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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business(II&III)


The scientists and marketing executives at Procter & Gamble were gathered around a beat-up table in a small, windowless room, reading the transcript of an interview with a woman who owned nine cats, when one of them finally said what everyone was thinking.

“If we get fired, what exactly happens?” she asked. “Do security guards show up and walk us out, or do we get some kind of warning beforehand?” The team’s leader, a onetime rising star within the company named Drake Stimson, stared at her.

“I don’t know,” he said. His hair was a mess. His eyes were tired. “I never thought things would get this bad. They told me running this project was a promotion.”

It was 1996, and the group at the table was finding out, despite Claude Hopkins’s assertions, how utterly unscientific the process of selling something could become. They all worked for one of the largest consumer goods firms on earth, the company behind Pringles potato chips, Oil of Olay, Bounty paper towels, CoverGirl cosmetics, Dawn, Downy, and Duracell, as well as dozens of other brands. P&G collected more data than almost any other merchant on earth and relied on complex statistical methods to craft their marketing campaigns.

The firm was incredibly good at figuring out how to sell things. In the clothes- washing market alone, P&G’s products cleaned one out of every two laundry loads in America.


Its revenues topped $35 billion per year.


However, Stimson’s team, which had been entrusted with designing the ad campaign for one of P&G’s most promising new products, was on the brink of failure. The company had spent millions of dollars developing a spray that could remove bad smells from almost any fabric. And the researchers in that tiny, windowless room had no idea how to get people to buy it.

The spray had been created about three years earlier, when one of P&G’s chemists was working with a substance called hydroxypropyl beta cyclodextrin, or HPBCD, in a laboratory. The chemist was a smoker. His clothes usually smelled like an ashtray. One day, after working with HPBCD, his wife greeted him at the door when he got home.

“Did you quit smoking?” she asked him.

“No,” he said. He was suspicious. She had been harassing him to give up cigarettes for years. This seemed like some kind of reverse psychology trickery. “You don’t smell like smoke, is all,” she said.

The next day, he went back to the lab and started experimenting with HPBCD and various scents. Soon, he had hundreds of vials containing fabrics that smelled like wet dogs, cigars, sweaty socks, Chinese food, musty shirts, and dirty towels. When he put HPBCD in water and sprayed it on the samples, the scents were drawn into the chemical’s molecules. After the mist dried, the smell was gone.

When the chemist explained his findings to P&G’s executives, they were ecstatic. For years, market research had said that consumers were clamoring for something that could get rid of bad smells—not mask them, but eradicate them altogether. When one team of researchers had interviewed customers, they found that many of them left their blouses or slacks outside after a night at a bar or party. “My clothes smell like cigarettes when I get home, but I don’t want to pay for dry cleaning every time I go out,” one woman said.

P&G, sensing an opportunity, launched a top-secret project to turn HPBCD into a viable product. They spent millions perfecting the formula, finally producing a colorless, odorless liquid that could wipe out almost any foul odor. The science behind the spray was so advanced that NASA would eventually use it to clean the interiors of shuttles after they returned from space. The best part was that it was cheap to manufacture, didn’t leave stains, and could make any stinky couch, old jacket, or stained car interior smell, well, scentless. The project had been a major gamble, but P&G was now poised to earn billions—if they could come up with the right marketing campaign.

They decided to call it Febreze, and asked Stimson, a thirty-one-year-old wunderkind with a background in math and psychology, to lead the marketing team.


Stimson was tall and handsome, with a strong chin, a gentle voice, and a taste for high-end meals. (“I’d rather my kids smoked weed than ate in McDonald’s,” he once told a colleague.) Before joining P&G, he had spent five years on Wall Street building mathematical models for choosing stocks. When he relocated to Cincinnati, where P&G was headquartered, he was tapped to help run important business lines, including Bounce fabric softener and Downy dryer sheets. But Febreze was different. It was a chance to launch an entirely new category of product—to add something to a consumer’s shopping cart that had never been there before. All Stimson needed to do was figure out how to make Febreze into a habit, and the product would fly off the shelves. How tough could that be?

