Your Secrets are Revealed / by Krista Boivie

I love learning about behavior and how we can change it.  The New York Times and Forbes.com had some interesting articles this past Friday on shopping behaviors. The articles relate how major coporations spend millions of dollars to directly target and understand their customers so that they can predict their shopping behaviors and increase their sales. The articles are widly fascinating and scary at the same time.  If companies can predict with laser-like accuracy our shopping behaviors (even to the point of anticipating future needs), what else can they predict?

Proctor and Gamble & Target have been two of the most effective companies on behavioral research and consequently they have seen dramatic sales over the last 15 years. If you are good at mathematics/statistics there are tons of great jobs available because many companies are hiring people who can create and understand algorithms in their behavioral research.

Here is the key data I found particularly interesting form the NYT article.

“We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.” - Eric Segel

One study from Duke University estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape 45 percent of the choices we make every day, and recent discoveries have begun to change everything from the way we think about dieting to how doctors conceive treatments for anxiety, depression and addictions.

At M.I.T. they have been experimenting on rats to discover brain patterns in decision-making and habit formation. And they have determined that:

Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit, because habits allow our minds to conserve effort.

They have discovered that the brain goes through a three step process to create a habit.

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 neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges.

Just because we have created a habit, it doesn't mean that it will be our destiny--but the habit sequencing is always shaped into our brains and if we don't create new stronger habits, our old behaviors can easily come back as though we changed nothing.  The article suggests that if our desire to change our behaviors we have to identify the three step loop (cue, routine and reward) because once we are aware that the pattern is happening we can interrupt it and create new patterns.

Charles Duhigg, the author of the article wanted to change a cookie eating habit he had created.  Discovering the routine and reward are easy but it is understanding the cue, he found difficult.  He devised the following questions to discover his cue:

Where are you?

What time is it?

What’s your emotional state?

Who else is around?

What action preceded the urge?

Once you have identified the cue, if your desire is to change your behavior, you must attach your new behavior to an existing strong habit.  This connection will strengthen the formation of your new habit. Since Christmas I have been incorporating B.J. Fogg's 3 Tiny Habits as written about here.  Although I have been wildly successful at integrating some new changes (flossing, vitamins, prayers), I still struggle to exercise daily and I know I have a lot of work to do. 

After reading these articles, I went to Target this weekend and since I now knew how much data they were collecting on me, I actually changed my behavior--I paid with cash instead of a card. I am not particularly worried about companies figuring out my secrets--I just want to make sure that I am fully concious of the choices I am making and that I am reducing the amount that I am manipulated by Wall Street.

Are you concerned with how much information is known about you? Will this information change your behaviors?