My Father's Stroke And The Incredible Power Of Habit

Six years before his death, my father had a severe stroke that left him, in its immediate aftermath, disoriented, visually impaired, and unable to form even simple sentences. He eventually recovered enough to engage in conversation, enjoy his grandchildren, and move around with the aid of a walker, but at the time he was completely incapable of participating in his own care.

He had been in Mexico when it happened, in a house he had built on the Baja Peninsula. My sister and I went to care for him, totally unprepared for what we found. He lay in bed, fidgeting constantly, trying to pull off the various devices and sensors he was hooked up to. He couldn't focus; in fact, he ignored completely anything on the right side of his field of vision. And he mumbled continually, full of gibberish. Every now and then he'd perk up with a few coherent words, generally louder than the background nonsense, and my sister and I would jump and draw closer, anxious for meaningful communication. Sadly, none materialized: "Zhiva muje derded WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ruzha misha mumma..."



His life as he knew it was essentially over. My sister transported him back to Denver. I went to San Diego to close up his apartment before joining them in Colorado. Luckily, my father had had the foresight to create an unlimited power of attorney, authorizing my sister and me to act fully on his behalf. This was a godsend. Every time we had to deal with a new doctor, a new lawyer, a new anybody in any way bureaucratic, we'd simply wave our notarized legal document in his or her face. It generally worked wonders.

Some institutions, however, raise bureaucracy to an art form. We quickly realized that we were going to need his Social Security number -- which we didn't have. We hunted everywhere for it, but one of the problems with information that you're supposed to keep private is that (duh!) it's hard for other people to find it.

One day, at the end of our rope, I figured we had nothing to lose by just asking him. By that point, he was a bit more articulate -- but not much. I remember doing speech therapy routines with him: "Dad, what's this?" (Pointing to a clock.) "Quarter to eleven!" he'd reply sprightly, looking proud. "And what are these?" (Pointing to a picture of apples.) "Makes a delicious meal!" "And what's my name, Dad?" His answer, full of certainty: "Barbara!"

So you can imagine I didn't hold out much hope for a complicated, nine-digit number. It was with some resignation that I posed the question, "Hey, Dad, what's your Social Security number?" Quick as a whip, he replied, "Oh-four-four, one-six, four-six-oh-one!"

My jaw dropped. My sister asked the obvious question: "Why didn't we just ask him in the first place?"

Why, indeed? The answer is simple: we had underestimated the incredible power of habit. We had failed to realize that some actions or thought processes get so deeply embedded that it would take more than a cerebral hemorrhage to get them out.

In the book "Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore", Neale Martin discusses this phenomenon at length. "When we repeat a behavior," he explains, "even one that involves many independent steps, it is etched into the basal ganglia, ready to be activated whenever a cue is encountered." The more a behavior is repeated, the deeper it gets etched in, until it's so deep there's no getting rid of it.

Martin goes on to explore the difference between what he terms our "dinosaur" brain and our "executive" brain. The dinosaur brain is the one that operates out of habit. It's where our autopilots live. It's where our Social Security numbers get stored. The executive brain is reserved for making new decisions.

If you've got a product that people are using out of habit, says Martin, your seemingly counterintuitive goal is to remain as far below the radar as possible. Don't wake up the executive brain, because if your customers are consciously thinking about their choices, they may make a different one. If you're launching a new product, on the other hand, you need to wake up that executive brain and keep it awake long enough to form a new habit. "The habitual minds of customers and potential customers must go through a physiological change to accommodate a new concept and a new brand. This is a process, not an event, and it cannot be successfully circumvented simply by spending money on advertising," Martin writes.

Think about the most recent time you used a search engine. How much conscious thought did you put into deciding which one to use? Bear in mind, also, that this is your livelihood; take your answer and divide by about a thousand for an average Joe.

Are the folks at Microsoft surprised that Bing's performing only marginally better than Live, and that none of its increased share came from Google?

Why didn't they just ask my dad?

9 comments about "My Father's Stroke And The Incredible Power Of Habit ".
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  1. Laura Lacy from Brooke Chase Associates, Inc., July 28, 2009 at 9:57 a.m.

