The Power of Habit and Alcoholics Anonymous

“the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change.”
― Charles Duhigg

Another recommended read: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Multiple sections deserve coverage, but among numerous insights, Charles Duhigg uses Alcoholics Anonymous as a tested example of cultivating powerful lasting change. Researchers have been studying AA for years to uncover the reasons underlying its success.

“AA, in essence, is a giant machine for changing habit loops. And though the habits associated with alcoholism are extreme, the lessons AA provides demonstrate how almost any habit—even the most obstinate—can be changed.”

This section of Duhigg’s book correlates with the Boston AA chapter in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so I’ve included some quotes in italics to keep it interesting.

But first, the Duhigg habit loop. He breaks it down into three simple steps: “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.”

habit-loop

“Normally a gifted cynic, with a keen bullshit-antenna, Gately needed over a year to pinpoint the ways in which he feels like Boston AA really is actually sub-rosa dogmatic. You’re not supposed to pick up any sort of altering Substance, of course; that goes without saying; but the Fellowship’s official line is that if you do slip or drift or fuck up or forget and go Out There for a night and absorb a Substance and get all your Disease’s triggers pulled again they want you to know they not only invite but urge you to come on back to meetings as quickly as possible.”

Habits cannot be eradicated, according to Duhigg, but they can be replaced by identifying our daily cues, routines, and rewards. “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,” he explains.

“when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it—how can you pray to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in, still?—but the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told.”

At its core, the “old guys” know, there is more to habit formation. Duhiggs explains researchers at the Alcohol Research Group in California interviewed individuals in AA and noticed a pattern. “Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing: Identifying cues and choosing new routines is important, but without another ingredient, the new habits never fully took hold. The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.”

Researchers worked to approach this secret ingredient more objectively. “It was belief itself that made a difference,” Duhiggs explains. “Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives.” Similar studies correlated. “Belief seems critical,” said Tonigan, a University of New Mexico researcher. “You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better.”

“If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs—and becomes automatic—it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable.”

Another key element: belief emerges with the help of a group.

“Identify means empathize. Identifying, unless you’ve got a stake in Comparing, isn’t very hard to do, here. Because if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own…”

“that makes AA so effective—the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe—happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.”

“You have to want to take the suggestions, want to abide by the traditions of anonymity, humility, surrender to the Group conscience. If you don’t obey, nobody will kick you out. They won’t have to. You’ll end up kicking yourself out, if you steer by your own sick will.”

Duhiggs goes to great lengths explaining a simple truth: we all possess the power to transform through habit. Deliberate effort eventually becomes automated response—it’s a matter of repetition, conviction, and support—just like fully comprehending Infinite Jest will eventually feel automatic after hours of reading, right? TBD on that.

Featured image (book cover design) and Habit Loop illustrations by Anton Ioukhnovets. Copyright © 2012 by Charles Duhigg. 

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