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The Neuroscience of Habits

By Neale Martin

Each squeeze of the toothpaste tube puts you one step closer to running out. Each piece of toilet paper or paper towel that comes off the roll marks one step closer for the need to resupply. The same is true of your soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, diapers, beer, wine, coffee, soda, chips, bread, lettuce, tomatoes, hamburger, chicken, cheese, orange juice and bottled water. Running out of any of these common products is likely to launch a set of behaviors, largely automatic, that quickly and efficiently brings your home back into balance. Most of the time, you will purchase not only the same product, but the same brand of product as last time. And usually, you will make this purchase at the same place you bought from last time, be that a grocery or big box store, a pharmacy or an online merchant. We are creatures of habit, and the habitual customer represents the majority of most brands’ revenue and profit.

The modern consumer touches dozens of brands every day before even leaving the house: soap, shampoo, cream rinse, shaving cream, razor and blade, deodorant, maybe five or more makeup items including blush, eyeliner and lipstick, toilet paper, orange juice, coffee, creamer, cereal, milk, plates, cups, silverware, table, chairs, bagels, toaster—the list goes on and on. The success these brands have in our lives is largely based on their ability to allow us to accomplish tasks without having to think about them. The more harried we are, the more we rely on our automatic routines to get us out the door quickly and efficiently.

This type of process, reaching automatically for a paper towel to wipe up a spill or an iPhone to text your friend, is a habit—a mental process of great power and efficiency. Habits are critical for the modern consumer to navigate the overwhelming complexity of the industrialized world. Without habits, a trip to the grocery would take hours, and every online purchase would begin chaotically and expand exponentially.

Over the last decade, numerous top CPG companies, including P&G, Coke, Kimberly-Clark, and Eli Lilly, have dipped their toes into consumer habits. But the uptake has been uneven and lacking incoherency. Yet, as research from numerous areas, including neuroscience, cognitive, behavioral and social psychology indicates, the critical role of habits is central to understanding consumer behavior.

Consumer habits explain most of marketing’s persistent shortcomings and failures. The fundamental mistake of most marketing theory is the assumption that consumers are rational, logical, and conscious decision-makers. While readers of this blog are well versed in the influence of unconscious mental processes, the particular role of habits may surprise.

The idea of habit goes back at least as far as ancient Greece. Aristotle contended, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” And Hippocrates entreated his followers, “Make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm.” And the idea of habits, good and bad, is seen throughout the popular culture around the globe, including countless articles and self-help books. But not until recently did we understand the neural structure of habits and habit formation, or grasp the psychological underpinnings of automatic habitual behavior.

The neuroscience of habits

The neural structure of habits was discovered by Ann Graybiel and others at MIT who began looking at the striatum, a region then thought to be a primitive part of the forebrain lurking underneath the elegant neocortex. Instead of finding an undifferentiated ball of neurons, Graybiel discovered sophisticated structures primed for learning. Excited by her findings, Graybiel switched from staining cadaver brains to studying neural activity in living animals as they learned new tasks.

In early experiments, as rats were learning a maze, Graybiel discovered there was a significant amount of neural activity in the sensorimotor striatum, which is part of the basal ganglia. But as the rats mastered the maze, neural activity changed. Where an assembly of neurons had been firing throughout the maze run, after habitual learning the neural activity in this part of the brain was active at the beginning and at the end of the run but quiet in the middle. Habits can then be seen as stored neural patterns, where neural firing at the beginning and end brackets the learned behavior into chunks. “Thus, through the stream of behavior, episodes could be marked as scripts ready to be called up,” according to Graybiel. Understanding that habits are neural structures in the basal ganglia is critical for marketers, who often confuse habitual behavior with customer loyalty.

The process by which behaviors become habitual includes repetition and reinforcement. When the reward is removed, the neural firing patterns revert to ensemble firings throughout the behavior. But when the reward is brought back, the habit-encoded firing pattern immediately returns. This goes a long way toward explaining why so many marketing campaigns fail to change behavior—a promotion may get a one-time trial, but customers typically revert back to their existing habits.

