We've all got a few. Even the most physically-fit and mentally-sound among us carry a few around with them every day. They're bad habits, and the science of understanding the formation of habits and what it takes to break them has been the subject of intensive studies by both academic and corporate interests for many years. Academics want to know for the purposes of understanding how habits are formed and what it takes to break them, while corporate interests are interested in how they can predict and take advantage of them.
The New York Times last week published a fascinating look into corporate data collection that reveals the equal parts impressive and disconcerting efforts put into and results of shopper data collection, in particular the work done by US retailer Target. So how does this factor into habits? Target's analytics work indicated that shoppers fall into very strong habits with regards to their shopping patterns and it generally takes a major life-changing event (moving to a new city, a divorce, having a baby) to put those habits into flux. By analyzing the shopping patterns of their clientele, Target was able to identify female shoppers who they suspected to be pregnant, and within a few-weeks range how far into the pregnancy they were. By knowing this, Target could target specific advertisements (coupons on receipts, mail-delivered flyers) to those shoppers with subliminal hints that they should do their baby shopping, and eventually other shopping, at Target - identify the pattern and manipulate the habit formation.
We all have many habits that aren't bad. Times author Charles Duhigg acutely points out that we learn habits as "chucks" of tasks in response to an input. For instance, backing a car out of the driveway or even a parking spot is a habit. Remember the first few times you tried that? Never-wracking, wasn't it? Heck, the second time this blogger tried he backed his father's car into a ditch (as you might imagine, Mr. Kessler was none too pleased). Brushing your teeth after breakfast is a habit. Reaching for your phone after hearing a tone or feeling the vibration is a habit, even if you aren't waiting for a message you can't help but wonder what came in.
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