Tag: Book-notes

Everything You Need to Know About Habits — The Science Of Habit Formation And Change

From The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Chunking — The Root of Habits

The process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as ‘chunking,' and it's at the root of how habits form.

Why do Habits Emerge?

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors …

The Three Step Loop of Habit Formation:

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and crav­ing emerges. Eventually… a habit is born.

Does the Brain Stop Working?

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.

How To Change A Habit:

We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.

Does a Habit Disappear?

Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.”

Still curious? Read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business and check out this article further exploring habits.

An Incredible Offer — But Wait…There’s More

You'll never look at infomercials the same after reading this post.

Robert Cialdini calls But Wait…There's More “A wholly fascinating account of a wholly fascinating industry.” If you're interested in how late night TV infomercials use every psychology trick in the book, you need to read this.

Infomercials are powerful. A thirty-second commercial for Tide doesn't ask you to do anything. The goal is for you to think about Tide and to associate it with something happy and clean so you'll pick it up the next time you need washing detergent.

An infomercial, however, requires you take immediate action. One moment you're sitting on the couch eating potato chips, the next you've decided there is really nothing you'd rather have than an ab-machine. How does that happen?

Everything about an infomercial is tested — Whether it's the price, the number of freebies, the background music, or even the color of the model's hair — with the sole goal of selling more product. Nothing is left to chance.

Along the way infomercial marketers have picked up an amazing amount of knowledge about how we behave as shoppers and what motivates us to make a purchase.

What can you learn from Ron Popeil, the master infomercial seller?

All the time-tested strategies were on display: he offered bonuses or freebies as incentives, and heightened tensions by warning people that he only had a certain number of units on hand (“supplies are limited!”). He assigned numbers to his customers—”You’re number eight, you’re number nine,” and so on—which gave them the impression that you had to get in line to take advantage of the great deal he was offering up. He employed the classic countdown technique, where he systematically lowered the price as he neared the end of the pitch. and when he was at the very end and started accepting cash, he avoided selling the item to the last batch of eager customers, instead launching into a fresh pitch. To get new people to come over and watch a demonstration, it requires that other people be standing in rapt attention. “Wait, there’s something else i want to show you before you take this home with you,” he might say.

Why does that steak knife cut through a shoe?

Perceived value also comes into play when a demonstrator slices a knife through an old shoe or cement block or uses a pair of shears to cut through a penny. Why would you need your steak knife to cut through a hammer, you ask? You wouldn't. But in addition to proving to you that the knife is indestructible, it's raising the perceived value of the product. Somewhere in the recesses of your subconscious, your brain is telling you that if for whatever reason you wanted to cut through a boot, you can rest assured that you have the knife that's up to the task.

On marketing late at night

One of the early discoveries of infomercials was that they perform better when they were marketed late at night. “Airtime was cheaper, too,” but “viewers defenses started to topple as they grew sleepy.” Boredom also played a role. “When he placed sixty-second commercials during a hit show, the responses were unimpressive. When the programming was lousy, many more people purchased products.”


“He threw in giveaway after giveaway. He suggested that he would only offer the Dehydrator at such a reasonable price point to people who promised to “tell a friend” about the incredible offer—a classic tactic designed to make the audience feel indebted to him for his act of generosity, which, naturally, they could reciprocate by making a purchase.”

What do infomercials sell?

…What all of these half-hour infomercials have in common, of course, is that they all offer some sort of cure. Late-night pitches aren't in the business of offering us dresses, trash cans, CD players,or cans of roach spray. They're in the business of presenting serious problems—and providing us with quick, easy, painless solutions. That blender isn't just designed to make smoothies. It's going to save you precious minutes everyday and give you more time with your loved ones. Don't you want to be a decent human being and spend more time with your family?

There's a good reason products advertised on infomercials are tied to our emotional well-being, our self-image, and our relationships with others. It gives us a powerful reason to pick up the phone and place an order.


One of the biggest problems with long-form shows is getting people to stop their channel changing long enough to tune in … A half-hour show requires you to bypass that episode of Cops, rerun of Seinfeld, … and actively watch someone try to sell you something you probably don't need. That's why many infomercials have some sort of hook, something that momentarily distracts views and gets them to move their finger off the up/down dial on their remote control.