Stimson and his colleagues decided to introduce Febreze in a few test markets—Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Boise. They flew in and handed out samples, and then asked people if they could come by their homes. Over the course of two months, they visited hundreds of households. Their first big breakthrough came when they visited a park ranger in Phoenix. She was in her late twenties and lived by herself. Her job was to trap animals that wandered out of the desert. She caught coyotes, raccoons, the occasional mountain lion. And skunks. Lots and lots of skunks. Which often sprayed her when they were caught.

“I’m single, and I’d like to find someone to have kids with,” the ranger told Stimson and his colleagues while they sat in her living room. “I go on a lot of dates. I mean, I think I’m attractive, you know? I’m smart and I feel like I’m a good catch.” But her love life was crippled, she explained, because everything in her life smelled like skunk. Her house, her truck, her clothing, her boots, her hands, her curtains. Even her bed. She had tried all sorts of cures. She bought special soaps and shampoos. She burned candles and used expensive carpet shampooing machines. None of it worked.

“When I’m on a date, I’ll get a whiff of something that smells like skunk and I’ll start obsessing about it,” she told them. “I’ll start wondering, does he smell it? What if I bring him home and he wants to leave? “I went on four dates last year with a really nice guy, a guy I really liked, and I waited forever to invite him to my place. Eventually, he came over, and I thought everything was going really well. Then the next day, he said he wanted to ‘take a break.’ He was really polite about it, but I keep wondering, was it the smell?”

“Well, I’m glad you got a chance to try Febreze,” Stimson said. “How’d you

like it?” She looked at him. She was crying. “I want to thank you,” she said. “This spray has changed my life.”

After she had received samples of Febreze, she had gone home and sprayed her couch. She sprayed the curtains, the rug, the bedspread, her jeans, her uniform, the interior of her car. The bottle ran out, so she got another one, and sprayed everything else.

“I’ve asked all of my friends to come over,” the woman said. “They can’t smell it anymore. The skunk is gone.”

By now, she was crying so hard that one of Stimson’s colleagues was patting her on the shoulder. “Thank you so much,” the woman said. “I feel so free. Thank you. This product is so important.”

Stimson sniffed the air inside her living room. He couldn’t smell anything. We’re going to make a fortune with this stuff, he thought.

Stimson and his team went back to P&G headquarters and started reviewing the marketing campaign they were about to roll out. The key to selling Febreze, they decided, was conveying that sense of relief the park ranger felt. They had to position Febreze as something that would allow people to rid themselves of embarrassing smells.

All of them were familiar with Claude Hopkins’s rules, or the modern incarnations that filled business school textbooks. They wanted to keep the ads simple: Find an obvious cue and clearly define the reward.

They designed two television commercials. The first showed a woman talking about the smoking section of a restaurant. Whenever she eats there, her jacket smells like smoke. A friend tells her if she uses Febreze, it will eliminate the odor. The cue: the smell of cigarettes. The reward: odor eliminated from clothes. The second ad featured a woman worrying about her dog, Sophie, who always sits on the couch.


“Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” she says, but with Febreze, “now my furniture doesn’t have to.” The cue: pet smells, which are familiar to the seventy million households with animals.


The reward: a house that doesn’t smell like a kennel. Stimson and his colleagues began airing the advertisements in 1996 in the same test cities. They gave away samples, put advertisements in mailboxes, and paid grocers to build mountains of Febreze near cash registers. Then they sat back, anticipating how they would spend their bonuses.

A week passed. Then two. A month. Two months. Sales started small—and got smaller. Panicked, the company sent researchers into stores to see what was happening. Shelves were filled with Febreze bottles that had never been touched. They started visiting housewives who had received free samples.

“Oh, yes!” one of them told a P&G researcher. “The spray! I remember it. Let’s see.” The woman got down on her knees in the kitchen and started rooting through the cabinet underneath the sink. “I used it for a while, but then I forgot about it. I think it’s back here somewhere.” She stood up. “Maybe it’s in the closet?” She walked over and pushed aside some brooms. “Yes! Here it is! In the back! See? It’s still almost full. Did you want it back?”

