Popping Pop Persuasion Bubbles

The NYT is using its platform to launch a new pop press book on persuasion, The Power of Habit. Written by a NYT writer, you can easily see the mutual advantage of a news source hyping a book from one of its staff. The Times has featured articles by Duhigg and made mention of the forthcoming book in other stories. The persuasion play here is obvious. Remember Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation? Books are the t-shirt or coffee mug a respectable Cool Table source can offer to earn more money. So now with the Times and their Charles Duhigg. Today, the NYT provides a surprisingly honest review of the title in their Book section.

Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, has written an entertaining book . . . “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” Duhigg has read hundreds of scientific papers and interviewed many of the scientists who wrote them . . . a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.

Thus begins the review from Timothy Wilson, a recognized and productive academic psychologist working largely in social psychology. Wilson’s own work often studies habit, so he’s in a good position to review a pop press book on the topic. Wilson notes how Duhigg approaches this large topic: As a means to changing yourself and the world.

Duhigg is optimistic about how we can put the science to use. “Once you understand that habits can change,” he concludes, “you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”

Clearly Wilson sees what I do in this book. It is about change and it uses communication in some instances, so whether Professor Wilson would use the label, for me the book is something about persuasion. Wilson notes the strength of this book about change, habit, and persuasion.

He makes his case by presenting fascinating stories and case histories. Readers will learn how and why Target can tell which of its female customers are pregnant, even before they have told their friends and family; how Rick Warren went from a depressed minister of a small congregation to the leader of one of the biggest megachurches in the world; why Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat started a movement when similar refusals by others had not; and why a 1987 fire in a London Underground station failed to be contained, leading to the deaths of 31 people.

You can grasp the book without reading it. Think of Malcolm Gladwell. Pick compelling cases. Present them with precision, puckish humor, and insight. Generalize to your title. Then add the power of a platform like the NYT and you’ve got a bestseller and maybe a new entry in the Cool Table lexicon. Everyone spotting Tipping Points like George Costanza spotting raccoons. Great writing, but great ideas?

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear from Duhigg’s book how we should boil down these examples into a prescription for change, because he combines markedly different behaviors, at the individual and societal levels, into the rubric of habits . . . The point is that habitual behaviors come in many different forms, and squeezing them into one framework misses some of the nuances of how to change behavior effectively. In recent years social psychologists have developed many effective interventions to help people improve their lives, only some of which involve breaking bad habits in the way Duhigg describes.

Wilson politely underscores the failure with every pop press persuasion book I’ve ever read. Great writing in this form requires the One, the simple idea, as both a device for attractive writing and outsized books sales. Take something as large as Habit, invent a pliable metaphor, then stretch it across the seven seas, the four winds, the stars, the sun, and the moon. With any field of study, even something as ephemeral, elusive, and contrary as human persuasion, the science is always more complicated, differentiated, and contradictory than the One metaphor can explain. Yet, the well written One sells.

Of course, it also diminishes the science of persuasion. The vast majority of people, especially those Brights aspiring to the Cool Table read books like Habit or Tipping Points or Switch and think they’ve got it. How hard can persuasion science be when you can read a smooth bestseller that explains it in a few cases and a glowing metaphor? It also explains why there is so much bad persuasion from the Cool Table and Its Little Brothers and Sisters. If it wasn’t for Kindness from Strangers, Rich Uncles, or Third Party Vote Splitters, they would go out of business from their deformed persuasion.

And, here’s the taproot.

Duhigg has read hundreds of scientific papers and interviewed many of the scientists who wrote them . . .

. . . which makes Duhigg a first year grad student taking online courses from the University of Phoenix. Anyone nowadays with a search engine and a pdf reader can access any area of scientific research and throw themselves into the pit of peer review literature. Take a year. Read hundreds of papers. Contact some of the authors that interest you the most.

Yeah. That will make you a . . . FauxItAll. In truth, you’ll know just enough to make a fool of yourself in scientific meetings or, if you can write, a best selling author with the Times. Science in the service of persuasion may find profit or prominence, but it shows no truth.

This sounds like a vanity complaint for myself and for my field. We’re not famous, the Times isn’t hyping us. Envy applies in my criticism. But past my pouting, see the pernicious effects of these pop press persuasion books. Smooth Brights fool themselves and you into believing a first year online grad student is the Master of His Domain and that this new metaphor will carry you over the river and through the woods to Fame, Fortune, and Film at 11. When it doesn’t, as it couldn’t, you then doubt those jerk professors and their pitiful peer review literature as poseurs, ponces, and clowns.

Sure, habit inhabits persuasion and when you persuade habit, you persuade change. And, persuasion makes tipping points. And switches cannot switch without persuasion. And on and on with the slick titles and compelling metaphors. There is a there, there.

It just isn’t where you need to be.