Welcome to the August 2010 Wake-Up Call, Awake’s monthly newsletter for research and news about behaviour change for sustainability.


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In this edition of Wake-up Call…


·         Feature Article – Your Attention Please!

·         Workshop Report – Cultivating Sustainability in New Zealand

·         60 seconds with… Jane Genovese, Live The Solution

·         Interesting Article of the Month – The Unbearable Automaticity of Being

·         Exercise of the Month – Helping Yourself To Remember


Feature Article – Your Attention Please!


Something I dislike even more than getting coffee in a takeaway cup, is getting one with a lid on it. I don’t drink through them, and they go straight in the rubbish bin. On those rare occasions when I succumb to the temptations of convenience and order a takeaway coffee, I usually remember to ask the person making the coffee not to put a lid on. But every now and then, I get distracted and remember at the precise second that the lid is going on – too late, the lid has got a splash of coffee on it and is on it’s way to the landfill along with millions of others.

Sometimes the simplest of things can undermine our efforts to lead a more eco-friendly life. One of the most common of these is that we simply forget. We can have the commitment and motivation to do the right thing, and all the resources and knowledge we need, but sometimes it just doesn’t occur to us at the time. Modern lifestyles which place a premium on multi-tasking and almost being obliged to be busy are perfect breeding grounds for forgetfulness. We have a limited capacity for what we can have our attention on at any given time, so often  considerations of the environmental impacts of our behaviours fall by the wayside.

Forgetfulness is often cited as a barrier to engaging in pro-environmental behaviours. For example, in a study of common barriers to sustainable behaviours in a Tasmanian community, people were asked what stops them turning off their appliances at the wall when not it use. The 2nd most common response was “I don’t think of it”.  This is important information to know, as it tells us that we don’t just need to convince people that a behaviour is a good idea, and to provide them with the knowledge and tools they need, but we also need to find a way of making it top of mind at the critical time that the behaviour is to be undertaken.

A key factor which seems to get in the way of remembering to make eco-friendly decisions is our propensity to engage in habitual behaviours (see Wake-Up Call July 2008 for an overview of habits). Research tells us that as many as 50% of our daily behaviours are habitual, whereby we make decisions on a kind of auto-pilot. For behaviours which we have done before, there is no need to waste precious mental resources in “re-making” the decision. Instead we often take mental shortcuts which allow information to fit into our pre-existing beliefs. An interesting article about Mindfulness And Sustainable Behavior discusses this issue, and describes a situation where a shopper may read a label which says a product is “all natural”. “The shopper may not take the time to further examine the product and the real meaning behind its claim of ‘all natural,’ particularly if he or she is under time pressure or is multitasking.” If that person has already decided that “natural is good”, then the labeling of the product makes it easy for them satisfy that preference without investing too much attention.

So the question is, how do we ensure that people have the presence of mind to undertake eco-friendly behaviours? One simple method is to provide prompts, or reminders, at the point at which the behaviour is to be undertaken. Community-based Social Marketing (CBSM) guru Doug McKenzie-Mohr discusses the use of prompts at length. One of the most successful methods he describes is the use of “shelf-talkers”, small signs on shop shelves which remind shoppers of the eco benefits of certain products. This simple, yet effective, tactic has repeatedly yielded demonstrable increases in the purchase of environmentally beneficial products. Similarly, providing prompts and reminders has proven effective at reducing littering.

Another possible approach in countering unsustainable habitual behaviours is to change the context in which those behaviours occur. The authors of Mindfulness And Sustainable Behavior sum up the situation by saying that “we either must change the attentional practices in our culture to be more encouraging of mindfulness, or change the available choices so people can function more sustainably while on autopilot.” Given that people are likely to continue undertaking habitual behaviours for the foreseeable future, the latter approach appears to be the most promising. Indeed, changes in the conditions which support unsustainable behaviours have been found to be effective. Many offices have adopted a policy of moving rubbish bins from each desk, instead placing them in a central point, while making recycling bins more easily accessible. In most cases this leads to a substantial reduction in waste going to landfill – in fact a similar approach in Ontario claims at least 50% waste reduction.

No matter how committed we are personally to making sustainable choices, it’s good to have a helping hand from the world around us – now if we can just get coffee shops to start asking us if we really need a lid!



