Times reporter explains origins of habits

At a Morse College Master’s Tea on Wednesday, journalist Charles Duhigg ’97 discussed strategies to break poor habits.
At a Morse College Master’s Tea on Wednesday, journalist Charles Duhigg ’97 discussed strategies to break poor habits. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Students hoping to break bad habits heard from journalist Charles Duhigg ’97 on Wednesday in a Morse College Master’s Tea.

Duhigg, a staff writer for The New York Times who primarily covers business and is the author of a 2012 book explaining the origins of habits, spoke about his experience to an audience of 75. Duhigg offered the audience humorous anecdotes from his time at Yale, discussed covering Apple and the Iraq War and attempted to provide students with an understanding of how habits develop.

“A habit is when you stop making a decision, but the behavior continues,” he said. “In your brain, a habit feels just like an addiction.”

Duhigg described the encounter that led to his interest in studying habits — a conversation with a general in Iraq in 2003 who described the military as “a giant habit machine.” Citing his own former habit of eating a cookie every afternoon, Duhigg explained that habits are based on cues and rewards, and that understanding the underlying causes is the key to gaining the ability to change.

Using Alcoholics Anonymous as an example, he suggested that positive reinforcement combined with a strong belief in anything from God to the “flying spaghetti monster” is vital to breaking or developing strong habits.

After discussing his view of Apple’s corporate culture, Duhigg concluded that students ought to “commit to becoming interesting” people and “fail as many times” as possible. Citing the notion that most react poorly to failure because “most people never practice how to deal with failing,” Duhigg told students that college is an excellent time to fail to reach specific goals.

Morse Master Amy Hungerford said students are largely afraid to fail since “people get to Yale because they haven’t failed.”

“What better place to fail?” Hungerford said.

Students said that although they had heard Duhigg’s advice on failing before, they thought it was reassuring to hear it again.

“It’s a relief,” Takaomi Konari ’14 said after the talk. “Yale’s a competitive environment, but his comment about failing makes me feel relieved.”

Audience members identified procrastination, lateness and Facebook as habits they hoped to break, and labeled exercise and better sleep patterns as habits they hoped to develop. Students interviewed said they found Duhigg’s explanation useful because it helped them understand their own habits.

“I can assess my own personal habits with a more informed perspective,” Abdullah Hanif ’16 said.

The Master’s Tea was funded by a Poynter Fellowship in Journalism awarded to the Connecticut Mental Health Center Foundation on behalf of Yale School of Medicine psychiatry professor Michael Sernyak, according to the foundation’s Director Kyle Pedersen ’88 DIV ’02. Sernyak serves as the director of the CHMC.

Comments