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On THE POWER OF HABIT and Going Vegan

THE POWER OF HABIT: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House 2012) by Charles Duhigg is important for people transitioning away from the use of animals as well as people who study social movements. As you may know, the money-making writing I’ve done for two decades has been largely focused on why people make the financial and life decisions they make, and working to alter the decision-making process so it is more productive/healthy/lucrative. There’s always a lot of talk of people “getting in their own way” and how to divert their mental train once it has left the station toward an unwanted destination. The destination is rarely clear to the person while making their decision, but to the trained eye, or sometimes just an observer, it’s clear where they’re headed and that they need to be rerouted. As you may also know, my doctorate is in Applied Linguistics, which is the study of how the acquisition of native and second languages can be applied to the learning of anything. Much of who we are, what we think and how we behave is the result of learning (/nurture). The “who we are” and “how we behave” is largely because of habit.

When we speak of reasons people use/eat animals when they know–and have even witnessed–the profound suffering involved, we often talk about tradition, culture and habit. I have written much about culture (The Other C Word) and tradition, but I’ve never delved into habit, despite my better-than-average knowledge of it. But ever since Hal Herzog, I haven’t been able to get past the knowledge that, for the most part, it’s not that people need to be educated about where their meals come from, although I will make an exception for milk and eggs, and many people are legitimately ignorant about the injustices and cruelty of those industries. It’s not that most people don’t want to decrease the harm they cause, and it’s certainly not the case that most people intend to do harm. We often talk about making connections, including those between the way we treat other animals and the way women or people of color were once (once?) treated. But I’m not sure not “making the connection” is the problem, either.

Once a person has a belief that killing when you don’t need to isn’t right, the problem could very well be one of habit. Our brains are wired for the path of least resistance. They want to do as little extra work as possible. And once a habit is formed, the brain isn’t really working because the behavior is automatic. When people try to use their willpower to cease eating animals, that can take them only so far. Willpower isn’t enough as it requires the brain to work, and if there’s more going on that attempting to cease eating animals, and when something happens that knocks the status quo out of whack, the brain simply gets exhausted and the old behavior returns. What’s important to understand for anyone trying to change a habit is that willpower isn’t enough; there’s more going on. Willpower is like a muscle (137), and the harder it works the more tired and less powerful it becomes. This, apparently, is when bacon re-enters the picture.

Our parents decided what we would eat and how much we would reflect upon what/whom we ate. We continued doing what we were taught/shown and we stopped making a choice. The behavior of eating and otherwise using animals, in addition to whether we thought about what we were doing at all, became automatic. “It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose” (xvii).

The takeaway here has less to do with Duhigg’s actual process for changing habits than it does that eating animals is a habit. Habits create neurological cravings that we then satisfy and are rewarded for. SUBLIMINAL and other books show us that we don’t really know why we do what we do. But in some way it doesn’t matter why we do it, it matters that we do it and that it needs to change.

Duhigg provides stories that demonstrate each of his principles, and because this is already long I’ll just get to those principles.

  • For some habits, and eating animals could be one of them, belief is an important ingredient to replacing them with different/better habits. That belief doesn’t have to be in a god, but in the idea that you have the capacity to change.
  • “Keystone habits” are ones that are influential enough to shake up and change other habits once they are changed. If you identify your keystone habits and change them, it’s easier to change other habits.
  • You have to have a plan, and that plan has to account for “inflection points.” I have two words for you: Thanksgiving dinner (if you are a vegan in a family of omnivores or wanting to go vegan). You know the trigger times and situations that will be difficult when you’re wanting to go vegan. And as they say, failure to plan is a plan for failure. You’ve got to have a plan for how to deal with these times, and even write a script for yourself (any longtime vegan will tell you how these conversations go . . . don’t reinvent the wheel).
  • Speaking of reinventing the wheel, the support of individuals and a community are instrumental in success. I love the idea of Vegan Buddies. So much so that I am one.
  • The secret to changing the American diet is familiarity (205). Here’s where plant-based “meat” and cheese products come into play. Those who say that we shouldn’t want to reproduce the taste or texture of animal products do veganism a disservice. The average person needs to transition, and that transition will likely include veganized versions of their favorite meals and there’s nothing wrong with that. The goal is to get people to stop using animals, not to reach some pure, philosophical vegan ideal.

Finally . . . “Movements don’t emerge because everyone suddenly decides to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self” (244).


Please note that I did not ghostwrite or edit any of the books I have posted about on Animal Person.

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