First published March 6, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Let’s imagine that my ongoing series about the forming of habits (installment 1, installment 2 and installment 3) has so captured your curiosity that you want to find out more. You’re reading this column from your computer. You make the decision to find more information about breaking a habit. Now, let’s slow down time and look at the steps. There, in the upper left of your browser, is the Google toolbar. Or maybe you have the Google sidebar in the lower right of your window. Perhaps you’ve got Google’s homepage bookmarked. Whatever the shortcut, you don’t suddenly stop and think, “Gee, for this search what would be the optimal search engine to use?” No, without thinking, you go right up to the handiest search box and key in “breaking habits.”
It’s All About the Cues….
In psychological terms, what we’ve just described is a stable environment. The layout of your window is something you’re familiar with. You don’t have to think about it, you just do it. And the vast majority of times, this works for you. You have created an expectation of success. The cues remind you, below the level of rational consciousness, that this course of behavior generally produces the desired outcome. And each successful search reinforces that.
This cueing and reinforcement cycle is a powerful factor. Several academic studies (see Verplanken & Wood for a review of the literature in this area) have shown that habitual use has two important lock-in mechanisms that perpetuate the behavior. First of all, expectations of success curb our desire to search for alternatives. All those millions of advertising dollars from Ask or Microsoft, and the ads they bought are falling on deaf ears.
Secondly, the one type of information we do pay attention to is information that confirms our habitual bias. Because we have an expectation of success, our ears perk up when we hear things that confirm and reinforce that expectation. We are looking to remain consistent with the habit, rather than break it. This is true even with something as insidious as smoking. Imagine how powerful this would be with a benign behavior like using a search engine. Millions of dollars of TV ads can be trumped by one person telling us that Google is also their favorite engine because it always delivers what they’re looking for.
The Forgiving Habitual User
Further, even when we have a less-than-ideal experience, our expectation framework tends to “cut it some slack,” mentally averaging out the experiences and rounding it up in the incumbent’s favor. We become pretty forgiving of our habitual choice and hyper-critical of the alternatives.
So, given the formidable odds against breaking a habit (remember, in most cases, habits are good things that reduce our need to think through everything, so evolution has a vested interest in keeping them in place) there are still circumstances when it can happen.
One of these is when there’s a disruption to the stable environment. When we have to adjust to a new circumstance, we’re also open to new cues that go into the new environment. In the non-virtual world, this would be moving to a new home, especially in a new city or starting a new job. In the virtual world confined to our 21-inch monitor, it would be buying a new computer, upgrading our operating system or switching to a new browser. Any of these events, or a combination of them, offers an opportunity to search providers to make themselves one of the new environment cues. There’s been a disruption in the typical flow that used to lead to acting without thinking, so there’s an opportunity to cause people to think about the alternatives.
One tremendous opportunity to get in on the ground floor of our adaption of a new environment is presented by our increasing use of mobile. The even smaller real estate on the mobile screen represents a tremendous opportunity to put a stake in the ground and start the habit-forming cycle. Google already has a head start in this area, but it’s far less than what they’ve established on the desktop.
Next week, more ways for competitors to disrupt the Google habit, including what it might take to overcome the incumbent’s advantage.