23.2.17

As Tenure is Targeted, Will More Academics Become Think Tankers?

Republican lawmakers are targeting tenure at universities, which leads Think Tank Watch to wonder if more professors may choose to move to think tanks for more safety (and money?).

Here is more from The Wall Street Journal:
For decades, tenured professors held some of the most prestigious and secure jobs in the U.S. Now, their status is under attack at public and private colleges alike.
In states facing budget pressures such as Missouri, North Dakota and Iowa, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills for the current legislative sessions to eliminate tenure, cut back its protections or create added hoops that tenured faculty at public colleges must jump through to keep their jobs. University administrators, struggling to shave their costs, are trying to limit the ranks of tenured professors or make it easier to fire them.
The institution of tenure—which provides job security and perks like regular sabbaticals—began in the U.S. early in the 20th century as a bulwark against interference from administrators, corporate interests and politicians who might not like professors’ opinions or agree with their research.
Attacks on tenure have become commonplace in the wake of the recession as reductions in public support for colleges led to steep tuition increases that have driven up student debt and magnified scrutiny on the business practices of universities. Conservative lawmakers also have expressed mounting displeasure with university professors, saying they indoctrinate impressionable students with a liberal point of view.

Think tanks typically don't have a tenure-track, although at many think tanks it takes quite an effort to be fired.

For any professors thinking about moving to think tank land, here is a piece from Ted Bromund (Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation) about moving from academia to a think tank.

It seems as if some Ph.D. students are already thinking the tenure track and considering jobs at think tanks.

Some have also noted that many colleges and universities have become "inhospitable" to certain viewpoints, and thus, they are choosing to become think tankers.

This Wisconsin think tank is urging significant reform in university tenure rules.

Some have said that tenure is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for intellectual boldness.

Does anyone remember the incident in the 1980s when a dispute over granting tenure was seen as a threat to Stanford's think tank (Center for International Security and Arms Control)?

Here is a podcast on leaving tenure to set up an international trade think tanks.

Don't forget to check out Think Tank Watch's think tank salary guide here.

http://www.thinktankwatch.com/2017/02/as-tenure-is-targeted-will-more.html

28.6.16

Jamie Bartlett

Jamie is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media. His principle research interests are:
• The use of social media by political movements and law enforcement agencies
• Social media monitoring and analytics
• Internet culture, dark net, crypto-currencies
• Surveillance technology, machine learning, automated sentiment analysis and big data
• Privacy, law, social media research ethics, reform to RIPA 2000

Jamie’s work focuses on the ways in which social media and modern communications and technology are changing political and social movements, with a special emphasis on terrorism and radical political movements.
The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media is a collaboration between Demos and the University of Sussex. The Centre combines automated data extraction and sentiment analysis with social science statistics, analysis and ethics, to produce insightful and robust policy research.
In 2014, Jamie published The Dark Net with William Heinemann about hidden internet subcultures. He writes frequently in a number of national and international outlets, including The Telegraph, The Guardian, and the Sunday Times. He is currently working on his second book, ‘Radicals’ which will be released in 2017.
Prior to working for Demos, Jamie was a research associate at the international humanitarian agency Islamic Relief and conducted field research in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Jamie holds Master’s Degrees from the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford.

2.6.16

Gabriella Coleman: una antropòloga al cor d'Anonymous

Gustau Nerín

02.06

Gabriella Coleman (Puerto Rico, 1973) és antropòloga i viu al Canadà. En els sis darrers anys ha fet un treball de camp ben particular: enlloc d'anar a estudiar els pobles de les antípodes, o de dedicar-se a les més estranyes tribus urbanes, com tants dels seus col·legues, s'ha passat jornades senceres davant l'ordinador amb la finalitat d'investigar el món dels hackers i, molt especialment, Anonymous i el seu entorn. Arrel d'aquestes investigacions, ha publicat Las mil caras de Anonymous. Hackers, activistas, espías y bromistas (Arpa Editores). Visita Barcelona per donar una conferència al Palau Macaya, convidada per L'Escola Europea d'Humanitats i laObra Social La Caixa. Tot i que assegura haver acabat amb les seves investigacions sobre els hackers, ha aprofitat la seva visita per estar en contacte amb el món dels hackers locals, i també, preocupada pels moviments socials, ha fet un seguiment de les manifestacions de Gràcia.
Vostè, com a antropòloga, es va dedicar a investigar unes activitats que estan a vegades al marge de la legalitat. Quins problemes ètics i professionals li va suposar això?
Quan vaig dissenyar la meva investigació no em vaig plantejar aquesta qüestió, però quan vaig començar a treballar vaig adonar-me que hi havia una sèrie de temes ètics i legals molt complexos. En principi em va resultar molt difícil, perquè la investigació podia arribar a posar en perill la gent amb que jo treballava. I jo, com a antropòloga, tenia molt clar que tenia un compromís amb les persones que estava estudiant. Vaig deixar molt clar als meus col·laboradors que no volia que em relatessin mai informació il·legal. Hi havia el perill que punxessin el meu ordinador, o que jo fos obligada judicialment a oferir la meva informació al govern. Els hackers generalment em van fer cas, i no em convidàvem als seus xats més secrets... I jo vaig prendre algunes precaucions: usava noms en codi per als meus informants, encriptava la informació... La veritat és que vaig sentir molta por durant algunes fases de la meva recerca: no estava segura que l'FBI no acabés interrogant-me.
Malgrat tantes dificultats, vostè va obtenir molta informació. Com va fer-s'ho?
Els que més coses van explicar-me van ser els hackers que havien estat arrestats i sentenciats. Ja no tenien problemes per relatar les seves actuacions i parlaven amb molta sinceritat. Sense tots aquests hackers m'hagués estat del tot impossible apropar-me al món d'Anonymous: sense ells no hagués tingut accés a moltes coses. A partir d'aquests contactes he entrevistat a molts altres hackers, he debatut amb ells, i els he pogut escoltar a les seves conferències.
Per als hackers, l'ordinador és la seva segona pell
Vostè ha conegut a molts hackers, ha parlat amb ells, ha passat moltes hores llegint els seus xats. Podria explicar per què algú es converteix en unhacker?
La majoria dels hackers van conèixer el món de la informàtica abans dels deu anys, i els va fascinar. És estrany que un hacker comenci a actuar més tard dels 18 anys. L'ordinador, per a ells, és una segona pell, és com una addicció. No poden deixar-ho. Des de molt petits es van interessar en el poder que els donava la informàtica, i van arribar molt lluny.
Hi ha un estereotip que retrata als hackers com a individus asocials, que només saben estar-se davant de l'ordinador, que no es tracten amb ningú...
Això és completament fals. Una cosa que els hackers valoren molt és, justament, la vida social que els facilita la seva activitat. En fer-se hackers els afeccionats a la informàtica es troben amb una comunitat de persones, extremadament intel·ligents, que els accepta, i que és molt oberta: ningú qüestiona a un altre pel fet de ser diferent o estrany. En realitat, els hackers dediquen una enorme quantitat de temps a l'ordinador, però fan altres coses: a molts els agrada viatjar i tenen hobbys molt diversos, encara que sovint relacionats amb la informàtica. Poden anar-se'n a la Costa Brava i passar-se uns dies anant a la piscina però també hackejant, com uns que conec.

