Is the introduction of a carbon tax a ‘teachable moment’ to change habits?

The penny drops: the carbon tax could prompt us to reflect on our habits and change our ways. Flickr/theilr

With the arrival of the carbon tax earlier this month, many people will be looking to see where they can make savings through their behaviour. Alan Pears’ article in The Conversation last month pointed out some ways in which simple changes to purchase choices and behaviour can result in energy and cost savings. While these calculations present a clear financial case for changing our ways, whether people will take these economic arguments into consideration and change their behaviour accordingly requires scrutiny. For one-off or irregular behaviours such as purchasing new appliances and retrofitting they may have some bearing. However, for habitual behaviours, the case could be quite different.

Habit can rule personal lives and public policy alike

Habits are behaviours that we perform frequently in stable contexts without much conscious thought or deliberation. They represent a significant component of our everyday lives at home and in the workplace. Researchers have suggested that the proportion of our behaviours that might be considered habitual can range from 45% (in terms of behaviours that are undertaken in the same place almost every day) to 95% (in terms of behaviours which are controlled in part by the subconscious mind). While habits are beneficial when they are in line with our intentions and goals (e.g., to lose weight; to reduce energy use or waste), the opposite can also be true (e.g., our smoking habits interfering with our goal to be healthier; leaving lights on in a room and our goal to reduce household energy consumption).

The same point can be made at the level of policy – habits can be useful or problematic in terms of how far they are aligned to policy goals. To this end, how habits are formed, what holds them together, and what makes them vulnerable to change are critical questions for researchers and practitioners working in behaviour change.

How to break habits

A number of methods have been applied in an attempt to break problem habits (particularly in health). These have included:

  • People coming together to discuss a common issue and make public commitments to adopt alternative behaviours (e.g., a “kitchen table” or EcoTeams approach)

  • Using “vigilant monitoring” to avoid triggers for problem habits

  • Developing “if-then” plans that articulate deliberate and desirable responses to specific triggers

While evidence suggests that these approaches can be effective in challenging problem habits, they also have a number of potential downsides, especially from a policy perspective. The first is their feasibility to be rolled out across a broader population. A second challenge is “inclusivity”, as many of these approaches require a level of pre-motivation to get people involved in the first place. A third downside is whether these approaches are effective against the full spectrum of habits, with the concern that stronger habits might be more resistant to these self-change techniques.

Discontinuity can be a valuable spur to reflect. Flickr/Alan Joyce

‘Teachable moments’ for breaking habits

An alternative approach involves looking for moments of change where our habits are particularly vulnerable. Health professionals have long recognised that there are certain “teachable moments” that represent opportunities where interventions stand a better chance of success. In these moments (e.g., the birth of a child; a cancer diagnosis), people are often forced to reconsider their habits, whether or not they are looking to do so.

The same approach can also potentially be applied in the field of environmental sustainability, with a scattering of studies on travel-mode choice highlighting how disruptive events such as moving house or changing jobs can lead to moments of conscious reflection about habitual behaviours. Described as the “habit discontinuity hypothesis” by Professor Bas Verplanken from the University of Bath, these events represent windows of opportunity during which the level of sensitivity, openness and receptivity to a behaviour change intervention is increased. Such an approach to habit change is less about the intervention’s content, and more about getting the timing right.

A fundamental question for the federal government as it strives to realise its carbon targets through both business and individual behaviour is whether the introduction of the carbon tax can cause sufficient reflection on behaviour to change habits. In other words, does its introduction represent a teachable moment?

Professor Bas Verplanken will be visiting Monash University from 23-27th July as a guest of BehaviourWorks Australia. He will be giving a free public presentation entitled “If you don’t understand habits, how can you hope to change them? The challenges and opportunities of habits to encourage sustainable living” on July 24th in Melbourne.

Comments welcome below.