Febreze was a dud.For Stimson, this was a disaster. Rival executives in other divisions sensed an opportunity in his failure. He heard whispers that some people were lobbying to kill Febreze and get him reassigned to Nicky Clarke hair products, the consumer goods equivalent of Siberia.

One of P&G’s divisional presidents called an emergency meeting and announced they had to cut their losses on Febreze before board members started asking questions. Stimson’s boss stood up and made an impassioned plea.

“There’s still a chance to turn everything around,” he said. “At the very least, let’s ask the PhDs to figure out what’s going on.” P&G had recently snapped up scientists from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and elsewhere who were supposed experts in consumer psychology. The division’s president agreed to give the product a little more time.

So a new group of researchers joined Stimson’s team and started conducting more interviews.


Their first inkling of why Febreze was failing came when they visited a woman’s home outside Phoenix. They could smell her nine cats before they went inside. The house’s interior, however, was clean and organized.

She was somewhat of a neat freak, the woman explained. She vacuumed every day and didn’t like to open her windows, since the wind blew in dust. When Stimson and the scientists walked into her living room, where the cats lived, the scent was so overpowering that one of them gagged.

“What do you do about the cat smell?” a scientist asked the woman. “It’s usually not a problem,” she said.

“How often do you notice a smell?” “Oh, about once a month,” the woman replied.

The researchers looked at one another. “Do you smell it now?” a scientist asked. “No,” she said.

The same pattern played out in dozens of other smelly homes the researchers visited. People couldn’t detect most of the bad smells in their lives. If you live with nine cats, you become desensitized to their scent. If you smoke cigarettes, it damages your olfactory capacities so much that you can’t smell smoke anymore.

Scents are strange; even the strongest fade with constant exposure. That’s why no one was using Febreze, Stimson realized. The product’s cue—the thing that was supposed to trigger daily use—was hidden from the

people who needed it most. Bad scents simply weren’t noticed frequently enough to trigger a regular habit. As a result, Febreze ended up in the back of a closet. The people with the greatest proclivity to use the spray never smelled the odors that should have reminded them the living room needed a spritz.

Stimson’s team went back to headquarters and gathered in the windowless conference room, rereading the transcript of the woman with nine cats. The psychologist asked what happens if you get fired. Stimson put his head in his hands. If he couldn’t sell Febreze to a woman with nine cats, he wondered, who could he sell it to? How do you build a new habit when there’s no cue to trigger usage, and when the consumers who most need it don’t appreciate the reward?


The laboratory belonging to Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, is not a pretty place. His desk has been alternately described by colleagues as a black hole where documents are lost forever and a petri dish where organisms can grow, undisturbed and in wild proliferation, for years. When Schultz needs to clean something, which is uncommon, he doesn’t use sprays or cleansers. He wets a paper towel and wipes hard. If his clothes smell like smoke or cat hair, he doesn’t notice. Or care.

However, the experiments that Schultz has conducted over the past twenty years have revolutionized our understanding of how cues, rewards, and habits interact. He has explained why some cues and rewards have more power than others, and has provided a scientific road map that explains why Pepsodent was a hit, how some dieters and exercise buffs manage to change their habits so quickly, and—in the end—what it took to make Febreze sell.

In the 1980s, Schultz was part of a group of scientists studying the brains of monkeys as they learned to perform certain tasks, such as pulling on levers or opening clasps. Their goal was to figure out which parts of the brain were responsible for new actions.

“One day, I noticed this thing that is interesting to me,” Schultz told me. He was born in Germany and now, when he speaks English, sounds a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger if the Terminator were a member of the Royal Society. “A few of the monkeys we watched loved apple juice, and the other monkeys loved grape juice, and so I began to wonder, what is going on inside those little monkey heads? Why do different rewards affect the brain in different ways?”

Schultz began a series of experiments to decipher how rewards work on a neurochemical level. As technology progressed, he gained access, in the 1990s, to devices similar to those used by the researchers at MIT. Rather than rats, however, Schultz was interested in monkeys like Julio, an eight-pound macaque with hazel eyes who had a very thin electrode inserted into his brain that allowed Schultz to observe neuronal activity as it occurred.