Sex usually works. What buying real estate has to do with women with big boobs is unclear, but moneymaking products have long features cleavage-bearing babes.


Research has demonstrated that subtle repetition is highly effective. In fact, studies have shown that because infomercials expose viewers to the sales message for an extended period of time and do not repeat the same message but go back and rehash the same material while making small changes to the script, the repetition is actually much more powerful.

On manufacturing pricing complexity

Infomercials thrive on complicating purchasing decisions for consumers by bundling items with free offers, bonuses, and rewards. A “but wait, there's more!” suddenly muddles our perceptions and makes it harder to judge the offer that's just been presented to us.

What about shipping and handling?

Cleverly, shipping and handling costs are often concealed from viewers until they call. … by the time you learn the amount, you've already made the mental decision to buy the toaster oven, you called the 800 number, and you've just spent five minutes on the phone placing your order. Are you going to hang up because the shipping was a few $ more than you anticipated?

What's the deal with the host?

What's most important is that the host communicates authority. It doesn't have to be real authority, mind you. Just as TV doctors are used to pitch health-related products, it's merely the perception of authority that matters most. Clothes matter. … A host with an accent isn't accidental: Americans perceive English accents as more authoritative … Once you find a host for a show, the time-tested formula often requires the presence of a lackey, someone to play off against the pitchman. This is yet another form of social proof.

Wording matters

And every word counts: Greg Renker pointed out that his infomercials always say “when you call,” not “if you call.” The nuance matters. It suggests the viewer will call—it's merely a matter of time. … Ever hear the line “if the lines are busy, please call back?” … the mere suggestion of a rush of callers sends people scurrying to the phone.

When you think about it, every element of an infomercial is designed to manipulate you into taking action.

But Wait… There's More. Much More. For the next 15 minutes, Amazon.com is offering an irresistible special price on But Wait … There's More!. Buy it. Read it.

Read what you've been missing. Subscribe to Farnam Street via Email, RSS, or Twitter.

Still curious? Try How Infomercials Persuade.


Poaching Stars is a Terrible Idea to Improve Performance

In an effort to improve performance we often turn to the simple answer of trying to hire a star from another organization. This sounds like a great idea, is hard to argue with, and offers the promise of an instant performance boost.

In practice, most of the benefits turn out to be illusory.

The question is why?

One reason is that we think of the person as an isolated system when in reality they are not. The surrounding team, culture, and environment can amplify their success.

In his wonderful book,  Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition, Michael Mauboussin explains:

A star’s performance relied to some degress on the people, structure, and norms around him—the system. Analyzing results requires sorting the relative contributions of the individual versus the system, something we are not particularly good at. When we err, we tend to overstate the role of the individual.

This mistake is consequential because organizations routinely pay big bucks to lure high performers, only to be sorely disappointed. In one study, a trio of professors from Harvard Business School tracked more than one thousand acclaimed equity analysts over a decade and monitored how their performance changes as they switched firms. Their dour conclusion, “When a company hires a star, the star’s performance plunges, there is a sharp decline in the functioning of the group or team the person works with, and the company’s market value falls.” The hiring organization is let down because it failed to consider systems-based advantages that the prior employer supplied, including firm reputation and resources. Employers also underestimate the relationships that supported previous success, the quality of the other employees, and a familiarity with past processes.

What's happening a common mistake — we're focusing on an isolated part of a complex adaptive system without understanding how that part contributes to the overall system dynamics.

hat's For more information read the Harvard Business Review article: The Risky Business of Hiring Stars and check out The right number of stars for a team.

Seneca on Clemency, Blood, Happiness, and Anger

Susanna Braund‘s translation of Seneca's De Clementia, is well worth the read.

Seneca addresses De Clementia to the young Roman emperor Nero, with the aim of depicting the ideal ruler. Braund goes to great lengths to establish the literary, philosophical, and political traditions that influenced the work but I'll spare those details.

Here are some of the notes that interested me. 

On when to spill blood, Seneca advises:

I am extremely sparing of even the cheapest blood.

On wearing a mask, Seneca offers:

No one, after all, can wear a mask for long. Pretence quickly lapses into its true nature.