    The story was great! As the daughter of a stroke victim, I know the frustration with the inability to communicate coherently. My father fixates on numbers (and a few other things), most likely due to his many years as Electronics Technician with the FAA and later for Raytheon. (Maybe you should share the story of your father with some stroke/aphasia support sites.)

    We do tend to forget the power of habit until something like this happens to illustrate it. Habit is not something we consider on a regular basis and it's definitely something we should consider more often, especially when in marketing.

  2. Donna DeClemente from DDC Marketing Group, July 28, 2009 at 10:14 a.m.

    Thanks Kaila for sharing a personal story that I'm sure so many of can relate to. We all tend to get so caught up in numbers and stats that stories like this bring us back down to our basic common senses.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 28, 2009 at 10:27 a.m.

    This is not exactly the target of your article, but you make an extremely important point about the care of ourselves as we get older. The costs of an assisted living facility that provides the necessary 24 hour care runs about $4500 per month not including other incidentals. The habit we really need to follow is to save for ourselves. We may not have someone who will be able to take care of us in such detail when a life altering experience finds us in such a state. Then you can add to that figure if both parents need care if they didn't prepare and you can't be the caregiver.

    The best to you, your family and your dad. I am glad to hear he will still have a quality of life of care and comfort.

  4. Rick Gordimer from J.H. Cohn, July 28, 2009 at 10:44 a.m.

    Great story. I'm so tired of all these Bing articles but yours was personal, interesting and gives a great example of why Google, at least for now, will always be Google.

  5. Beffa Theresa from adidas, July 28, 2009 at 10:59 a.m.

    Kaila, I too really enjoyed your story. It's ironic how the power of feelings and emotions can be just as powerful as that of our habits. Our behaviours and sense of belonging are our true habits by nature. Great post!

  6. Karma Martell from KarmaCom Inc., July 28, 2009 at 11:42 a.m.

    Kaila, reading your commentary this AM was so timely. I just tweeted about my recruitment for a Search Engine usage market research study by Bing. Ultimately I was rejected for the panel. Reason? I wasn't using Bing ENOUGH! Why? Well, they are new, and my habit is to go to Google. It's the default on my browsers. What a case of dumb marketing on their part and missed opportunity. By setting the criterion the way they did, they will miss out on the very people they need to convert: Serious Google users that spend 8+ hours/day online, and who tend to be ahead of the curve in new media and technology. We are the evangelizers who set trends and will spread the word out to the average user. If they find out how we think and what we want from search, then they may be able to have a meaningful dialogue with us. Learn HOW to talk to us, for example; what to say and where to say it. (oh and by the way the interviewer said the other criterion is that I needed to use Yahoo for search a fair amount of the time. Yahoo?? Come on.)

    Then again, perhaps if they had just come to some of us who have been in the business of online marketing and new media for the last decade plus, instead of turning to the big-time ad agencies who are lumbering way behind the curve, they would have more useful intelligence and a bigger budget by now.

    On another note: thank you for sharing your family story to make a point about the business of marketing. It was a brave thing to do.

  7. Cat Wagman from Working Words, Inc., July 28, 2009 at 11:55 a.m.

    As the daughter of neurologist, I remember my Mom telling me stories about unexpected progress from stroke patients, especially through connections that otherwise might have been broken.

    Kaila, I also want to extend my sincerest appreciation for your willingness to share your story of your experiences with your Dad, because of the many lessons as well as observations it contained.

    It is personal anecdotes, such as yours, that gives depth beyond measure and a human-touch to the otherwise cut-and-dry topics that might cause one's eyes to glaze over or be ignored entirely.

    Thank you!

  8. Alexander Valencia from, July 28, 2009 at 5:26 p.m.

    KC- Great story! But, then again you hear that from me quite a bit. As always your dialogue was engaging and thought provoking. I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with your Dad and this post had a duplicate effect for me.
    Both emotional and educational.
    I am currently working on some marketing strategies and Habits are an integral part of the puzzle.

  9. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, July 28, 2009 at 7:52 p.m.

    Hi everyone,

    Thanks so much for your kind and supportive comments. It is a bit anxiety-provoking to put out a story like this in a search column, and your positive feedback is much appreciated.

    All the best,

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