Habits stick because they create craving.
Imagine this scenario: every afternoon for the past year, you’ve bought and eaten a delicious, sugar-laden chocolate-chip cookie from the cafeteria at your workplace. Call it a just reward for a hard day’s work.
Unfortunately, as a few friends have already pointed out, you’ve started putting on weight, so you decide to kick the habit. But how do you imagine you’ll feel that first afternoon, walking past the cafeteria? Odds are, you will either eat “just one more cookie” or you’ll go home in a distinctly grumpy mood.
Kicking a bad habit is hard because you develop a craving for the reward at the end of the habit loop. Studies on animals have shown that once they become used to a simple cue-routine-reward habit, their brains begin anticipating the reward even before they get it. And once they anticipate it, denying them the actual reward makes them frustrated and mopey. This is the neurological basis of craving.
Craving works for good habits as well. Research indicates that people who manage to exercise habitually crave something from the exercise, be it the endorphin rush in their brain, the sense of accomplishment or the treat they allow themselves afterward. This craving is what solidifies the habit; cues and rewards alone are not enough.
Companies and advertisers work hard to understand and create such cravings in consumers. Consider Claude Hopkins, the man who popularized Pepsodent toothpaste when countless other toothpastes had failed. He provided a reward that created craving: namely, the cool, tingling sensation that today is a staple of all toothpastes. That sensation not only “proved” that the product worked in consumers’ minds; it also became a tangible reward that they began to crave.