On the two sides of happiness, Seneca writes:

It is a fact that an excess of happiness makes people greedy and that longings are never so well controlled that they fade away at the point of attainment. The ascent is made from great things to greater and once people have got the unhoped-for, they embrace the most extravagant hopes.

On clemency, Seneca advises:

Just as medicine is of use among the sick, yet is also prized among people who are well, so clemency, while it is invoked by people who deserve punishment, is also respected by the guiltless.

On the perpetual need to distinguish between the bad and the good, Seneca writes:

[W]hen the distinction between the bad and good is removed, the result is confusion and an outbreak of bad behaviour.

It's easy to kill … sometimes it's better to preserver a life.

To kill in defiance of the law is open to anyone. To preserve life is open to no one except for me.

Never do anything in anger.

Savage, implacable anger does not suit a king because he does not maintain much superiority over the person with whom he levels himself by getting angry.

And some timeless advice for those of us seeking petty avenges.

The person who renounces revenge when he can easily take it wins unqualified praise for his mercy.

On reputation, Seneca writes:

The actions and words of your and those like you are seized upon by rumour. For that reason, no group should take more care over their reputation than people who, whatever they actually deserve, are going to have an important reputation.

On Kings and Tyrants, Seneca advises:

Why does it happen that kings get to grow old and to hand on their kingdoms to their children and grandchildren, but that the power of tyrants is accursed and short-lived? When difference is there between a tyrant and a king—after all, the appearance of their position and the extent of their power are the same—except that tyrants are ferocious in accordance with their whims, but kings only for a reason and when they have no choice.

It's not your title that matters, it's how you behave.

What distinguishes a tyrant from a king is his behaviour, not his name.

On retribution

Retribution normally brings two outcomes: it either provides compensation to the injured party or it provides immunity for the future. In the case of an emperor, his standing is too great for him to require compensation and his strength is too palpable for him to look for confirmation of his powers through hurting someone else.

On whether to tell the truth or to flatter, Seneca writes:

I would rather offend you with the truth than please you with flattery.

If you haven't read De Clementia, Braund's copy is a great place to start.

Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

“The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other.”

structure of scientific revolutions

The progress of science is commonly perceived of as a continuous, incremental advance, where new discoveries add to the existing body of scientific knowledge. This view of scientific progress, however, is challenged by the physicist and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argues that the history of science tells a different story, one where science proceeds with a series of revolutions interrupting normal incremental progress.

“A prevailing theory or paradigm is not overthrown by the accumulation of contrary evidence,” Richard Zeckhauser wrote, “but rather by a new paradigm that, for whatever reasons, begins to be accepted by scientists.”

Between scientific revolutions, old ideas and beliefs persist. These form the barriers of resistance to alternative explanations.

Zeckhauser continues “In this view, scientific scholars are subject to status quo persistence. Far from being objective decoders of the empirical evidence, scientists have decided preferences about the scientific beliefs they hold. From a psychological perspective, this preference for beliefs can be seen as a reaction to the tensions caused by cognitive dissonance. ”

* * *

Gary Taubes posted an excellent blog post discussing how paradigm shifts come about in science. He wrote:

…as Kuhn explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, his seminal thesis on paradigm shifts, the people who invariably do manage to shift scientific paradigms are “either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change… for obviously these are the men [or women, of course] who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.”

So when a shift does happen, it’s almost invariably the case that an outsider or a newcomer, at least, is going to be the one who pulls it off. This is one thing that makes this endeavor of figuring out who’s right or what’s right such a tricky one. Insiders are highly unlikely to shift a paradigm and history tells us they won’t do it. And if outsiders or newcomers take on the task, they not only suffer from the charge that they lack credentials and so credibility, but their work de facto implies that they know something that the insiders don’t – hence, the idiocy implication.

…This leads to a second major problem with making these assessments – who’s right or what’s right. As Kuhn explained, shifting a paradigm includes not just providing a solution to the outstanding problems in the field, but a rethinking of the questions that are asked, the observations that are considered and how those observations are interpreted, and even the technologies that are used to answer the questions. In fact, often the problems that the new paradigm solves, the questions it answers, are not the problems and the questions that practitioners living in the old paradigm would have recognized as useful.

“Paradigms provide scientists not only with a map but also with some of the direction essential for map-making,” wrote Kuhn. “In learning a paradigm the scientist acquires theory, methods, and standards together, usually in an inextricable mixture. Therefore, when paradigms change, there are usually significant shifts in the criteria determining the legitimacy both of problems and of proposed solutions.”