Una de les pràctiques habituals d'Anonymous és l'anomenat lulz. Com l'explicaria per als que no el coneixen?
El lulz és la filosofia del sentit de l'humor d'Anonymous. És una amalgama de diferents elements: per una banda el lulz és irònic, humorístic, esotèric, però per altra, també és fosc, és cruel. És divertit, però a la vegada càustic. Una de les pràctiques habituals dels hackers era el trolling, accions d'assetjament despietat. Actualment els activistes d'Anonymous continuen creient en el lulz, però és molt més lleuger.
Anonymous és el moviment menys políticament correcte que existeix
El lulz sembla alguna cosa molt allunyada del políticament correcte.
Sí, de fet Anonymous és el moviment menys políticament correcte que existeix. Als Estats Units el progressisme dóna molta importància a la correcció del llenguatge, i per això molta gent odia Anonymous, per les seves grolleries. Però també hi ha molts progressistes que adoren Anonymous, justament, perquè trenca amb aquesta correcció. A més a més, per a alguns militants progressistes, front a una esquerra que només discuteix discursos,  Anonymous representa una esquerra diferent, perquè els seus activistes prenen riscos i no es queden en les paraules. Els d'Anonymous estan disposats a ser extremistes, i a ser ofensius, i això es reflecteix en el llenguatge que usen.
¿Com un grup de fanàtics per la informàtica, als que al teu llibres defineixes com "la mala llet d'internet", es va convertir en un grup de pressió polític?
Als Estats Units, en principi, no era molt normal que els hackers es dediquessin a la política. Però en canvi sí que ho era a Espanya i Itàlia. A finals dels noranta a Europa hi havia molts hackers que estaven ficats en política i que s'oposaven a la globalització. Però en els darrers anys hi ha hagut un boom dels hackers amb mentalitat política, especialment amb l'esclat de l'escàndol Wikileaks. Avui en dia qualsevol pot convertir-se en un hacker polític, simplement, fent una donació econòmica a Anonymous.
Tots els hackers són militants antisistema?
No, en absolut. De fet la majoria dels hackers són apolítics. I n'hi ha molts que treballen per a multinacionals... Són els responsables de seguretat de moltes empreses informàtiques... La qüestió de la col·laboració amb les multinacionals genera molts debats al món dels hackers...
Anonymous argumenta que les seves actuacions són necessàries per denunciar alguns fets que no arriben als mitjans de comunicació. Es consideren com una eina per a la llibertat d'expressió, però d'altres els acusen d'exercir la censura. Com sorgeix aquesta polèmica?
Anonymous és molt plural. No té un manifest fundacional, ni hi ha una filosofia única que abasti a tots els seus integrants. Històricament, Anonymous s'ha destacat en la lluita en defensa de la llibertat d'expressió i en contra de la censura. Justament per això, tenen aquesta obsessió per l'anonimat. Creuen que la gent, quan és anònima, parla amb més facilitat, per això usen la màscara, ja que diuen que amb la màscara la gent s'expressa de forma més oberta. Una de les tècniques més eficaces de la lluita d'Anonymous són els atacs de denegació de servei, els DDoS [peticions múltiples i sincronitzades a un mateix ordinador per tal de saturar-lo i bloquejar-lo]. Alguns hackers s'hi oposen, perquè consideren que així bloqueges a algú i no el deixes parlar, i això suposaria una vulneració de la llibertat d'expressió. Però altres hackers consideren que es tracta d'una tècnica lícita quan s'ataca a grans empreses, perquè tan sols bloqueges a algú temporalment i aquestes companyies tenen altres canals per a expressar-se.
En alguna ocasió s'ha arribat a acusar a Anonymous de terrorisme. D'on surt aquesta acusació?
És un tema molt interessant, que jo he analitzat molt de prop. De fet, els hackers no han estat acusats formalment de terrorisme mai, però s'ha intentat associar-los amb el terrorisme. Malgrat tot, aquest intent de relacionar-los amb el terrorisme no ha quallat. I jo crec que el factor determinant que ha bloquejat aquesta associació és que Anonymous es va implicar positivament en les revolucions àrabs, i en el moviment Occupy Wall Street, i aquests moviments són percebuts positivament per la població, que no els consideren com terroristes.
Però la màscara que porten és la màscara d'un terrorista...
És cert. Guy Fawkes va intentar volar la Càmera dels Lords, però avui en dia no és vist com un terrorista, sinó com una mena d'heroi popular. Justament aquesta máscara ha donat una imatge positiva d'Anonymus i ha evitat que se'ls relacioni amb el terrorisme.
I malgrat tot, als Estats Units es persegueix molt durament a Anonymous i als hackers.
 Als Estats Units no s'aplica als hackers la llei antiterrorista, però se'ls castiga amb la llei de frau informàtic, que és extremadament dura. Es tracta d'una legislació molt poc precisa, que deixa molt de marge a la repressió. Preveu que els hackers siguin castigats amb fortes multes i amb penes de fins a 10 anys de presó. És molt dur si ho compares amb el que passa a Europa. Molts hackers han anat a la presó, a Europa, però al cap d'un temps ja estan fora. No els han arruïnat la vida, que és el que es pretén als Estats Units. Em sembla bé que es castigui als que vulneren la llei, però no que els destrossin.
Darrerament als mitjans no hi apareixen gaire notícies sobre els hackers. Aquest moviment ha entrat en crisi?
El 2012 Anonymous estava molt actiu. Cada setmana feia una acció, o dues... Ara, n'hi ha moltes menys. Però continua havent-hi actuacions de hackers. El hacking ara està més dispers, és més selectiu i més esporàdic, i per això els hackers són molt més difícils d'interceptar. Darrerament hi ha hagut atacs molt importants al Canadà, a Filipines... Al febrer un col·lectiu espanyol, La Nueve de Anonymous, va atacar El Corte Inglés. El fet que no els aconsegueixin detenir, potser indica que són més forts que abans. En aquest moment és difícil predir com evolucionarà Anonymous i si els hackers aconseguiran mantenir les seves activitats.

