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From Behavior Change to Transforming Everyday Practices: The Latest in Behavioral Science

One of Consensus' proposals regarding encouraging more sustainable showering practices was to develop ICT that communicates fluctuations in water availability linked with variable water charges. This is complemented by the promotion of adaptive washing 'skills' including the use of splash washing or gel washing to achieve cleanliness in times of low water flow, challenging 'norms' of excessive cleanliness. | Image credit: Consensus

From Unilever’s ‘five levers for change’ to Volkswagen’s ‘fun theory’ and Nike’s Fuelband, behavior change has become a key concern for businesses re-orienting their goals around the promotion of sustainable lives. This represents an opportune moment for drawing on the latest thinking from behavioral sciences.

A new approach being advanced within the sustainable consumption and design research community involves re-framing the challenge of sustainable behavior change as a challenge of innovation in people’s everyday practices. This article and video below provide some key lessons from the Irish, EPA-funded Consensus research project on the growing field of practice-oriented behavior change. Its implications are particularly relevant for those looking to influence everyday water, energy and food consumption habits.

1) Move beyond a focus on individual attitudes

Conventional approaches have been dominated by psychological and economic conceptions of behavior change. In this sense, the challenge of sustainable living is often framed as one of pricing, influencing individual attitudes or information provision. However, this overlooks physical and social constraints. For example, messaging to reduce energy use in our homes is often hampered by household heating/cooling technologies that do not enable and encourage control over our energy use. Simultaneously, the spread of heating and cooling technologies reinforce social expectations for standardized indoor temperatures, working against social acceptance of more
variable indoor temperatures.

2) Take everyday practices as units of research and innovation

A practice-oriented approach notes that we do not simply consume resources such as water or energy in our homes, we use them to carry out practices (or routine behaviors) like personal washing, home heating and cooking. How we carry out these practices evolves through time, continually re-defining perceptions of “normality.” For example, personal washing habits in the western world have evolved in conjunction with the widespread development of water mains infrastructure, normalizing and enabling routinized, daily showering practices. In tandem, power showers have promoted escalating expectations of cleanliness and levels of water use. A social practice approach implies that a) such expectations can (and should) be actively shaped, and b) that our practices can be transformed by targeting the key elements that shape any given practice.

3) Target the four dimensions of everyday practices

Social practices are typically thought of as being shaped by an integrated mix of four key elements — each of which can be considered a route for innovation:

    1. Hardware (technologies/products)
    2. Skills (practical know-how)
    3. Norms (social expectations/meanings)
    4. Rules (including regulations and systems of provision)

Continuing with the example of personal washing, trying to change behavior by simply introducing water metering (changing the rules), will not stimulate sustainable washing practices if societal norms of washing remain static and existing power-shower hardware remains pervasive. It’s therefore necessary to target interventions across these four dimensions to ensure that they are collectively promoting or “scripting” more sustainable practices. One way of doing this, as applied in Consensus’s research, is to use a collaborative visioning approach to co-design proposals for new hardware, skills, norms and rules for sustainable household consumption practices.

4) Script sustainable social norms through hardware, rules & educational interventions

A starting point is to begin with the desired results/needs of the given practice (cleanliness, refreshment and comfort in the case of washing) and ask how we could achieve these in more efficient ways — thinking along the lines of hardware, skills, norms and rules. For example, one proposal co-designed through Consensus' personal-washing visioning research was to develop ICT ('hardware') that communicates fluctuations in water availability linked with variable water charges ('rules'). This ICT would include social benchmarking along with suggestions for appropriate forms of washing and automatic adjustments to flows of water-using devices. This is complemented by the promotion of adaptive washing 'skills' including the use of splash washing or gel washing to achieve cleanliness in times of low water flow, challenging 'norms' of excessive cleanliness. In this way, the social and material forces involved in washing are simultaneously “scripting” desirable traits of adaptive, pro-social and ecologically connected washing.

Achieving these kinds of transformations in practices is not something that could occur overnight, but requires small continuous and collaborative interventions across policy, corporate and societal actors. While practice-oriented approaches highlight the systemic challenges of behavior change, the simple framework described here represents one way of translating it for practical use and shows its power to open up untapped possibilities for meaningful behavior change innovations by corporate and policy sectors alike.

SB Issues in Focus For more examples of how organizations are driving #BehaviorChange, check out our Issue in Focus.

Ruth is a social scientist with a PhD in sustainable consumption and collaborative innovation processes. She is a researcher on the Consensus project and has consultancy experience in the area of public consultation and environmental communications.

[Read more about Ruth Doyle]


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