, fight for the right to explore wacky, different or counter-intuitive ideas. You never know what might capture the imagination of your audience.

The theme built through the day, as we were given a crash course in creative brainstorming a solution to a live client brief for NanoSalad. This combined rigorous process to harness the wisdom of our crowd (COM-B analysis, lateral, divergent and convergent ideation, prioritisation and instant artworking) with a side helping of fun.


As a practitioner the most valuable talk of the day came from the Behavioural Insight Team’s Michael Hallsworth. His manifesto for Behavioural Science contained 9 proposals to ensure the discipline fulfils its potential and was immediately useful.

The second struck me as the most profound. We should see the system. The world is full of people reducing problems to simple, linear solutions. As Sutherland put it in his introduction “Organisations often make solutions based on a model of reality, rather than the complexity of lived experience… It is easier to reduce everything into a two body problem which you can solve with a simplistic model..”

Unfortunately this leads to false precision and solutions too brittle to bloom in the wild. Complex adaptive systems involve feedback loops, many of which we are unaware of or are too difficult to model.

The lesson? It comes back to the audacity of giving your solution a go – intertwined with the humility of its evaluating its effectiveness in the real world without prejudice.    

Hallsworth also had a great deal to say about the future of the discipline. In his view we should move beyond lists of unconnected biases to higher level frameworks. He also touched on the symbiotic relationship between data and behavioural science, and the potential for increasing fairness. The evidence of which findings are reliable and how effects vary (e.g. which behavioural interventions work for whom and when) will be greatly helped by big data and predictive analytics. The emerging field of hypernudging feels relevant here.  

Are you ready for even more complexity?

We’ve not even got to Daniel Kahneman. Most famous for lifting the lid on human decision-making in his bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow and holding the Nobel Prize in Economics. Kahneman discussed his new book Noise with Sutherland. I would hate to estimate their combined I.Q.

The book examines decision making at a group, rather than an individual level. “Noise” is when people faced with similar issues make different decisions – “unwanted variability in judgments that should ideally be identical”. The justice system provides many of the case studies in his book – as the sentencing outcomes provide an ideal data set for examination. Criminal sentencing by Judges can be viewed in 4 (!) dimensions:

  • Differences between judges;
  • Inconsistent differences for individual judges e.g. dependent on their mood that day;
  • Consistent differences for individual judges e.g. some perceive certain crimes as more serious;
  • Normative differences at a societal level e.g. USA vs Norway.

These dimensions of noise compound: one example for cheque fraud in the 1970s showed that jail sentences varied from 30 days to 15 years.

It’s a reminder that we all see the world though a unique lens, despite the widespread assumption we see the world objectively.

The takeaway? Where there are humans, there are emotions and there will be inconsistency in decision making. Kahneman is bullish on the use of algorithms to remove bias as a result of his research. He also recommends what he calls “decision hygiene” to mitigate bias.

Too many ideas to mention

The festival of ideas was inspirational and fun in equal measure. Let’s face it, you’ve got Nobel Prize winners talking to marketers here: in the wrong hands this intellectual firepower could be intimidating. But the lightness of touch and the warmth of the contributors truly engaged the audience. Kudos to the team at Ogilvy for pulling it off.

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Behavioural economics for business: the Williams behaviour change model

“An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Applying behavioural science to your daily practice isn’t always straightforward.

Academic writers can be strong on the evidence, but weak on the application. The distance from ivory tower to supermarket shelf is all too often vast.

Business writers can be strong on the application, but weak on the evidence. You’d be right to question how generalisable of some of their models and case histories are.

Bri William’s self-published book Behavioural Economics For Business is less polished than most behavioural science books; the second half of the book is essentially a collection of blogposts. But I like her behaviour change model. It is simple: you can put to work immediately. For me that’s enough to justify the purchase price.

1) Defining the behaviour change: from A-B

We want to change an existing behaviour (e.g. a non-buyer) to a desired behaviour (e.g. becoming a buyer). This is point A to point B.

2) Barriers

Williams describes three reasons people don’t take action:

  1. Apathy – they can’t be bothered  
  2. Paralysis – they are overwhelmed  
  3. Anxiety – they are worried about proceeding  

A combination of factors may be in play, for example when buying a car you may have far too much choice and be scared of committing to such a large purchase.

3) Enablers

Address each barrier using behavioural principles.

  1. Apathy – reduce effort and maximise reward (e.g. we’ll drop the car off at your home for a test drive).
  2. Paralysis – clarify choices (e.g. narrowing their options within a budget, or having a default options)
  3. Anxiety – reducing concerns about taking action – addressing the potential fear of loss (e.g. Cazoo offers a money back guarantee).
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The UK savings ratio is at a record high – but it only tells us half of the story

The pandemic has transformed the personal finances of UK households.

ONS data shows the UK savings ratio is now touching 30%, meaning the average UK household is saving around £1 in every £3 they take home.

This has skyrocketed from £1 in every £14 last year, and is double the previous record high.

Locked down consumers can’t drop a few quid on a whim. Many are paying down debt and building in a margin of safety. 

Two questions occurred to me from this data.

Firstly, will a savings habit persist?

Is the pandemic retraining our habits for permanent change? Lots will be getting a kick out of their new found savings-pot prudence. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Secondly, how much is this UK average hiding from us?

For every white collar worker smugly squirreling cash into their ISA, there’s another household having much harder time.The IFS report that poorest households have taken a hit of £170 a month

The debt charity StepChange today report that 1.2 million people face severe problem debt, having to borrow to meet debt repayments.

