Behaviour Change Pt. 2: The Walls

We’ve already established that there are a few big elements which dictate how we act: habit, social norms and, to a lesser extent, our attitude. However, we’re very good at expressing one idea (our attitude) while acting in a different way (our behaviour). That sounds like an accusation that we’re a bunch of hypocrites, which, to some extent, isn’t far from the truth – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons why there might be conflict between our ideas and actions.

In this installment, we’ll examine the specific factors which might lead us to a certain behaviour. As with the last chapter, I encourage you to think about your own actions and attitudes as you read – can you spot a disconnect between how you think and how you act, and what might be driving that disconnect?

The first factor – and barrier – is, again, habit. Everyone follows routines which have worked for them in the past, enabling them to focus their attention where they want it, rather than having to concentrate on the multitude of mundane tasks we perform daily. We absorb new information on a daily basis, so our intellectual perception of the world might shift through time, but this won’t necessarily translate to changes in our behaviour. For example, I personally am trying to move my diet away from eating environmentally-unfriendly meat products, especially red meat. However, my household is in the habit of purchasing similar groceries on a weekly basis which include beef products, and while we’ve made some progress this year changing those habits, they’ve been around for decades and are fairly well entrenched!

Spag Bol... tasty, easy to make, nutritious... emissions intensive? Image: Strangejourney, flickr.

Another major factor is a lack of knowledge. If someone doesn’t understand how else they can behave, they aren’t likely to change any time soon. This may sound trivially obvious in a general sense, but becomes clearer with specific examples. Carrying on from the example above, I’m not clear about how changes to my diet are likely to affect my health, and, more simply, how to cook good, nutritious meals with low or no meat content! The good thing about a lack of knowledge is that it is fairly easy to remedy, especially with the internet: if there’s enough motivation to change, this is a barrier which can be overcome at an individual level.

One person's smelly trash is another's fresh food fertiliser. Image: atibens, flickr.

Another common barrier preventing a change in behaviour is convenience. Western society is full of systems and items which are designed to make our lives easier and more comfortable. Changing a behaviour might be perceived as inconvenient if it takes more time, uses a ‘convenience’ item less, or simply requires a change to a habit. There’s always going to be a transition phase in behaviour change in which concious effort is required – if you’re lazy, that can be a big obstacle! This category can encompass a range of barriers; for example, people may perceive composting as inconvenient because it requires a bit of extra time to manage, or because of odour, or because it takes up some space, any of which they perceive to make their life ‘just a bit harder’.

Last, but not least, social pressure rears its head again, in much the same way as I explained in part 1: we do things because other people do them. For me, a pointed example of this was photography. I’ve always had an interest in photography (I learned using my mum’s old manual-everything SLR, aged 12) but had gone back to point-and-shoot land for years.

Then, in 2007, I met a couple of more serious amateur photographers on a trip to the Cook Islands. When I got back, I started hanging out a bit on a forum with surf photographers. I really wanted to be able to take good shots too, so I saved up and bought a Canon 40D digital SLR. I haven’t looked back since – but interestingly, since about that time, 4 of my close friends have also acquired DSLR cameras. There’s obviously many more factors in play than simple social pressure, but the behaviour of friends and acquaintances can be highly influential on all kinds of behaviour and perception, such as what constitutes a normal body weight.

There are plenty of other factors which contribute to how we behave – the ones listed above are commonly identified as barriers to changing our behaviour in a certain way. For any given behaviour change, the suite of barriers will be unique, so if you’re seeking to influence people’s behaviour, it is important to identify exactly what is driving the behaviour.

You may be thinking that all of this is obvious, or that you’ve got enough mental willpower to overcome each of those barriers in your daily life – a minor inconvenience won’t stop you from acting how you think you should act! However, it’s not enough to overcome a single barrier – for behaviour to change, the balance of positives and negatives associated with the change needs to shift. So, if a new behaviour becomes more convenient than a current one, and is taken on by others around me, I might modify my habits to encompass the new behaviour. However, if I don’t see others demonstrating the behaviour, I may not change – the combination of factors isn’t pushing me in the new direction firmly enough.

In summary, our behaviour tends to have a lot of inertia – that is, it takes some kind of pressure to change. That pressure might arise socially, or ideologically, or financially, but unless there’s something to get the ball rolling, our habits are likely to remain much the same over time. If we’re seeking to change our own behaviour or that of others, we need to examine the specific combination of influences driving that behaviour, identify the barriers to the change we desire, and deal with enough of them that the balance tips in favour of the new, desirable behaviour.

By doing so, we might be able to make our actions more consistent with our words!

Categories: environmentalism, Problems, Things people do | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Behaviour Change Pt. 2: The Walls

  1. M@

    I liked the metaphor that our behaviour is simply a mass with inertia, and the ‘force’ driving behaviour – spoken like a true scientist.

    • Well, you can boil everything down to physics, right?

      I’m sure I could work ‘quantum’ into the next article…

  2. One thing with behaviour is that you attract people with similar behaviour. If you try to change your behaviour it often means that you end up changing your friends as well because their behaviour no longer matches yours.

    That can be a big barrier to change….leaving the team!

    (make your column narrower,it’s too wide. My eyes feel like they’re on a giant typewriter. Reminds me of poorly done undergraduate posters!)

    • James, that’s one point I haven’t raised, the influence of the selection process of a social circle on behaviour. If one’s social circle shifts, there may be associated shifts in behaviour which go with that, potentially unnoticed!

      Also, I’m trialling this format – I prefer the three-column, but unfortunately, there’s no custom settings for these themes (not for columns, anyway) so I can’t modify it. It’s fine on my laptop because it’s got a smaller screen and conforms OK but I imagine it’d suck on a big monitor. I may need make a paid upgrade so I can customise properly…

  3. Pingback: Behaviour change, part 3: Pushing and prodding « David Robertson


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