1.6.16

BRUTAL!

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog
The New Yorker 05.07.1993

“Remember when, on the Internet,
nobody knew who you were?”
The New Yorker 23.02.2015

14.5.16

Facebook Groups Act as Weapons Bazaars for Militias

By C. J. CHIVERS

 APRIL 6, 2016


A terrorist hoping to buy an antiaircraft weapon in recent years needed to look no further than Facebook, which has been hosting sprawling online arms bazaars, offering weapons ranging from handguns and grenades to heavy machine guns and guided missiles. 

The Facebook posts suggest evidence of large-scale efforts to sell military weapons coveted by terrorists and militants. The weapons include many distributed by the United States to security forces and their proxies in the Middle East. These online bazaars, which violate Facebook’s recent ban on the private sales of weapons, have been appearing in regions where the Islamic State has its strongest presence. 
This week, after The New York Times provided Facebook with seven examples of suspicious groups, the company shut down six of them. 

The findings were based on a study by the private consultancy Armament Research Services about arms trafficking on social media in Libya, along with reporting by The Times on similar trafficking in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. 

1. The Weapons Have Included Heavy Machine Guns and Heat-Seeking Missiles 
Many sales are arranged after Facebook users post photographs in closed and secret groups; the posts act roughly like digital classified ads on weapons-specific boards. Among the weapons displayed have been heavy machine guns on mounts that are designed for antiaircraft roles and that can be bolted to pickup trucks, and more sophisticated and menacing systems, including guided anti-tank missiles and an early generation of shoulder-fired heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles. 

The report documented 97 attempts at unregulated transfers of missiles, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, rockets and anti-matériel rifles, used to disable military equipment, through several Libyan Facebook groups since September 2014. 


Last year ARES said it had documented an offer on Facebook to sell an SA-7 gripstock (pictured above), the reusable centerpiece of a manportable antiaircraft defense system, or Manpads, a weapon of the Stinger class. Many of these left Libyan state custody in 2011, as depots were raided by rebels and looters. ARES said it documented Libyan sellers claiming to have two complete SA-7s for sale, two additional missiles and three gripstocks. An old system, SA-7s are a greater threat to helicopters and commercial aircraft than to modern military jets. 
2. Others Are the Standard Arms of Militant and Terrorist Groups 
Machine guns and missiles form a small fraction of the apparent arms trafficking on Facebook and other social media apps, according to Nic R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of ARES and an author of the report. Examinations by The Times of Facebook groups in Libya dedicated to arms sales showed that sellers sought customers for a much larger assortment of handguns and infantry weapons. The rifles have predominantly been Kalashnikov assault rifles, which are used by many militants in the region, and many FN FAL rifles, which are common in Libya. All of these solicitations violate Facebook’s policies, which since January has forbidden the facilitation of private sales of firearms and other weapons, according to Monika Bickert, a former federal prosecutor who is responsible for developing and enforcing the company’s content standards. 

3. Weapons Sales Greased by Social Media Sites Have Become a Feature of Many Conflicts 
The use of social media for arms sales is relatively new to Libya. Until a Western-backed uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, which ended in his death at the hands of an armed mob, the country had a tightly restricted arms market and limited Internet access. But social media-based weapons markets in Libya are not unique. Similar markets exist in other countries plagued in recent years by conflict, militant groups and terrorism, including arms-sales Facebook groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 

On Monday, The Times shared links for seven such groups with Facebook to check whether they violated the rules. By Tuesday, Facebook had taken down six of the groups. Ms. Bickert said that one Facebook group — which displayed photographs of weapons but only discussed them and expressly forbade sales — had survived the company’s scrutiny. 
4. Facebook’s Rules on Arms Sales Are Related to Changes in How Facebook Is Used. 
Ms. Bickert described the company’s policies as evolutionary, reflecting shifts in its social media ecosystem. 