Younger people are far more likely to work in hardest hit parts of the economy like hospitality and retail. Shockingly, data from the Resolution Foundation show the majority of the under 25s had been furloughed or made redundant by June.

One average: a multitude of stories. 



Differential in savings rates between US homeowners vs. renters Q3 2020; Source: @urbaninstitute, h/t @adam_tooze

Postscript 2

New research from the Centre for Advanced Hindsight’s Common Cents Lab, October 2021:

“The hardship lessons of the pandemic have left an indelible impression on Americans, and many, at least in the short term, have been inspired to save to safeguard their finances from the next emergency, Beasley said…Beasley shared that the research lab found that people were 15 times more likely to build their emergency funds and save more as a result of the pandemic.”

Postscript 3

New Bank of England data shows savings built up during pandemic fall by two-thirds and consumer credit rises by £800m over year (Feb 2022)

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Book review: Good habits, bad habits by Wendy Wood

Wendy Wood is the world’s leading expert on habits. Her book “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick” is a high quality overview relevant to anyone who is interested in behaviour change. Here’s a quick rundown of the parts which resonated with me.

1) If you repeat something and get rewarded for it, you’re learning a habit

Her shorthand definition of a habit is something that makes behaviour automatic without conscious motivation. Your situation triggers a response from memory – you act without having to think about it.   

2) Habits are the mental equivalent of admin-only files on your computer

They free our minds to do more pressing tasks, because brainpower is a limited, depletable resource. Wood quotes A.N. Whiteheard here:

“Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in battle – they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments”

But day to day, we are not aware of this. We are unduly confident in our own thoughts. She writes: “…we often don’t realise what our habits are doing. It is as if they are operating parallel to us, just outside our consciousness.”  

3) We spend nearly half our day on autopilot – and overestimate the strength of conscious thought  

How much? That sounds a lot. Her research into the daily experience of habit shows on average 43% of our day we are doing things without thinking about them: repeating actions in the same context, responding automatically.

One example is eating, which has three components of habit formation: frequent, performed in similar contexts and provides immediate reward.

4) Many activities – like driving – blend conscious thought and habitual response

Most of us will have experienced a time where we’ve been driving home on our commute – then suddenly realised we can’t remember driving for the past 5 minutes. You can drive the same route so frequently you’re able to respond to it automatically. Here driving is a trade-off “between reacting to the unexpected (conscious thought e.g. cut up) and habit (context-triggered responding when driving a familiar route)”

Expanding on the theme, she describes how 1 in 3 US drivers admit to texting behind the wheel. This:

“…showcases the extraordinary potential inherent in habit. It can take one of the most dangerous things we do everyday and seamlessly transform it in the background of our lives. Only new drivers, relying on their conscious decisions, feel the adrenaline rush of fear that all of us rationally should experience on the road. As driving habits form, the wide range of skills required to operate an incredibly complex machine become a background hum behind what we are thinking about. Good or bad, habits emerge with practice, and conscious-decision making recedes”

5) We rely on one part of our brain to make initial decisions and another to persist

Our brains evolved in a piecemeal fashion over thousands of years. Newer mental functions – which joined the party relatively recently in evolutionary time – work alongside pre-evolved ones.   

When we learn a task we rely on prefrontal & hippocampal regions, brain areas associated with decision-making and executive control. When we repeat them the putamen & basal ganglia are at work.

“Habits live in resilient, deep seated neural structurers – ones that are fundamental to mammalian life. Our core mental competencies have as much to do with making habits as to making plans… Our goal directed and habit neural systems are interconnected, and they often work together”

The upshot? We should focus on the right strategy to change our habits.

“Imagine if we “made the decision” to go to gym every time: you’d be forcing your mind to go through same exhausting process of engaging with the reasons you felt you should be going in the first place. Because our minds are adversarial you’d be running through the reasons not to go too…. We should skip the debate chamber and get to work”

6) Let your habits take the strain  

We should not rely on willpower if we are trying to change our ways. It’s about situational self-control rather thanself-control. It’s about changing the context rather than conscious effort.

“…our habitual selves can take on much of the drudgery needed to achieve the goals set by our conscious selves. It is a more efficient and a happier way to live… It is when you stop and think that you might stray away from your goals”

The proof comes from experiments with people who rate highly for self-control. When you look at how they achieve their goals it is about exerting less effort rather than more:  

“The good effects we ascribe to self control are it seems more accurately captured by situational control… High self-controllers achieved desired outcomes by streamlining not struggling”

Changing your own habits is thus more about controlling your situation so that you don’t need to exert self-control. Make the default choice the right choice:

  • Choose what you want to change (e.g. run 4 times per week)
  • Create a routine – regular times, places, and pattern of action (e.g. going at 5pm Monday to Thursday when you finish work)
  • Make it easy to repeat – consider the context & your surroundings (e.g. buying 4 sets of running gear so there’s always some clean, finding shorter & longer running routes from your doorstep which you can choose depending on how you feel etc.)
  • You can also be opportunistic with timing – transitional moments / life events disrupt your routine (e.g. moving house) – plan to derail the bad and create the new.

7) Better habits lead to a better life

We should think of our “habit selves” as second selves that we need to train.  

Wood describes how we start to prefer the things we experience regularly: repeating actions changes what we desire. It’s a feedback loop. Thus we can “hack” our habit selves here so that they become aligned with our desired selves: before long they will be dragging us out for a run.

“If you know how to form a habit, then beneficial actions can become your default choices. Your best self, your habit, is uppermost when you are not thinking.”

In summary? A challenging reminder that we don’t think the way we think we think.

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