Wake-Up Call
July 2008
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Welcome to the July 2008 Wake-Up Call, Awake’s monthly newsletter for research and news about behaviour change for sustainability.

In this edition of Wake-up Call…

Workshop Reminder - Cultivating Sustainability in New Zealand
Feature Article - All about habits
60 seconds with… Nicole from Lopees
Interesting Article of the Month - Tailoring the Message
Exercise of the Month - Change of Scene


Workshop Reminder - Cultivating Sustainability in New Zealand

Cultivating Sustainability workshops are being held in Wellington and Auckland in July.  There are a few places left, so last-minute registrations can be made by emailing timc@awake.com.au

Cultivating Sustainability is a 1-day workshop which provides sustainability advocates with insights, models and practical tools to support their behaviour change efforts.  Anybody who has taken on the challenge of influencing others to live and work more sustainably will find this workshop a valuable addition to their skills.

Wellington, Friday, July 18
Auckland, Wednesday, July 23
For-profits $250
Non-profit/Government $200
Individuals/Community Groups $120

For more info see

For registration and enquiries, email timc@awake.com.au or phone +61 3 9370 0273

60 Seconds with… Nicole Golland from Lopees

What first got you focused on sustainability?
I’ve always been a bit of a greenie.  What got me started in this business was being amazed by the number of envelopes that were being used and wasted at my sons school..

What is the sustainable choice you have recently made of which you are most proud?
Teaching my kids about recycling, composting and gardening.

What is a less sustainable choice that you are not so proud of?
Driving my car, especially not being able to walk my kids to school.


Research Finding of the Month - Tailoring the Message

Daamen, D., Staats, H., Wilke, H., & Engelen, M. (2001). Improving Environmental Behavior in Companies: The Effectiveness of Tailored Versus Nontailored Interventions. Environment and Behavior, Vol. 33, No. 2, 229-248

What is it about? 
This article looks at whether providing individually tailored information to vehicle workshops was more effective in promoting pro-environmental behaviour, compared to non-tailored, generalised information.

What did they find?
Those workshops which received information about pro-environmental practices which had been tailored using knowledge of their specific procedures showed an increase in pro-environmental behaviours.  In comparison, non-tailored information resulted in no measurable change in behaviour.

What can we take from this?
This finding has implications for the way in which pro-environmental messages are delivered to all manner of audiences.  In fact, tailoring is a popular and effective tool for promoting behaviour change in a number of settings, for instance as the basis for the promotion of energy audits as part of sustainability efforts.  The key conclusion is that efforts to promote pro-environmental behaviour can be enhanced by providing the intended recipient with feedback on their own behaviour, so that they can relate to it and take more responsibility for it.


Exercise of the Month - Breaking Habits

As discussed in the feature article above, habitual behaviour often relies on recurring stimuli in stable conditions.  This month’s exercise looks at what recurring conditions trigger our habits.

1.  Write down a particular habit you wish to change (eg. Snacking in the evening,         procrastinating)

2.  What are some of the conditions which exist when you typically undertake this behaviour?
        a. Where does it take place? (eg. on the couch)
        b. Who else is around? (eg. nobody)
        c. How are you feeling (eg. bored)
        d. What else is happening? (eg. watching TV)

3.  Which of the conditions above can you avoid, or change, in order to help you break that         habit?

Even if you are not able to change the conditions easily, making yourself more aware of the conditions which support your habit may assist you to recognise them and avoid slipping into unconscious habitual behaviours.

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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©Awake 2008
Feature Article - All About Habits

Get up, have a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, get in car, drive to work.  If you are like the majority of adults, your typical working day will start something like this - a procession of habits. 

A habit can be described as "an unconscious pattern of behaviour cued by recurring stimuli in a stable context".  Studies have found that as many as 50% of our daily activities are habitual.  There is no reason to suggest that behaviours related to sustainability should be any different.  For instance, Bas Verplanken, a leading researcher in this area, has concluded that habit is a very strong factor in travel mode choice.  So, it is evident that efforts to change behaviours related to sustainability will need to aim at breaking habits.

So, how exactly do we "break  habits?.  The clue lies in the definition of habits, namely that they are…
  • cued by recurring stimuli in a stable context and
  • unconscious
That provides 2 opportunities for intervention.  Firstly, to interrupt the stability of the context, and secondly to raise one’s level of conscious awareness at the point at which a behaviour is chosen.  In simple terms, this means that if someone hides our car keys, we are going to have to think a bit more carefully about how we are going to get to work today…and might choose to take the train!

Does this approach to breaking habits work in practice?  The "habit discontinuity hypothesis  has been examined by researchers and shows some interesting results.  Verplanken and others in the UK found that people who had recently moved house were more likely to take public transport to work, with one key condition - that they were already pre-disposed to do so.  The authors concluded that the change in context triggered by moving house resulted in people re-choosing the best way to get to work - thus making it a more conscious decision.   If their values and beliefs told them that the best way to get to work was to take the bus, then this would result in a change in behaviour, however, if this conscious examination still concluded that the car was best, then they would continue with the status quo.

Elsewhere, a Japanese study revealed that the temporary closure of a freeway resulted in a significant uptake in bus patronage.  The same research team found that a simple experiment in which 1-month bus passes were given away resulted in a similar effect, an increase which endured even once the free pass had expired.

These results all seem to indicate that interrupting a habit has promise for developing more sustainable behaviour.  The next question surrounds how we can cement new behaviours in place - how can we create new habits?  The key lies in applying the reverse thinking.  By providing a stable context and recurring stimuli, we can make it easy for people to choose the desirable behaviour. 

An interesting phenomenon has taken place in Melbourne recently, where an unexpected rise in train patronage has overwhelmed the system and resulted in overcrowding.  The local newspapers regularly feature letters to the editor along the following lines: "In an effort to do my bit for sustainability, I took the train to work, but it was so delayed/crowded/uncomfortable that I will be reverting to driving again".  This is a classic example of all the hard work being done to disrupt a habit, then people having a bad experience with the new behaviour and reverting back to the old habit.   Thus, one key to forming the new habit is to give people a good experience, and make it attractive for  them to adopt it as a habit.  Other measures include giving people feedback, recognition and incentives. 

Making the desirable behaviour a lot easier to perform than the undesirable one is also an effective way to make it a habit.   Many offices have implemented a system whereby recycling bins are within arms reach of desks, whereas the individual has to walk to the other side of the room to deposit landfill waste. By all accounts this has been a successful measure in increasing recycling behaviour.  It would be interesting to study the effect of putting the landfill bins back under peoples desks and seeing if the good habits continued (there is a good chance they would).

As with all these types of interventions, there is no silver bullet. Some people, when prompted to re-choose their behaviour, will still decide that it is in their interests to continue with unsustainable behaviour.  However, the more we can get people thinking about their actions deliberately, the more chance we have of getting them to choose those which benefit the environment.