When Facebook began, there was no way to really engage in commerce on Facebook,” she said. But in the past year, she noted, the company has allowed users to process payments through its Messenger service, and has added other features to aid sales. “Since we were offering features like that, we thought we wanted to make clear that this is not a site that wants to facilitate the private sales of firearms.” 

It is not clear how extensive arms trafficking on the site has been, but the rate of new posts has been unmistakably brisk, with many groups offering several new weapons a day. Mr. Jenzen-Jones said that ARES documented 250 to 300 posts about arms sales each month on the Libya sites alone, and that sales appeared to be trending up. Over all, using data from arms-sales Facebook groups across the Middle East, he said, “We’ve got about 6,000 trades documented, but it’s probably much bigger than that.” 

5. Facebook Relies on Users to Report the Arms Trafficking It Bans 
Ms. Bickert said the most important part of Facebook’s effort “to keep people safe” was to make it easy for users to notify the company of suspected violations, which can be done with a click on the “Report” feature on every Facebook post. 

In this way so-called Community Operations teams — Facebook employees who review the reports in dozens of languages — can examine and remove offending content. How effective the policy is, in practice, is unclear. Several groups from which the photographs for this article were downloaded operated on Facebook for two years or more, accumulating thousands of members before Facebook announced its ban on arms sales. 

This trafficking occurred in countries where the Islamic State is at its most active and where armed militias or other designated terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, have a persistent presence. In all four countries, government forces do not control large areas of territory and civil society is under intense pressure. Christine Chen, a Facebook spokeswoman, said the company relied on the nearly 1.6 billion people who visit the site every month to flag offenders. “We urge everyone who sees violations to report them to us,” she said. 
6. In Libya, Widespread Pistol Sales on Facebook 
ARES has documented many types of buyers and sellers. These include private citizens seeking handguns as well as representatives of armed groups buying weapons that require crews to be operated effectively, or appearing to offload weapons that the militias no longer wanted. Different markets have different characteristics. In Libya, fear of crime seemed to drive many people to buy pistols, Mr. Jenzen-Jones said. 

Handguns are disproportionately represented,” he said. “They are widely sought after — primarily for self-defense and particularly to protect against carjackings — with many prospective buyers placing ‘wanted’ posts.” They were also expensive, ranging from about $2,200 to more than $7,000 — a sign that demand outstrips supply. 

7. Weapons Provided to Allies in Iraq Have Filled Facebook Sales Pages 
In Iraq, the Facebook arms bazaars can resemble inside looks at the failures of American train-and-equip programs, with sellers displaying a seemingly bottomless assortment of weapons provided to Iraq’s government forces by the Pentagon during the long American occupation. Those include M4 carbines, M16 rifles, M249 squad automatic weapons, MP5 submachine guns and Glock semiautomatic pistols. Many of the weapons shown still bear inventory stickers and aftermarket add-ons favored by American forces and troops. 

Such weapons have long been available on black markets in Iraq, with or without advertising on social media. But Facebook and other social media companies seem to provide new opportunities for sellers and buyers to find one other easily; for sellers to display items to more customers; and for customers to peruse and haggle over a larger assortment of weapons than what is available in smaller, physical markets. 

8. In Syria, Weapons Identical to Those Distributed to Rebels by the United States Are Offered for Sale 
Similarly, weapons identical to those provided by the United States to Syrian rebels have also been traded on Facebook and other social media or messaging apps. In one recent example, a seller in northern Syria — who identified himself as a student, photographer and sniper — offered a pristine-looking Kalashnikov assault rifle that he said came from the Hazm Movement, which received weapons from the United States before the movement was defeated by the Nusra Front, a Qaeda affiliate. He noted on Facebook that the rifle was new and had “never fired a shot,” and hinted of either a bonus gift or a discount.

In another example, from October, a Facebook arms-trading group offered a “new TOW launcher,” referring to a wire-guided anti-tank missile system of the same type provided to rebels by the United States and other countries. The post included a phone number for the seller, which linked to WhatsApp, a messaging service. Reached on WhatsApp this week, the seller, whose profile picture shows the face of a corpse, said that he had sold the launcher but added, unconvincingly, that he could not recall the price. 
9. Social Media Pages Help Armed Groups Find Other Military Equipment 
Items offered for sale on Facebook in Libya also included much of the other equipment sought by militias or terrorists for their operations. These included ammunition, bulletproof plates for flak jackets, rifle scopes, hand grenades, two-way tactical radios, fragmenting antipersonnel warheads for rocket-propelled grenade launchers, uniforms (including police uniforms) and forward-looking infrared cameras, used for night imaging. 

Ms. Bickert said that using Facebook to help sell items not considered weapons, like bulletproof plates, did not violate the company’s rules. Since the same groups selling plates were also selling weapons, however, they were removed this week. 

Online arms trafficking of this magnitude is an “eye opener,” said Nicolas Florquin, research coordinator for the Small Arms Survey, the Geneva-based international research center that underwrote the ARES study, part of an effort to supplement trafficking investigations by the United Nations Panel of Experts. Without addressing Facebook or any particular social-media company directly, he added, “Obviously there has to be more attention to monitoring and controlling it.” 
10. Facebook Groups Also Offer Residents a Means to Flee 
One of the arms-trading pages that Facebook took down this week included a stray advertisement, among ones for weapons and crates of 82- millimeter mortar rounds. It was for people looking to escape the miseries and dangers that have settled over some of the territory where such Facebook pages have been a feature of the arms trade. The advertisement offered open-ocean boat rides. Passage to Greece, it said, was “guaranteed.” The advertisement was of a type. In a region struggling with large-scale violence and overrun by militias, terrorists and the many forces fighting them, Facebook groups dedicated to refugee trafficking promise the chance to escape. 

Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Turkey, and Shuaib Almosawa from Yemen. 


19.4.16

How Companies Learn Your Secrets*

Charles Duhigg 16.02.2012

Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that? ”

Pole has a master’s degree in statistics and another in economics, and has been obsessed with the intersection of data and human behavior most of his life. His parents were teachers in North Dakota, and while other kids were going to 4-H, Pole was doing algebra and writing computer programs. “The stereotype of a math nerd is true,” he told me when I spoke with him last year. “I kind of like going out and evangelizing analytics.”

As the marketers explained to Pole — and as Pole later explained to me, back when we were still speaking and before Target told him to stop — new parents are a retailer’s holy grail. Most shoppers don’t buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy groceries at the grocery store and toys at the toy store, and they visit Target only when they need certain items they associate with Target — cleaning supplies, say, or new socks or a six-month supply of toilet paper. But Target sells everything from milk to stuffed animals to lawn furniture to electronics, so one of the company’s primary goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.

There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.

“We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years,” Pole told me. “As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.”

The desire to collect information on customers is not new for Target or any other large retailer, of course. For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” Pole said. “We want to know everything we can.”

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.) All that information is meaningless, however, without someone to analyze and make sense of it. That’s where Andrew Pole and the dozens of other members of Target’s Guest Marketing Analytics department come in. 

Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to investment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them. “But Target has always been one of the smartest at this,” says Eric Siegel, a consultant and the chairman of a conference called Predictive Analytics World. “We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”

The reason Target can snoop on our shopping habits is that, over the past two decades, the science of habit formation has become a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs. “It’s like an arms race to hire statisticians nowadays,” said Andreas Weigend, the former chief scientist at Amazon.com. “Mathematicians are suddenly sexy.” As the ability to analyze data has grown more and more fine-grained, the push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in clinical research, even though most of us are hardly aware those patterns exist. One study from Duke University estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape 45 percent of the choices we make every day, and recent discoveries have begun to change everything from the way we think about dieting to how doctors conceive treatments for anxiety, depression and addictions.

This research is also transforming our understanding of how habits function across organizations and societies. A football coach named Tony Dungy propelled one of the worst teams in the N.F.L. to the Super Bowl by focusing on how his players habitually reacted to on-field cues. Before he became Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill overhauled a stumbling conglomerate, Alcoa, and turned it into a top performer in the Dow Jones by relentlessly attacking one habit — a specific approach to worker safety — which in turn caused a companywide transformation. The Obama campaign has hired a habit specialist as its “chief scientist” to figure out how to trigger new voting patterns among different constituencies. 

Researchers have figured out how to stop people from habitually overeating and biting their nails. They can explain why some of us automatically go for a jog every morning and are more productive at work, while others oversleep and procrastinate. There is a calculus, it turns out, for mastering our subconscious urges. For companies like Target, the exhaustive rendering of our conscious and unconscious patterns into data sets and algorithms has revolutionized what they know about us and, therefore, how precisely they can sell.

Inside the brain-and-cognitive-sciences department of theMassachusetts Institute of Technology are what, to the casual observer, look like dollhouse versions of surgical theaters. There are rooms with tiny scalpels, small drills and miniature saws. Even the operating tables are petite, as if prepared for 7-year-old surgeons. Inside those shrunken O.R.’s, neurologists cut into the skulls of anesthetized rats, implanting tiny sensors that record the smallest changes in the activity of their brains.

An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, sniffing in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t figure out how to find it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.

This process, in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks we rely on every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, like making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex. Still others are so complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all.

Take backing your car out of the driveway. When you first learned to drive, that act required a major dose of concentration, and for good reason: it involves peering into the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned, calculating how images in the mirrors translate into actual distances, all while applying differing amounts of pressure to the gas pedal and brake.

Now, you perform that series of actions every time you pull into the street without thinking very much. Your brain has chunked large parts of it. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit, because habits allow our minds to conserve effort. But conserving mental energy is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, like a child riding her bike down the sidewalk or a speeding car coming down the street. So we’ve devised a clever system to determine when to let a habit take over. It’s something that happens whenever a chunk of behavior starts or ends — and it helps to explain why habits are so difficult to change once they’re formed, despite our best intentions.

To understand this a little more clearly, consider again the chocolate-seeking rats. What Graybiel and her colleagues found was that, as the ability to navigate the maze became habitual, there were two spikes in the rats’ brain activity — once at the beginning of the maze, when the rat heard the click right before the barrier slid away, and once at the end, when the rat found the chocolate. Those spikes show when the rats’ brains were fully engaged, and the dip in neural activity between the spikes showed when the habit took over. From behind the partition, the rat wasn’t sure what waited on the other side, until it heard the click, which it had come to associate with the maze. Once it heard that sound, it knew to use the “maze habit,” and its brain activity decreased. Then at the end of the routine, when the reward appeared, the brain shook itself awake again and the chocolate signaled to the rat that this particular habit was worth remembering, and the neurological pathway was carved that much deeper.

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors. 

Habits aren’t destiny — they can be ignored, changed or replaced. But it’s also true that once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making. So unless you deliberately fight a habit — unless you find new cues and rewards — the old pattern will unfold automatically.