The psychology of habits

Habits are a type of neural learning that creates cognitive efficiency, but how prevalent are they? Wendy Wood has done much to improve our understanding of the behavioral structure of habits. A social psychologist, Wood did a series of experiments while at Duke University that indicate that roughly 45% of behavior consists of daily habits. People reported doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same place while consciously thinking about something else.

“Habits emerge from the gradual learning of associations between an action and outcome, and the contexts that have been associated with them. Once the habit is formed, various elements from the context can serve as a cue to activate the behavior independent of intention and absent of a particular goal,” Wood explained. Once a habit is formed, “very often, the conscious mind never gets engaged.”

There are several concepts in that paragraph that need to be unpacked. The first is context. Graybiel noticed that habits were bracketed by neural spikes indicating the beginning and the ending of chunked behavior. The mind begins to unconsciously recognize familiar situations that have been successfully navigated before. This is what allows the neural networks formed in the basal ganglia to execute behavior without the need for conscious intervention.

The power of contexts can be seen in virtually all aspects of consumer behavior. Watching shoppers go through a grocery store shows them entering and exiting highly contextualized zones. Walking down the juice aisle might see a mom automatically reach for the Tropicana, but then spend five minutes closely examining the melons and tomatoes. Trying to change behavior inside a context is incredibly difficult for the person, much more so for a marketer trying to intrude on a successful behavior that has been repeated hundreds of times in a stable context.

The next concept that needs to be addressed is cue development. A cue triggers the habitual behavior. Cues can be external or internal. Millennials raised on mobile phones react to a text message cue faster than conscious thought allows, while an internal hunger cue might cause them to grab a Snickers bar without even being aware that they had done so. Tropicana famously erased the buying cue when it changed the package of its leading product—sales declined more than 20% in a month. Marketers need to understand what cues trigger automatic purchase of their brands and their competitors.

Lastly, the process of habit formation needs to be understood. When a behavior is repeated in a stable context the neurons in the basal ganglia learn the pattern. The original behavior might have been conscious and goal directed, but as the behavior is repeated and etched into the basal ganglia, it becomes unconscious, automatic, and no longer requires goal direction. Because of this, Wood describes habits as pre-potent—more powerful than other types of thought—persistent, and resistant to change.

Habits and marketing

The power, persistence, and prevalence of habits go a long way to explaining many of marketing’s most persistent challenges, including the failure of traditional marketing metrics to predict future customer behavior. Customer satisfaction measures, including net promoter score, are conscious measures that often cue post hoc rationalization of unconsciously driven behavior. As such, they are all weak measures of what customers will do next. Once a behavior has become a habit, it is no longer available for conscious introspection. Habits are far better predictors of future behavior than attitudes, intentions and prior satisfaction. Indeed, creating habitual customers is a more profitable strategy than pursuing the mythical goal of customer loyalty. After all, Blackberry users reported extraordinary loyalty to the Canadian manufacturer right up to the point Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.

Can contexts, cues, feedback loops and repetition till habit formation become the language of marketers? Ironically, it is marketing’s existing habits that are keeping this from happening. Market research still relies heavily on questionnaires and other forms of conscious-level feedback. This misinformation then goes into product development, pricing and loyalty programs. Advertisers still rely on traditional recall measures to judge ad effectiveness, though unconsciously processed ads may be more effective. However, a new generation of marketers brought up on neuroscience and the addictive nature of mobile, social and digital is likely to see the world differently. And the popularity of books like Nir Eyal’s Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products indicates the audience for habit-based marketing is building.

Neale Martin is founder of Sublime Behavior Marketing and author of Habit: the 95% of behavior marketers ignore.

This article was originally published in Insights. Become a member and get access to the full Insights' archive!