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Campaigns to switch off won’t work until they fit in with the ways we already behave. Andrew Huff

Hard habit to break: getting out of our energy wasting ways

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires behavioural change. But how do we get individuals into this habit or, for that matter, any habit that reduces energy consumption?

Two academic disciplines concern themselves with habits – a branch of sociology, practice theory, and social psychology.

Practice theory argues that routine behaviours (such as cooking, showering) are enacted in particular ways that are shared across people, time, and space. As a result,they are maintained and reproduced. For example, showering in the developed world has includes the use of a modern bathroom, a reticulated water supply, and particular norms regarding cleanliness that “demands” daily showering. It also argues that practices change when people become fully aware of them.

But awareness does not guarantee behaviour change: only some individuals consciously change them.

There is also more at stake than “deciding” to change. People’s ability to deal with appliances that have wasteful standby features is shaped by the design of houses (where power outlets are), how we live (we tend to put furniture against walls), and, crucially, that manufactures assume that we want the “convenience” of standby mode. So, when an appliance is plugged into a power outlet that is behind a piece of furniture, turning it on and off at the wall is unlikely – it’s simply too difficult.

Research has established that habits change when people’s environments change. For example, recycling increases when we are given recycling bins.

They also change if people form explicit intentions about what they will do in specific situations. For example, using public transport is more likely when people make concrete plans about how and when they will use it. If we don’t make these plans, behaviour is unlikely to change.

As Gina McColl wrote recently in the Sunday Age, given consumers’ problems with standby power devices, “there is a simple human equivalent: getting into the habit of turning appliances off at the wall”.

Changing individuals’ environment or getting them to form explicit intentions work equally well. However, these can’t be used to change behaviour on the scale needed to reduce carbon emissions. Our existing homes set up patterns of energy-consuming behaviours and these happen without our thinking about them.

Our research has provided a solution to this problem.

We have integrated practice theory and social psychological approaches in the Model of Recursive Cultural Adaptation. This, like practice theory, sees behaviour as a function of interdependent “aspects”; the physical, social and psychological factors that allow a practice to happen.

However, the model goes beyond practice theory, drawing on social psychological approaches that propose that much behaviour is aconscious. It argues that change happens when what is required is aligned with an existing practice but resisted when there is a mismatch – because we value our practices.

Using this model, we examined Melburnian’s responses during the recent drought. The target of reducing daily water consumption to 155 litres per person was very successful and achieved quite quickly. This was facilitated by giving individuals an aspirational goal along with strategies and tools to change. This included providing timers to use in the shower, water usage feedback, and rebates for products like rain water tanks.

Importantly, nobody doubted the need to adapt to the chronic water shortage.

So, the interplay of factors led to practice modifications (taking shorter showers or collecting grey water with a bucket in the shower) rather than developing and adopting new ones (such as showering every second day) - because modifications fitted with existing values (such as the need to be “clean”).

Our model also explained how and why builders and stakeholders responded to a tool designed to help select more sustainable building materials. This tool, the Eco-Selector, required all houses in an estate to attain a minimum standard.

Builders modified their habitual practices. For example, they used bricks that use less energy to make than conventional ones. However, they didn’t use highly sustainable products, like compressed straw for walls, because this would have entailed abandoning existing practices – the houses would have needed to be engineered and built differently, and would have looked different.

These examples demonstrate that practices can be changed under certain conditions – when people are given strategies and tools for change. However, we need to remember that practices are valued and, when threatened, are defended. Effective change management means taking account of this and providing people with a “tool-box” directed towards modifying practice. Information alone will not necessarily lead to change.

So can we change our practice of leaving appliances turned on at the wall? The answer means understanding how the multiple aspects of practice create particular values and habits. Using less water was universally desirable and once clear strategies were available consumption dropped. (It is interesting that while the 155-litre target no longer exists, Melbourne’s water consumption remains relatively low.)

We need to match desire and ability with a context that makes change easier if we want to address the inherent “stickiness” of everyday practice.

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