Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.
To see how it works, look closely at the graph of the rat’s neurological habit again. Notice that brain activity spikes at the beginning of the maze, when the rat hears the click before the partition starts moving, and again at the end, when it finds the chocolate. Those spikes are the brain’s way of determining when to cede control to a habit, and which habit to use.
To test if Eugene was forming new habits, Squire devised an experiment. He took sixteen different objects—bits of plastic and brightly colored pieces of toys—and glued them to cardboard rectangles. He then divided them into eight pairs: choice A and choice B. In each pairing, one piece of cardboard, chosen at random, had a sticker placed on the bottom that read “correct.”1.21
When researchers at the University of North Texas and Yale tried to understand why families gradually increased their fast food consumption, they found a series of cues and rewards that most customers never knew were influencing their behaviors.1.24 They discovered the habit loop. Every McDonald’s, for instance, looks the same—the company deliberately tries to standardize stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines. The foods at some chains are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards—the fries, for...