“We’ve done experiments where we trained rats to run down a maze until it was a habit, and then we extinguished the habit by changing the placement of the reward,” Graybiel told me. “Then one day, we’ll put the reward in the old place and put in the rat and, by golly, the old habit will re-emerge right away. Habits never really disappear.” 

Luckily, simply understanding how habits work makes them easier to control. Take, for instance, a series of studies conducted a few years ago at Columbia University and the University of Alberta. Researchers wanted to understand how exercise habits emerge. In one project, 256 members of a health-insurance plan were invited to classes stressing the importance of exercise. Half the participants received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the structure of the habit loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines.

The results were dramatic. Over the next four months, those participants who deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers. Other studies have yielded similar results. According to another recent paper, if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book). After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward — craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment — and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.

Our relationship to e-mail operates on the same principle. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the neurological “pleasure” (even if we don’t recognize it as such) that clicking on the e-mail and reading it provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until you find yourself moved to distraction by the thought of an e-mail sitting there unread — even if you know, rationally, it’s most likely not important. On the other hand, once you remove the cue by disabling the buzzing of your phone or the chiming of your computer, the craving is never triggered, and you’ll find, over time, that you’re able to work productively for long stretches without checking your in-box.

Some of the most ambitious habit experiments have been conducted by corporate America. To understand why executives are so entranced by this science, consider how one of the world’s largest companies, Procter & Gamble, used habit insights to turn a failing product into one of its biggest sellers. P.& G. is the corporate behemoth behind a whole range of products, from Downy fabric softener to Bounty paper towels to Duracell batteries and dozens of other household brands. In the mid-1990s, P.& G.’s executives began a secret project to create a new product that could eradicate bad smells. P.& G. spent millions developing a colorless, cheap-to-manufacture liquid that could be sprayed on a smoky blouse, stinky couch, old jacket or stained car interior and make it odorless. In order to market the product — Febreze — the company formed a team that included a former Wall Street mathematician named Drake Stimson and habit specialists, whose job was to make sure the television commercials, which they tested in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho, accentuated the product’s cues and rewards just right. 

The first ad showed a woman complaining about the smoking section of a restaurant. Whenever she eats there, she says, her jacket smells like smoke. A friend tells her that if she uses Febreze, it will eliminate the odor. The cue in the ad is clear: the harsh smell of cigarette smoke. The reward: odor eliminated from clothes. The second ad featured a woman worrying about her dog, Sophie, who always sits on the couch. “Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” she says, but with Febreze, “now my furniture doesn’t have to.” The ads were put in heavy rotation. Then the marketers sat back, anticipating how they would spend their bonuses. A week passed. Then two. A month. Two months. Sales started small and got smaller. Febreze was a dud.

The panicked marketing team canvassed consumers and conducted in-depth interviews to figure out what was going wrong, Stimson recalled. Their first inkling came when they visited a woman’s home outside Phoenix. The house was clean and organized. She was something of a neat freak, the woman explained. But when P.& G.’s scientists walked into her living room, where her nine cats spent most of their time, the scent was so overpowering that one of them gagged.

According to Stimson, who led the Febreze team, a researcher asked the woman, “What do you do about the cat smell?”

“It’s usually not a problem,” she said.
“Do you smell it now?”
“No,” she said. “Isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all!”

A similar scene played out in dozens of other smelly homes. The reason Febreze wasn’t selling, the marketers realized, was that people couldn’t detect most of the bad smells in their lives. If you live with nine cats, you become desensitized to their scents. If you smoke cigarettes, eventually you don’t smell smoke anymore. Even the strongest odors fade with constant exposure. That’s why Febreze was a failure. The product’s cue — the bad smells that were supposed to trigger daily use — was hidden from the people who needed it the most. And Febreze’s reward (an odorless home) was meaningless to someone who couldn’t smell offensive scents in the first place.

P.& G. employed a Harvard Business School professor to analyze Febreze’s ad campaigns. They collected hours of footage of people cleaning their homes and watched tape after tape, looking for clues that might help them connect Febreze to people’s daily habits. When that didn’t reveal anything, they went into the field and conducted more interviews. A breakthrough came when they visited a woman in a suburb near Scottsdale, Ariz., who was in her 40s with four children. Her house was clean, though not compulsively tidy, and didn’t appear to have any odor problems; there were no pets or smokers. To the surprise of everyone, she loved Febreze.

“I use it every day,” she said.
“What smells are you trying to get rid of?” a researcher asked.
“I don’t really use it for specific smells,” the woman said. “I use it for normal cleaning — a couple of sprays when I’m done in a room.”

The researchers followed her around as she tidied the house. In the bedroom, she made her bed, tightened the sheet’s corners, then sprayed the comforter with Febreze. In the living room, she vacuumed, picked up the children’s shoes, straightened the coffee table, then sprayed Febreze on the freshly cleaned carpet.

“It’s nice, you know?” she said. “Spraying feels like a little minicelebration when I’m done with a room.” At the rate she was going, the team estimated, she would empty a bottle of Febreze every two weeks.

When they got back to P.& G.’s headquarters, the researchers watched their videotapes again. Now they knew what to look for and saw their mistake in scene after scene. Cleaning has its own habit loops that already exist. In one video, when a woman walked into a dirty room (cue), she started sweeping and picking up toys (routine), then she examined the room and smiled when she was done (reward). In another, a woman scowled at her unmade bed (cue), proceeded to straighten the blankets and comforter (routine) and then sighed as she ran her hands over the freshly plumped pillows (reward). P.& G. had been trying to create a whole new habit with Febreze, but what they really needed to do was piggyback on habit loops that were already in place. The marketers needed to position Febreze as something that came at the end of the cleaning ritual, the reward, rather than as a whole new cleaning routine.

