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?