4 min read

The Secrets of Habits and Toothpaste

Charles Duhigg discovered that 90% of our decisions are all based on our habits.
The Secrets of Habits and Toothpaste
Photo by Matt Ragland / Unsplash

You know the feeling after you brush your teeth? The one you get after you rinse your mouth and smile at yourself in the mirror? The tingling sensation that tells you that you’ve done your job well and you cleaned your teeth?

What if I tell you that that tingling sensation actually doesn’t add anything to your toothpaste?

Mind blown

That’s exactly what I felt when I discovered that that tingling sensation was actually an irritant and it added nothing, absolutely nothing to your toothpaste. It doesn’t help clean your teeth! It seems to be the only reason why its there at all is to help tell us that we’ve brushed our teeth pretty well.

Actually, that’s exactly why that tingling irritant is there for.

Stay with me here for a little bit, okay?

Charles Duhigg, a journalist from the New York times embarked into the world of psychology to figure out habits and discovered that 90% of the time most of our decisions aren’t decisions at all but based on our habits.

We are, as Ramit Sethi points out, cognitive misers.

The idea of a cognitive miser is that people would often rely on simple or efficient strategies to make decisions, or more often than not, fall back into what they’re used to doing. I.E. Habits.

There’s nothing wrong with that, its just how humans work.

Its when we diverge from our routine, our habits that causes us pain. This is why changing behaviour is difficult especially if you do it all at once.

Its a struggle everyone knows and the most basic one is the struggle to lose weight, sometimes we think that we just need to be strong minded and keep to the program and we’ll lose the weight.

Everyone knows its not that simple.

You have almost everything against you and a set of habits and behaviour that we’re used to for a certain number of years. If you’re trying to lose weight and you see a donut on the table your passing by, you’ll have a difficult time just walking by without getting one.
Why? Habit.

This is why its better to remove temptation all together, we have to make our environment work for our behaviour change. Its the cognitive misers in us.

Habits are powerful.

We already know that 90% of our daily decisions aren’t decisions at all but an automatic reaction powered by habits.

This is why Self-Help is such big business. Everyone wants to become better, everyone (including me, including you) wants to change. And it all gets down to habits this is why Self-Help is a multibillion dollar industry.
But cracking the secrets of habits isn’t just for the self-help industry, multibillion tech companies also use habits to get you to use their products.

Email, Twitter, Facebook, or The Next Social Media Darling all live and die by its app’s to make you keep using it, every day and at every hour. Create a successful habit loop that provokes an almost Pavlovian reaction to their notifications and you can bet that app/web site is going to be around for a long, long time.

This is something Nir Eyal has been advocating for in his book: Hooked. He helps entrepreneur build habits into their products by establishing a ‘Hook’, according to Eyal the hook is a sequence that’s triggered by a negative emotion.

Citing when people are bored or stressed they start using Facebook or playing Candy Crush in order to ease both boredom or stress. Feel stress/bored + Open Facebook/Play Candy Crush, you find something funny in Facebook/win something in Candy Crush = Instant gratification.

What does this have to do with toothpaste? It goes back to Claude C. Hopkins, according to Charles Duhigg, Hopkins was the first person to use habits to successfully sell products.

Hopkins had two simple rules find the cue that will trigger the consumer and add a reward once the cue is triggered.

And, according to Duhigg this is how Hopkins made Pepsodent into a the toothpaste to beat back in the day. It wasn’t simply that Pepsodent promised clean teeth, it was also because Pepsodent promised the feeling of having clean teeth.

Pepsodent was the first product to introduce the tingling sensation we feel every time we brush our teeth. Its this irritant that signals to our brain that our teeth is clean, and we know this because we feel it.
Imagine brushing your teeth: imagine taking your toothbrush and brushing your teeth very thoroughly, rinsing your mouth, smiling at yourself in front of the mirror and then… nothing.

You don’t feel that tingle.

You’re waiting but there’s nothing. Pretty disappointing right? A let down, like nothing happened.

And that’s the whole reason why that irritant is in the toothpaste in the first place, because we’ve come to expect that sensation.
It’s part of a habit that’s been ingrained in us. Its part of a habit loop. Just like how feeling bored becomes a cue to open Facebook/play Candy Crush, feeling that film on your teeth at the middle and/or end of the day will make us want to brush our teeth, and then we’re instantly rewarded by the feeling of being clean.

Our day isn’t complete if we don’t feel that minty feeling and taste. That’s
the habit loop talking.


Psychology is an interesting thing, especially gaining insights on how we work, its also fascinating and terrifying how new technologies can create new habits in us. What are new habits that you took for granted but only gained very recently?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!