How bad habits keep news companies from changing and what we can do to fix them

Charles Duhigg started his talk at South by Southwest Interactive with a short neurology lesson. He described what scientists have learned about habits by studying rats crawling through mazes, which naturally made me think about reporters sitting in their cubicles.

The first time a rat enters a simple, T-shaped maze, Duhigg explained, it proceeds slowly, scratching and sniffing its way along the wall until it eventually finds the chocolate reward. As it repeats the maze, it gets faster and faster.

What's interesting, explained Duhigg, is that the first time the rat goes through the maze, its brain activity remains high the whole time. Once the navigation becomes routine, its brain activity drops, except for spikes at the beginning when it starts the maze and at the end when it finds the reward.

During routine behavior, Duhigg said, “your brain actually stops working … This is a huge evolutionary advantage.” You can do the same things over and over without thinking about them so your brain can focus on more important things.

Close to half of people's daily activities are habitual, once spurred by a decision and now automatic.

Automatic, like the daily work schedule that ends with a finished story at 6 p.m. Or the transcript-like story that a reporter writes after covering a meeting. Or the phone calls to get two familiar, opposing viewpoints rather than suss out a more accurate picture of what's going on.

The cries for innovation in the news business are constant: Think outside the box; create a culture of change; embrace failure.

But you know what keeps newspapers and broadcasters from changing how they do their journalism? The cowpath, habitually followed, that always leads to the same place.

The science of habit

Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the Times and the author of “The Power of Habit,” explained in his talk on Sunday that habits have three parts: the cue, the behavior and the reward. This understanding has changed the thinking about what it takes to change habits, Duhigg explained.

You may think that you should focus on the behavior itself: the running through the maze. Instead, you should focus on the cue – the thing that triggers the behavior – and the reward. They are “neurologically intertwined,” Duhigg said. “The cue and the reward are the secret to changing habits.”

In other words, people should focus not on the cowpath but on what got them there, and on the reward they receive after taking it. The goal, Duhigg explained, is to get your brain to feel the same satisfaction from a different behavior.

He illustrated the importance of cues and rewards with an intriguing story about Febreze. The smell-killing product was a flop when it was launched in the early 1990s. Procter & Gamble didn't know why.

The company learned that people rarely used the product, in part because they were desensitized to the bad smells around them all the time. The odors were supposed to spur them to pull out the spray bottle, but they couldn't detect the cue.

So the company delved into people's cleaning rituals to figure out how they could make Febreze a daily habit. It turned out that people mark the end of cleaning tasks with small, celebratory acts. They look at their reflection in a squeaky-clean mirror and smile, or they run a hand over a smooth comforter after making the bed.

So P&G added perfume to Febreze – one that could withstand its odor-killing properties – to “make things smell as good as they look when you're done cleaning,” Duhigg said. Febreze is now a lucrative product, he said, “because they got the science of habit formation right.”

What does that mean for people trying to break their bad habits? “Figure out what the old reward is, on an intellectually honest level, and find some new route that delivers that same reward,” Duhigg said.

Perhaps you eat because you're bored or lonely. If you start responding to those cues with another action – perhaps a phone call to a friend or a walk around the block, and reward yourself with something that makes you feel the same way as eating, you can start to change those habits.

Duhigg's example was regular exercise. You can create a cue of putting on your running shoes immediately in the morning or scheduling a run with other people. Immediately after you exercise, give yourself a reward – even something that seems counterproductive, like chocolate.

The reward, Duhigg said, is what encourages the brain to remember that activity. “A reward has to be genuinely rewarding in order to be habit-forming.” At some point, the reward becomes intrinsic, and a new habit is created..

Changing the habits of journalism

So what do stinky couches and chocolate have to do with daily journalism?

Although the news industry is undergoing seismic changes, many of the things journalists do every day are rooted in habit.

We know we should broaden our network of sources, but we stick to official ones. We know we can connect with the community through social media, but we haven't signed in to Twitter in months. We know we should think Web-first, but our days are still built around the daily deadline.

Taking Duhigg's advice, we should think about why we do those things. Perhaps we use official sources because they're reliable, and your editor is happy when you turn your story in early. Maybe we don't interact with people via social media and website comments because our editors value content instead. Maybe you short-change the midday blog post because your editor has pitched your story for the front page.

Such values are well-established in newsrooms. “At The New York Times, we're dealing with this all the time,” Duhigg said in an interview after his talk. “Basically, the entire newsroom is built around what's going to be on A1, and all the internal rewards are based on that.”

So if editors want journalists to stop focusing on the website instead of the newspaper, they should adjust their reward system accordingly. It's not simple, of course; from the editing structure to the meeting schedule, most newspapers are still focused on the print product. But it's possible.

Duhigg said Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson has found ways “to send signals to the organization that The New York Times values what you're doing even if it's a nontraditional thing, even if it's something that doesn't show up on A1.” A recent memo, for instance, praised stories that resonated with readers but weren't attention-getting investigative coups. The message, he said, is that the newspaper values stories beyond the prize contenders.

The rewards are different for different people. Some people are driven by public recognition; others by personal satisfaction, controversy or changes to public policy. You have to be honest about why you do what you do.

It is important, Duhigg said, not to change the reward system, because trying to change both habits and rewards is “too much change at once.”

As it turns out, people are pretty attuned to cues and rewards. In one study, Duhigg said, researchers explained the benefits of exercise to two groups of people, one of which also learned about the habit loop. Those people ended up exercising twice as much as the ones who didn't get the psychology lesson.

“If you study the cues and rewards in your life … you gain a place to start changing habitual behaviors,” Duhigg said.

If you feel like you run the same maze every day, perhaps you should think hard about what triggers you to run the maze and what you get out of it. Maybe you need a little professional Febreze.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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