The psychology of habit formation, re-programming for greener living

By Dr Stewart Barr, Associate Professor in Geography

Do you ‘decide’ to recycle, switch your thermostat down or turn off the tap to save water? Although many of us might use this kind of language to describe some of our pro-environmental behaviours, a closer look at how we live our lives reveals that far from being conscious and rationally judged decisions, most of our everyday behaviours are habitual – ‘practices’ that are part of our daily routine as we go about normal life.

Such a conclusion helps us to understand why people often express concern for the environment and an intention to engage in a variety of pro-environmental behaviours like recycling but do not reflect this in their behaviours. This has become an increasing concern for policy makers and businesses in engaging members of the public in environmental campaigns because it illustrates that providing information and marketing alone to promote shifts in behaviours often fails to achieve the desired results.

If information and exhortations to change behaviours are ineffective, then what influences the habits – or practices – that we all engage in on a daily basis? To answer this question, we need to look at the ways in which we all so easily slip into routines as a way of handling the everyday management of life. In this way, rather than trying to rationalise the ‘barriers’ and ‘motivations’ for a pro-environmental behaviour like recycling, the most recent social science research indicates that the complexity of our contemporary lifestyles means that people need to find strategies for managing all of the different demands on their time, such as paid work, cooking, cleaning, looking after children, shopping and, yes, dealing with ‘the rubbish’. In our research for Coca-Cola Enterprises, participants referred to this process as ‘managing everyday life’, which many of them found was a task in itself.

This ‘management of living’ helps to explain why explicit messages to promote behaviours like recycling can often be so easily by-passed in the maelstrom of everyday life. As participants in our research argued, when asked why they didn’t recycle certain products: ‘Well, it simply goes in that bin’. Such remarks illustrate the habitual nature of most of the things we do at home and lead us to look for new ways to shift habits that are not so dependent on information and the assumption that all we need is better knowledge.

Plastic bottle

Research has shown that most of our everyday recycling behaviours are habitual.

Recent research in the social sciences has argued that practitioners can effectively intervene in the habit-forming process through what are called ‘moments of change’. Pioneered in travel behaviour research, this strand of social science explores the ways in which changes in peoples’ lives, such as moving home, having children, or investing in a new kitchen or bathroom, can act as key points at which old habits are lost and new ones rapidly formed. Such research gets at the very essence of the relationship that we as humans have with the environment around us (such as a new home or kitchen) and the ways we have to negotiate using that space with others (spouse, children, and lodgers).

How can we intervene in this process to create moments of change? We might consider two ways of promoting habit formation within such ‘moments’. First, we are all attuned to the environment around us and there is clear evidence that getting the ‘choice architecture’ right is critical. This means that as households move into new environments (a new home, new kitchen), there are major opportunities for framing how people develop habits through the inclusion of technologies and spaces that promote behaviours like recycling. For example, how may of you have had a kitchen in which receptacles for different recyclables was included?

Second, the process of habit formation in new spaces and life situations needs to be something that is co-created between manufacturers and consumers. This is a relatively unknown world, despite the fact that designers work closely with consumers on many key products already (like new homes and kitchens). Yet such collaborations rarely incorporate practices like recycling, waste management or indeed water and energy management. There are major opportunities for collaborative design projects that could place effective waste management and recycling at the heart of their work, and which recognise the importance of creating better harmony between the demands of everyday living and the spaces and technologies that facilitate real change – enabling ‘a break in habit to create a new habit’.

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