The company printed new ads showing open windows and gusts of fresh air. More perfume was added to the Febreze formula, so that instead of merely neutralizing odors, the spray had its own distinct scent. Television commercials were filmed of women, having finished their cleaning routine, using Febreze to spritz freshly made beds and just-laundered clothing. Each ad was designed to appeal to the habit loop: when you see a freshly cleaned room (cue), pull out Febreze (routine) and enjoy a smell that says you’ve done a great job (reward). When you finish making a bed (cue), spritz Febreze (routine) and breathe a sweet, contented sigh (reward). Febreze, the ads implied, was a pleasant treat, not a reminder that your home stinks.

And so Febreze, a product originally conceived as a revolutionary way to destroy odors, became an air freshener used once things are already clean. The Febreze revamp occurred in the summer of 1998. Within two months, sales doubled. A year later, the product brought in $230 million. Since then Febreze has spawned dozens of spinoffs — air fresheners, candles and laundry detergents — that now account for sales of more than $1 billion a year. Eventually, P.& G. began mentioning to customers that, in addition to smelling sweet, Febreze can actually kill bad odors. Today it’s one of the top-selling products in the world.

Andrew Pole was hired by Target to use the same kinds of insights into consumers’ habits to expand Target’s sales. His assignment was to analyze all the cue-routine-reward loops among shoppers and help the company figure out how to exploit them. Much of his department’s work was straightforward: find the customers who have children and send them catalogs that feature toys before Christmas. Look for shoppers who habitually purchase swimsuits in April and send them coupons for sunscreen in July and diet books in December. But Pole’s most important assignment was to identify those unique moments in consumers’ lives when their shopping habits become particularly flexible and the right advertisement or coupon would cause them to begin spending in new ways.

In the 1980s, a team of researchers led by a U.C.L.A. professor named Alan Andreasen undertook a study of peoples’ most mundane purchases, like soap, toothpaste, trash bags and toilet paper. They learned that most shoppers paid almost no attention to how they bought these products, that the purchases occurred habitually, without any complex decision-making. Which meant it was hard for marketers, despite their displays and coupons and product promotions, to persuade shoppers to change.

But when some customers were going through a major life event, like graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their shopping habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential gold mines for retailers. The study found that when someone marries, he or she is more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When a couple move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they divorce, there’s an increased chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.

Consumers going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their shopping habits have shifted, but retailers notice, and they care quite a bit. At those unique moments, Andreasen wrote, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.

And among life events, none are more important than the arrival of a baby. At that moment, new parents’ habits are more flexible than at almost any other time in their adult lives. If companies can identify pregnant shoppers, they can earn millions.

The only problem is that identifying pregnant customers is harder than it sounds. Target has a baby-shower registry, and Pole started there, observing how shopping habits changed as a woman approached her due date, which women on the registry had willingly disclosed. He ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole’s colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.

As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.

One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August. What’s more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny’s habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store. And they know that if they reward her with a printed receipt that entitles her to a free cup of Starbucks coffee, she’ll use it when she comes back again.

In the past, that knowledge had limited value. After all, Jenny purchased only cleaning supplies at Target, and there were only so many psychological buttons the company could push. But now that she is pregnant, everything is up for grabs. In addition to triggering Jenny’s habits to buy more cleaning products, they can also start including offers for an array of products, some more obvious than others, that a woman at her stage of pregnancy might need.

Pole applied his program to every regular female shopper in Target’s national database and soon had a list of tens of thousands of women who were most likely pregnant. If they could entice those women or their husbands to visit Target and buy baby-related products, the company’s cue-routine-reward calculators could kick in and start pushing them to buy groceries, bathing suits, toys and clothing, as well. When Pole shared his list with the marketers, he said, they were ecstatic. Soon, Pole was getting invited to meetings above his paygrade. Eventually his paygrade went up.

At which point someone asked an important question: How are women going to react when they figure out how much Target knows?

“If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!’ and they’ve never told us they’re pregnant, that’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” Pole told me. “We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”

About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation. 

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

When I approached Target to discuss Pole’s work, its representatives declined to speak with me. “Our mission is to make Target the preferred shopping destination for our guests by delivering outstanding value, continuous innovation and exceptional guest experience,” the company wrote in a statement. “We’ve developed a number of research tools that allow us to gain insights into trends and preferences within different demographic segments of our guest population.” When I sent Target a complete summary of my reporting, the reply was more terse: “Almost all of your statements contain inaccurate information and publishing them would be misleading to the public. We do not intend to address each statement point by point.” The company declined to identify what was inaccurate. They did add, however, that Target “is in compliance with all federal and state laws, including those related to protected health information.”

When I offered to fly to Target’s headquarters to discuss its concerns, a spokeswoman e-mailed that no one would meet me. When I flew out anyway, I was told I was on a list of prohibited visitors. “I’ve been instructed not to give you access and to ask you to leave,” said a very nice security guard named Alex.

Using data to predict a woman’s pregnancy, Target realized soon after Pole perfected his model, could be a public-relations disaster. So the question became: how could they get their advertisements into expectant mothers’ hands without making it appear they were spying on them? How do you take advantage of someone’s habits without letting them know you’re studying their lives?

Before I met Andrew Pole, before I even decided to write a book about the science of habit formation, I had another goal: I wanted to lose weight.

I had got into a bad habit of going to the cafeteria every afternoon and eating a chocolate-chip cookie, which contributed to my gaining a few pounds. Eight, to be precise. I put a Post-it note on my computer reading “NO MORE COOKIES.” But every afternoon, I managed to ignore that note, wander to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and eat it while chatting with colleagues. Tomorrow, I always promised myself, I’ll muster the willpower to resist.