One day, Schultz positioned Julio on a chair in a dimly lit room and turned on a computer monitor. Julio’s job was to touch a lever whenever colored shapes —small yellow spirals, red squiggles, blue lines—appeared on the screen. If Julio touched the lever when a shape appeared, a drop of blackberry juice would run down a tube hanging from the ceiling and onto the monkey’s lips. Julio liked blackberry juice. At first, Julio was only mildly interested in what was happening on the screen. He spent most of his time trying to squirm out of the chair. But once the first dose of juice arrived, Julio became very focused on the monitor. As the monkey came to understand, through dozens of repetitions, that the shapes on the screen were a cue for a routine (touch the lever) that resulted in a reward (blackberry juice), he started staring at the screen with a laserlike intensity. He didn’t squirm. When a yellow squiggle appeared, he went for the lever. When a blue line flashed, he pounced. And when the juice arrived, Julio would lick his lips contentedly.


As Schultz monitored the activity within Julio’s brain, he saw a pattern emerge. Whenever Julio received his reward, his brain activity would spike in a manner that suggested he was experiencing happiness.


A transcript of that neurological activity shows what it looks like when a monkey’s brain says, in

essence, “I got a reward!” Schultz took Julio through the same experiment again and again, recording

the neurological response each time. Whenever Julio received his juice, the “I got a reward!” pattern appeared on the computer attached to the probe in the monkey’s head. Gradually, from a neurological perspective, Julio’s behavior became a habit.


What was most interesting to Schultz, however, was how things changed as the experiment proceeded. As the monkey became more and more practiced at the behavior—as the habit became stronger and stronger—Julio’s brain began anticipating the blackberry juice. Schultz’s probes started recording the “I got a reward!” pattern the instant Julio saw the shapes on the screen, before the juice arrived:



In other words, the shapes on the monitor had become a cue not just for pulling a lever, but also for a pleasure response inside the monkey’s brain. Julio started expecting his reward as soon as he saw the yellow spirals and red squiggles.

Then Schultz adjusted the experiment. Previously, Julio had received juice as soon as he touched the lever. Now, sometimes, the juice didn’t arrive at all, even if Julio performed correctly. Or it would arrive after a slight delay. Or it would be watered down until it was only half as sweet.

When the juice didn’t arrive or was late or diluted, Julio would get angry and make unhappy noises, or become mopey. And within Julio’s brain, Schultz watched a new pattern emerge: craving. When Julio anticipated juice but didn’t receive it, a neurological pattern associated with desire and frustration erupted inside his skull. When Julio saw the cue, he started anticipating a juice-fueled joy. But if the juice didn’t arrive, that joy became a craving that, if unsatisfied, drove Julio to anger or depression.

Researchers in other labs have found similar patterns. Other monkeys were trained to anticipate juice whenever they saw a shape on a screen. Then, researchers tried to distract them. They opened the lab’s door, so the monkeys could go outside and play with their friends. They put food in a corner, so the monkeys could eat if they abandoned the experiment.

For those monkeys who hadn’t developed a strong habit, the distractions worked. They slid out of their chairs, left the room, and never looked back. They hadn’t learned to crave the juice. However, once a monkey had developed a habit—once its brain anticipated the reward—the distractions held no allure.

The animal would sit there, watching the monitor and pressing the lever, over and over again, regardless of the offer of food or the opportunity to go outside. The anticipation and sense of craving was so overwhelming that the monkeys stayed glued to their screens, the same way a gambler will play slots long after he’s lost his winnings.


This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we

associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning. One researcher at Cornell, for instance, found how powerfully food and scent cravings can affect behavior when he noticed how Cinnabon stores were positioned inside shopping malls. Most food sellers locate their kiosks in food courts, but Cinnabon tries to locate their stores away from other food stalls.


