Behaviour Change part 1: Home Truths

As promised about a month ago, while I was preparing for Green Steps, I’m going to dive into the murky waters of social science and human behaviour in an attempt to shed some easy-to-read light on what drives our behaviour, what prompts changes in the way we act, and how this information can be useful. The first post will look at the factors which influence our behaviour, with later posts going into more depth about changes that can take place. Hopefully, it’ll make you think about your own behaviour – the more you can relate these ideas to your own life, the more useful they could be.

For starters, we’re creatures of habit. The more familiar we can make our environment and behaviour, the easier it is to do what we need to do, without having to concentrate or react to new situations. A simple example of this is that I leave my toothbrush and toothpaste in the bathroom all the time; it’s always where I need it, and I’ll predictably to to the bathroom every morning and night to brush my teeth.

It turns out that it’s not only obvious habits which are predictable: given cellphone data which indicates people’s movements, scientists were able to predict with 93% accuracy the likely location of the person at a given time. That shows just how closely we tend to follow daily routines. It’s not a bad thing – society can function more efficiently if people follow routines (imagine if we all had randomised alarm clocks and working hours!). Similar studies show that people’s responses in conversations, or other actions, are also highly predictable. Once again, that’s generally a good thing, but it’s worth being aware of.

Most of the time, we follow paths well trodden. Photo: Toni_V (Flickr, CC)

In addition to following regular habits, we’re highly attuned to our social environment and the behaviour of others. In fact, we’ll go along with what others are doing, even if it’s the opposite of how we’d otherwise act! I’m sure you can think of examples of when your behaviour adjusts to those around you; the effect is also seen in controlled experiments. Solomon Asch performed a series of famous experiments which found that about 75% of people will answer incorrectly on a simple test if others participating in the test have all (publicly) selected the same incorrect answer. Not all of these people follow the group every time, but they clearly felt enough doubt or pressure from the actions of others to make a basic error. Some were concious that they were answering wrongly; others somehow believed, at least after the fact, that they were genuinely answering correctly.

There are many other examples, ranging from answering wrongly on tests to many other simple behaviours, which demonstrate the power of a social ‘norm’ or group pressure as a cause of human behaviour. As usual, the effect will vary depending on the person, but it affects almost everyone to some extent. Once again, this isn’t strictly a bad thing, but in some instances, destructive or poor behaviour can be promoted simply by virtue of the fact that everyone does it. If you can’t think of an example of THAT, you’re not trying!

The tobacco industry has long harnessed the power of social norms.

Alright – clearly, there are some major innate forces which drive the bulk of our behaviour: habit and social norms. Any given behaviour might be positive, neutral or negative (for most actions, those terms are completely subjective), and there might be another factor exhibiting control over our behaviour: our attitude.

People hold extensive belief systems about themselves, about the world, about other people – you name it, there’s an opinion on it. Our understanding of a particular subject is likely to inform the attitude we hold towards it. Using the smoking example, I understand that it’s bad for my health, costs money, smells and impinges on the clean air of anyone nearby. I can only see a handful of situational positives, such as giving a reason to take a short break from work, or as a kind of group solidarity gesture if others are also smoking. A smoker is likely to have a different attitude; potentially with the same level of understanding on the negative side, but with more reasons on the positive side. So, does our attitude affect our behaviour?

For some people, and some behaviours, that’s an easy ‘yes’. However, the story is much more complicated when we look at behaviour in general. Experience with education campaigns, popular in the environmental movement, has shown that people don’t necessarily act according to their stated position on a subject:

“When some 500 people were interviewed and asked about personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% acknowledged that individuals bore a responsibility for picking up litter. However, when leaving the interview only 2% picked up litter that had been “planted” by the researcher.” (Bickman, 1972)

Flick it? Not my problem.

This type of disconnect between awareness and behaviour has been borne out in many situations, and holds for a majority of the population. Simply agreeing that a behaviour is ‘good’ doesn’t mean a person will apply that behaviour. As a result, many campaigns to educate people about a particular issue, with the intention of bringing about a widespread change in behaviour, have simply failed.

Why is that the case?

Well, we know that we’re creatures of habit, and that social norms drive many aspects of our behaviour. But why doesn’t our concious attitude dominate the way we live? In the next installment, we’ll look at the factors which work against behaviour change: the barriers. Stay tuned!

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Categories: environmentalism, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Behaviour Change part 1: Home Truths

  1. Pingback: Behaviour Change Pt. 2: The Walls « David Robertson

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