Tomorrow, I ate another cookie.

When I started interviewing experts in habit formation, I concluded each interview by asking what I should do. The first step, they said, was to figure out my habit loop. The routine was simple: every afternoon, I walked to the cafeteria, bought a cookie and ate it while chatting with friends.

Next came some less obvious questions: What was the cue? Hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? And what was the reward? The taste of the cookie itself? The temporary distraction from my work? The chance to socialize with colleagues?

Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings, but we’re often not conscious of the urges driving our habits in the first place. So one day, when I felt a cookie impulse, I went outside and took a walk instead. The next day, I went to the cafeteria and bought a coffee. The next, I bought an apple and ate it while chatting with friends. You get the idea. I wanted to test different theories regarding what reward I was really craving. Was it hunger? (In which case the apple should have worked.) Was it the desire for a quick burst of energy? (If so, the coffee should suffice.) Or, as turned out to be the answer, was it that after several hours spent focused on work, I wanted to socialize, to make sure I was up to speed on office gossip, and the cookie was just a convenient excuse? When I walked to a colleague’s desk and chatted for a few minutes, it turned out, my cookie urge was gone.

All that was left was identifying the cue.

Deciphering cues is hard, however. Our lives often contain too much information to figure out what is triggering a particular behavior. Do you eat breakfast at a certain time because you’re hungry? Or because the morning news is on? Or because your kids have started eating? Experiments have shown that most cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or the immediately preceding action. So to figure out the cue for my cookie habit, I wrote down five things the moment the urge hit:

Where are you? (Sitting at my desk.)
What time is it? (3:36 p.m.)
What’s your emotional state? (Bored.)
Who else is around? (No one.)
What action preceded the urge? (Answered an e-mail.)

The next day I did the same thing. And the next. Pretty soon, the cue was clear: I always felt an urge to snack around 3:30.

Once I figured out all the parts of the loop, it seemed fairly easy to change my habit. But the psychologists and neuroscientists warned me that, for my new behavior to stick, I needed to abide by the same principle that guided Procter & Gamble in selling Febreze: To shift the routine — to socialize, rather than eat a cookie — I needed to piggyback on an existing habit. So now, every day around 3:30, I stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, then go back to my desk. The cue and reward have stayed the same. Only the routine has shifted. It doesn’t feel like a decision, any more than the M.I.T. rats made a decision to run through the maze. It’s now a habit. I’ve lost 21 pounds since then (12 of them from changing my cookie ritual).

After Andrew Pole built his pregnancy-prediction model, after he identified thousands of female shoppers who were most likely pregnant, after someone pointed out that some of those women might be a little upset if they received an advertisement making it obvious Target was studying their reproductive status, everyone decided to slow things down.

The marketing department conducted a few tests by choosing a small, random sample of women from Pole’s list and mailing them combinations of advertisements to see how they reacted.

“We have the capacity to send every customer an ad booklet, specifically designed for them, that says, ‘Here’s everything you bought last week and a coupon for it,’ ” one Target executive told me. “We do that for grocery products all the time.” But for pregnant women, Target’s goal was selling them baby items they didn’t even know they needed yet.

“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” the executive said. “Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.

“And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”

In other words, if Target piggybacked on existing habits — the same cues and rewards they already knew got customers to buy cleaning supplies or socks — then they could insert a new routine: buying baby products, as well. There’s a cue (“Oh, a coupon for something I need!”) a routine (“Buy! Buy! Buy!”) and a reward (“I can take that off my list”). And once the shopper is inside the store, Target will hit her with cues and rewards to entice her to purchase everything she normally buys somewhere else. As long as Target camouflaged how much it knew, as long as the habit felt familiar, the new behavior took hold.

Soon after the new ad campaign began, Target’s Mom and Baby sales exploded. The company doesn’t break out figures for specific divisions, but between 2002 — when Pole was hired — and 2010, Target’s revenues grew from $44 billion to $67 billion. In 2005, the company’s president, Gregg Steinhafel, boasted to a room of investors about the company’s “heightened focus on items and categories that appeal to specific guest segments such as mom and baby.”

Pole was promoted. He has been invited to speak at conferences. “I never expected this would become such a big deal,” he told me the last time we spoke.

A few weeks before this article went to press, I flew to Minneapolis to try and speak to Andrew Pole one last time. I hadn’t talked to him in more than a year. Back when we were still friendly, I mentioned that my wife was seven months pregnant. We shop at Target, I told him, and had given the company our address so we could start receiving coupons in the mail. As my wife’s pregnancy progressed, I noticed a subtle upswing in the number of advertisements for diapers and baby clothes arriving at our house.

Pole didn’t answer my e-mails or phone calls when I visited Minneapolis. I drove to his large home in a nice suburb, but no one answered the door. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped at a Target to pick up some deodorant, then also bought some T-shirts and a fancy hair gel. On a whim, I threw in some pacifiers, to see how the computers would react. Besides, our baby is now 9 months old. You can’t have too many pacifiers.

When I paid, I didn’t receive any sudden deals on diapers or formula, to my slight disappointment. It made sense, though: I was shopping in a city I never previously visited, at 9:45 p.m. on a weeknight, buying a random assortment of items. I was using a corporate credit card, and besides the pacifiers, hadn’t purchased any of the things that a parent needs. It was clear to Target’s computers that I was on a business trip. Pole’s prediction calculator took one look at me, ran the numbers and decided to bide its time. Back home, the offers would eventually come. As Pole told me the last time we spoke: “Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.”
Charles Duhigg is a staff writer for The Times and author of "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business," which will be published on Feb. 28. Follow him onTwitter and on Facebook.