As a result, Kuhn said, researchers on different sides of conflicting paradigms can barely discuss their differences in any meaningful way: “They will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms. In the partially circular arguments that regularly result, each paradigm will be shown to satisfy more or less the criteria that it dictates for itself and to fall short of a few of those dictated by its opponent.”

But Taubes' explanation wasn't enough to satisfy my curiosity.


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

To learn more on how paradigm shifts happen, I purchased Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and started to investigate.

Kuhn writes:

“The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other.”

Anomalies are not all bad.

Yet any scientist who pauses to examine and refute every anomaly will seldom get any work done.

…during the sixty years after Newton's original computation, the predicted motion of the moon's perigee remained only half of that observed. As Europe's best mathematical physicists continued to wrestle unsuccessfully with the well-known discrepancy, there were occasional proposals for a modification of Newton's inverse square law. But no one took these proposals very seriously, and in practice this patience with a major anomaly proved justified. Clairaut in 1750 was able to show that only the mathematics of the application had been wrong and that Newtonian theory could stand as before. … persistent and recognized anomaly does not always induce crisis. … It follows that if an anomaly is to evoke crisis, it must usually be more than just an anomaly.

So what makes an anomaly worth the effort of investigation?

To that question Kuhn responds, “there is probably no fully general answer.” Einstein knew how to sift the essential from the non-essential better than most.

When the anomaly comes to be recognized as more than another puzzle of science the transition, or revolution, has begun.

The anomaly itself now comes to be more generally recognized as such by the profession. More and more attention is devoted to it by more and more of the field's most eminent men. If it still continues to resist, as it usually does not, many of them may come to view its resolution as the subject matter of their discipline. …

Early attacks on the anomaly will have followed the paradigm rules closely. As time passes and scrutiny increases, more of the attacks will start to diverge from the existing paradigm. It is “through this proliferation of divergent articulations,” Kuhn argues, “the rules of normal science become increasing blurred.

Though there still is a paradigm, few practitioners prove to be entirely agreed about what it is. Even formally standard solutions of solved problems are called into question.”

Einstein explained this transition, which is the structure of scientific revolutions, best. He said: “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under one, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built.

All scientific crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm.

In this respect research during crisis very much resembles research during the pre-paradigm period, except that in the former the locus of difference is both smaller and more clearly defined. And all crises close in one of three ways. Sometimes normal science ultimately proves able to handle the crisis—provoking problem despite the despair of those who have seen it as the end of an existing paradigm. On other occasions the problem resists even apparently radical new approaches. Then scientists may conclude that no solution will be forthcoming in the present state of their field. The problem is labelled and set aside for a future generation with more developed tools. Or, finally, the case that will most concern us here, a crisis may end up with the emergence of a new candidate for paradigm and with the ensuing battle over its acceptance.

But this isn't easy.

The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field's most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications.

Who solves these problems? Do the men and women who have invested a large portion of their lives in a field or theory suddenly confront evidence and change their mind? Sadly, no.

Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young, or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.


Therefore, when paradigms change, there are usually significant shifts in the criteria determining the legitimacy both of problems and of proposed solutions.

That observation returns us to the point from which this section began, for it provides our first explicit indication of why the choice between competing paradigms regularly raises questions that cannot be resolved by the criteria of normal science. To the extent, as significant as it is incomplete, that two scientific schools disagree about what is a problem and what is a solution, they will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms. In the partially circular arguments that regularly result, each paradigm will be shown to satisfy more or less the criteria that it dictates for itself and to fall short of a few of those dictated by its opponent. There are other reasons, too, for the incompleteness of logical contact that consistently characterizes paradigm debates. For example, since no paradigm ever solves all the problems it defines and since no two paradigms leave all the same problems unsolved, paradigm debates always involve the question: Which problems is it more significant to have solved? Like the issue of competing standards, that questions of values can be answered only in terms of criteria that lie outside of normal science altogether.

Many years ago Max Planck offered this insight: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

If you're interested in learning more about how paradigm shifts happen, read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

We’re in the (bad) Habit of Associating Value with Scarcity

James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, says:

We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.