Charles Duhigg, author of Power of Habit and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, opened the INMA Consumer Engagement Summit in Miami, Florida, on Thursday with a discussion about the science of habit formation and how “the habit loop” can be applied to reader engagement.

Every habit has a cue, routine, and reward. Building engagement is about playing with the reward.

“We can change how people behave if we understand which rewards are most powerful,” Duhigg said. 

There is a neurological explanation for why some habits flourish while others do not. Duhigg gave an example of laboratory research at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). A scientist monitored rats’ neural activity as they learned to find chocolate at the end of a simple maze. When the maze is new, rats rely on every possible source of information — visual, olfactory, touch — and eventually they find the reward. While learning the maze, there is a lot of neural activity because the rats are making constant decisions based on the input.

Charles Duhigg said media companies can improve engagement buy rewarding readers for habits. But the reward needs to be emotional — not just transactional.
Charles Duhigg said media companies can improve engagement buy rewarding readers for habits. But the reward needs to be emotional — not just transactional.

But over time, the rats prioritise the information, figure out the smallest number of steps needed to reach the reward, and stop making conscious decisions. Neurological activity drops. The activity becomes habit.

The same applies to news consumers. 

The amount of neurological activity when performing a habit is not much different than the amount of brain activity when people are asleep.

In other words, people literally stop thinking when performing habitual activities. About 40%-45% of the things people do every day are habits, rather than conscious decisions, Duhigg said, and the way we want to change our customers’ habits is the same process as changing our own habits.

To create a new habit, there needs to be a clear and powerful reward.

For example, Duhigg described another experiment in Germany that found when a room full of people were lectured about exercise and told to reward themselves with a piece of chocolate immediately after exercising, they were more likely to follow through with an exercise plan, compared with people who were simply told about the benefits of exercise.

“Educating someone about the habit loop seems to change their behaviour, particularly among customers. If you make the reward explicit, they understand the manipulation and embrace it much better,” Duhigg said.

Furthermore, a habit such as exercise is considered a “keystone habit,” which means it leads to other positive habits and even more rewards.

“We know that developing an exercise habit sets off a chain reaction that changes other patterns in their life,” Duhigg said, citing a study that found when a person exercises, it changes their behaviour for the rest of the day: He or she eats healthier, is 33% less likely to use a credit card, will procrastinate about 20% less at work, and will start washing the dishes 18 minutes earlier than usual.

Media companies should work to identify keystone habits in readers’ lives to create a chain reaction they are grateful for. 

“The reward should not just intellectually make sense to us. It should be a reward the customers actually find rewarding,” Duhigg said. “In our industry, we should look at what rewards readers are giving themselves. When you study analytics on readers or customers, what kind of content are they looking at? What are they doing with the Web site that isn’t captured in your model? What rewards do they give each other?”

Look for patterns that suggest habit formation. When you see a consistent return to a reward, that lets them know it is a strong one.

“The New York Times, for instance, has a model where we look for people visiting at least twice a week and looking at three different topics,” Duhigg said. “Once they do that, we know it is someone primed to get them into a subscription. They are developing a habit on their own and shopping for rewards.”

The most powerful rewards are not just transactional, but also emotional.

“Study after study shows the most powerful rewards that create sustainable habits are emotional rewards. We know this about our industry,” Duhigg said.

Articles that go viral and get shared most evoke a high arousal of positive or negative emotion. Articles producing low arousal get shared less. Emotions are most powerful when they are unexpected, and the most unexpected, high arousal emotion is anger.

“If we look at the last two years, the amount of anger in the news has boosted our traffic,” Duhigg said, showing a photo of U.S. President Donald Trump. “It is the most high-arousal emotion on Earth and nobody expects they are going to enjoy it. The trouble is the kind of arousal we most dislike when we can anticipate it is anger — the emotion news usually causes.

“If you say to somebody ‘Would you like to be angry?’ they will universally say no. Then they read something on Twitter that makes them outraged, they will share it and read it again and again. We have to find other emotional rewards to deliver something sustainable.

“When we design rewards for our customers, if we can’t identify the transactional and the emotional reward, we haven’t thought through the entire value proposition.”

A brief Q&A session at the end of the presentation touched on the news media historically selling itself with an “eat your vegetables” mentality. This emphasis on logic and “doing what’s good for you” is lacking the emotional kind of reward connection we need to embrace as an industry.

“For the health of the nation and the world, the vegetables are important,” Duhigg said. “I am not saying we shouldn’t do vegetables. But for the financial health of our organisations, the rewards are candy. If we’re not taking the vegetables and dipping them in caramel, we’re making some hard choices.”