Why? Because Cinnabon executives want the smell of cinnamon rolls to waft down hallways and around corners uninterrupted, so that shoppers will start subconsciously craving a roll. By the time a consumer turns a corner and sees the Cinnabon store, that craving is a roaring monster inside his head and he’ll reach, unthinkingly, for his wallet. The habit loop is spinning because a sense of craving has emerged.


“There is nothing programmed into our brains that makes us see a box of doughnuts and automatically want a sugary treat,” Schultz told me. “But once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and other carbohydrates, it will start anticipating the sugar high. Our brains will push us toward the box. Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.”

To understand this process, consider how Julio’s habit emerged. First, he saw a shape on the screen:

Over time, Julio learned that the appearance of the shape meant it was time to execute a routine. So he touched the lever: As a result, Julio received a drop of blackberry juice.

That’s basic learning. The habit only emerges once Julio begins craving the juice when he sees the cue. Once that craving exists, Julio will act automatically. He’ll follow the habit:


This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.


Take, for instance, smoking. When a smoker sees a cue—say, a pack of Marlboros—her brain starts anticipating a hit of nicotine. Just the sight of cigarettes is enough for the brain to crave a nicotine rush. If it doesn’t arrive, the craving grows until the smoker reaches, unthinkingly, for a Marlboro.

Or take email. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the momentary distraction that opening an email provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until a meeting is filled with antsy executives checking their buzzing BlackBerrys under the table, even if they know it’s probably only their latest fantasy football results. (On the other hand, if someone disables the buzzing—and, thus, removes the cue —people can work for hours without thinking to check their in-boxes.)

Scientists have studied the brains of alcoholics, smokers, and overeaters and have measured how their neurology—the structures of their brains and the flow of neurochemicals inside their skulls—changes as their cravings became ingrained. Particularly strong habits, wrote two researchers at the University of

Michigan, produce addiction-like reactions so that “wanting evolves into obsessive craving” that can force our brains into autopilot, “even in the face of strong disincentives, including loss of reputation, job, home, and family.”


However, these cravings don’t have complete authority over us. As the next chapter explains, there are mechanisms that can help us ignore the temptations. But to overpower the habit, we must recognize which craving is driving the behavior. If we’re not conscious of the anticipation, then we’re like the shoppers who wander, as if drawn by an unseen force, into Cinnabon.

To understand the power of cravings in creating habits, consider how exercise habits emerge. In 2002 researchers at New Mexico State University wanted to understand why people habitually exercise.


They studied 266 individuals, most of whom worked out at least three times a week. What they found was that many of them had started running or lifting weights almost on a whim, or because they suddenly had free time or wanted to deal with unexpected stresses in their lives. However, the reason they continued—why it became a habit—was because of a specific reward they started to crave.

In one group, 92 percent of people said they habitually exercised because it made them “feel good”—they grew to expect and crave the endorphins and other neurochemicals a workout provided. In another group, 67 percent of people said that working out gave them a sense of “accomplishment”—they had come to

crave a regular sense of triumph from tracking their performances, and that self- reward was enough to make the physical activity into a habit.

If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (such as a midday treat, a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you

get from a jog). But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.


“Let me ask you about a problem I have,” I said to Wolfram Schultz, the neuroscientist, after he explained to me how craving emerges. “I have a two- year-old, and when I’m home feeding him dinner—chicken nuggets and stuff like that—I’ll reach over and eat one myself without thinking about it. It’s a habit. And now I’m gaining weight.”

“Everybody does that,” Schultz said. He has three children of his own, all adults now. When they were young, he would pick at their dinners unthinkingly. “In some ways,” he told me, “we’re like the monkeys. When we see the chicken or fries on the table, our brains begin anticipating that food, even if we’re not hungry. Our brains are craving them. Frankly, I don’t even like this kind of food, but suddenly, it’s hard to fight this urge. And as soon as I eat it, I feel this rush of pleasure as the craving is satisfied. It’s humiliating, but that’s how habits work.

“I guess I should be thankful,” he said, “because the same process has let me create good habits. I work hard because I expect pride from a discovery. I exercise because I expect feeling good afterward. I just wish I could pick and choose better.”

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Drake Stimson Procter The Power of Habit


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