This Habit Could Destroy Us

Published in Online Spin, February 2nd, 2018.

Life is full of habits.

We habitually wake up in the morning, get out of bed, eat, breathe, sleep. We habitually do what we do, whether that be school or work or cross-stitching or mahjong.

As much as we like to think we are free-minded, independent creatures making conscious decisions at every step, we are not. We are creatures of habit.

In the book “Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore,” Neale Martin tackles the difference between the executive brain, which handles conscious decisions, and the lizard brain, which works on autopilot. Most marketers, he says, try to get your attention. Look at these awesome features and benefits! Aren’t these widgets amazing? The goal is to be front-of-mind when your potential customer is ready to buy.

But true success, he argues, doesn’t come from being front-of-mind. It comes from being so embedded in your customers’ habits that they don’t think about the purchase at all.

“Success,” says Martin, “does not come from getting to the marketplace first or from creating the best or cheapest product. Success comes from becoming the unconscious, habitual choice of your customers.” (Emphasis mine.)

For a long time, Microsoft products were a habitual choice. (Martin references this in the book, suggesting that, “Bill Gates is the richest man in the world because learning to use his company’s software habitually became necessary to participate in the modern world.”) Google is a habit. And Facebook, unequivocally, is a habit.

We had habits before the Internet, too. In a recent article on Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton writes, “News consumption before the Internet was built around daily habits -- reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, watching Tom Brokaw every night. It was time-bound (eventually you get to the end of the paper, or ‘Wheel of Fortune’ comes on); it was ritualized; it was constructed around the tenuous overlap between a citizen’s individual interests and the economics of mass-media production and distribution.” 

We consumed news not because we made a conscious choice on a daily basis to do so, but because we had built habits around its consumption. There were flow-on habits, too: When everyone got their news from the same source, we created habits around discussing it at work or with our friends at a bar.

But, as Benton points out, “The web, the mobile phone, and especially social media broke down those rituals and made news something that snuck into your life irregularly.”

The title of Benton’s article is the question at the heart of it: “If Facebook stops putting news in front of readers, will readers bother to go looking for it?”

Now that Facebook has decided it’s better for us to see more posts from friends than from news publishers, one might be forgiven for assuming we’d go elsewhere for our news.

But that would imply that the consumption of news is the important thing, rather than the habitual behavior around that consumption. Our habit isn’t about the news. It’s about opening the laptop or firing up a tablet or staring at our phone and scrolling through the Newsfeed.

And changing the content isn’t likely to change the habit.

“I don’t think publishers or journalists have ever fully internalized the degree to which, for a majority of people, friends and family content is a perfectly-acceptable-to-excellent substitute for traditional news,” says Benton. I think he’s right.

And if we struggled to have a civil discourse when we all got our news from different sources, what happens when we get no news at all?

Kaila Colbin