You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it:


Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations.  Visit www.awake.com.au for more info


Workshop Report- Cultivating Sustainability in New Zealand


Early August saw the delivery of workshops in several of the main centres of New Zealand, which continues to be a leader in embracing sustainability. The highlight was being picked up at Christchurch Airport on a

tandem bike by Steve Muir, who builds cycle trailers. What a great way to get from

the airport to the city, while getting some much needed exercise after 3 hours in

the flying sardine can.  (That’s Steve and me in the photo).



Some of the comments from those attending workshops around NZ are below


“The workshop provided practical tools to link theory with practice providing real possibilities for change”

“I learnt a great range of tools and techniques on behavioural change applicable to both my work and personal life – thanks!”

“It’s great to have a portfolio of tools to use for communicating sustainability more effectively”

“I now have a great toolkit which I intend to use on a practical basis to achieve real results to change behaviours in my community”

“A light went on about how better to connect with people in order to influence their behaviour”


Thanks to all those who attended, participated and provided valuable feedback.


60 Seconds with….. Jane Genovese, Live The Solution


What first got you focused on sustainability?

About 4 years ago, I had to study environmental law as part of my law degree. At the time, I didn't really know much about climate change (this was before Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth) or other ecological issues but within a few weeks I became quite alarmed and upset by what I was reading. This unit allowed me to recognise the interconnectedness of all species and the extent to which humans were/are making our earth uninhabitable for future generations. It was a unit that made me question my current way of life and what I was aiming for (e.g. money and status). It changed my life for the better.

What is the sustainable choice you have recently made of which you are most proud?

A few years ago I pledged not to fly. Initially I really struggled to let go of my attachment to air travel (it was difficult seeing all my friends and relatives constantly go on cheap flights to Bali) but now I can say that I don't miss it and don't feel like I'm missing out. Saying no to yearly trips abroad has allowed me to explore more of my beautiful home, Western Australia. I feel more connected to my community as a result. A friend invited me to her wedding in Paris yesterday but I had to say no. I am committed to walking the talk and being a stand that we live simply and within the ecological limits of the planet.  

I am also proud of the mind maps that I have produced with my mum on climate change and creating effective behaviour change programs (http://live-the-solution.com/mindmaps/).

What is a less sustainable choice that you are not so proud of?

I still drive my car way too much and I can't resist the veal cutlets and beef lasagne at our big Italian family get togethers!


Interesting Article of the Month –  The Unbearable Automaticity of Being



The Unbearable Automaticity of Being

By JA Bargh & TL Cartrand

American Psychologist, Vol. 54 (1999), pp. 462-479.


What is it about? 

This article explores the extent to which our behaviour is influenced by things around us, often unconsciously.


What did they find?

The authors present some fascinating results of studies which demonstrate how much of our behaviour we automatically adopt in response to external factors. One interesting study showed how subjects in a study reliably imitated the face-rubbing behaviour of a research assistant – when the assistant was a foot-shaker, that behaviour was mimicked instead. Yet the subjects had no recollection of engaging in this behaviour when asked about it later.


What can we take from this?

This study points out the potential for providing environmental conditions and cues which influence the adoption of certain behaviours and goals, even without the person being aware it. While it is an approach which could be considered sinister with the wrong intention, it could nonetheless be as simple as creating conditions which influence people to make environmentally friendly choices, without even really considering why they are making them.


Exercise of the Month – Helping yourself to remember


A simple one this month, following on from the feature article above about remembering things.

1.      Think of some pro-environmental behaviours which you often simply forget to undertake, or just can’t seem to get in the habit of doing.

2.      If it is a habitual behaviour

a.      try to identify the external conditions which hold the non-preferred behaviour in place. (e.g. Is the landfill bin in easier reach than the compost bucket? Is the bike in the garden shed out the back, making it hard to access for those short trips?)

b.      find a way to disrupt those conditions which support non-preferred behaviour. (e.g. move the compost bucket, or make the bike easier to get to than the car)

3.      If it is simply something you forget to do, consider ways in which you could remind yourself. (e.g. could you put a re-usable shopping bag in the front seat of the car, or in your handbag? Could you install a shower timer?)

More tips like these can be found at http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/tip_sheets/climate/#s3

In an ideal world, our external environment would support our intentions to do the right thing. But there are also plenty of opportunities to support ourselves.


The exercise of the month provides a tool to help you get engaged, inspired, aware and in action around sustainability.  Feel free to use it on your own, with a friend, or in your work.  If you do use it with others, please tell them where you got it!



About Awake

Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations.  Visit www.awake.com.au for more info



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