Good habits for good environment

| December 7, 2017

We all have habits in our lives, both good and bad ones. I can easily think of things I start doing without even thinking about it: making myself a coffee in the morning, devouring the entire bucket of popcorn in the cinema before the movie even starts or staring at my phone’s screen before turning off the lights at night.

If we think of them in terms of a behaviour we would like to get rid of, things like smoking, eating junk food, watching too much TV, drinking a bit too much alcohol on weekends or not going to bed on time, – those may spring to mind. And we would like to replace them with something along the lines of eating more fruit and vegetables, remembering to wear sunscreen, going for runs a few times a week, calling our parents at least every Tuesday or replacing our filthy dishcloth before it gives us food poisoning. Wouldn’t it be nice to do all of these positive things without even thinking, on autopilot?

Psychologists, health scientists, medical professionals and interdisciplinary researchers have been trying to successfully change behaviours for decades now, be it increasing physical activity to help prevent major diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, obesity and some types of cancer; help patients adhere to their medication; undertaking smoking cessation interventions or public campaigns to reduce waste, promote condom use or regular health checks, recycling or energy saving, – it has all been done.

Various theoretical backgrounds and behaviour change instruments have been used to help people become healthier, however the results are quite similar: a lot of this interventions promote positive behaviour change short-term but fail to contribute to long-term maintenance. So when for 6 months you are attending sessions with a personal trainer in the gym, you experience a positive behaviour change, but as soon as the time comes to exercise on your own – the motivation somehow is not there anymore.

It is quite hard to change the behaviours that directly influence our health and well-being, it is even harder to do so in regards to behaviours with distant benefits, for example, environmental behaviours. Using a plastic bag from the supermarket will not get you closer to getting diabetes, probably, but in the long run it contributes to the vast amount of waste that will have negative consequences for generations to come. A very common doubt as well is: “What can I, as a single individual, do about the environmental issues?” Thus eco-friendly behaviours become something that we do not do as we do not experience direct personal consequences… yet.

It is becoming increasingly important in psychological science to effectively promote environmental behaviours by the means of promoting habits. Remembering to bring your tote bag to the supermarket, turn off the lights when we leave the room, recycle the batteries, use refill bottles and reusable coffee cups. If you do not have to actively think about performing the behaviour, you can focus your cognitive efforts elsewhere – for example, on writing blogposts.

Here, at Curtin University, we hope to reach a better understanding of what can help people form good habits and maintain them through their lives, making their own health and the environment around better.

If you would like to help us with our research, please consider participating in our study (Australian University students and staff only):



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    December 8, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    ‘Eco-friendly’ behaviour by individuals can of course make a difference but the ‘big-ticket’ items are driven by government policy which in turn is strongly influenced by powerful vested interests. It’s no coincidence that environment protection agencies have had little influence on policy decision affecting the environment. Every day on freeways into our cities, millions of litres of precious fuel is wasted. The resulting emission of noxious gases and small particulates into urban communities deserves at least as much attention as that given by environmentalists to coal mines. Meanwhile under-resourced public transport systems are struggling to cope with ever-increasing numbers of frustrated commuters. This madness is a direct result of government decisions, not only on transport but in the pursuit of ‘growth’ as measured in terms of money and not the wellbeing of citizens who are forced into acquiesce by the same distorted economic forces.
    A lot of energy is used to power sport under lights and to produce snow. And the dream of unlimited energy is an ironic form of ‘technological optimism’ which was once repugnant to environmentalists. It shows little understanding of thermodynamics and betrays an underlying desire to avoid substantial behavioural change at all costs. There is rarely a mention of energy conservation measures which could yield great environmental improvement at almost no cost.
    The Murray-Darling water management scheme has been defeated by forces that rely on economic distortion for survival. The downstream segments of Murray-Darling system are ecologically degraded and the economic, social and political consequences are already apparent. Popular environmentalism seeks to blame rather than understand the true nature of the problem. It is shifting the focus of attention from known major historic impacts on the Great Barrier Reef and the Artesian Basin, for example, from policy to politics.
    Packaging is ‘value-adding’ from the vendor’s viewpoint but a cost to the consumer and the environment. Yes, we should remember to take the tote bag shopping, but it’s just as important to think about what we put into it.

    • editor


      December 8, 2017 at 1:33 pm

      Max – it’s nice to hear from you! I love your last sentence. Perhaps it’s time to listen to Ian Dunlop and let climate drive policy. Imagine the ripple on effect.

  2. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    December 9, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    The ‘ripple-on’ effect of climate driving policies on health, education, trade, foreign affairs, transport, agriculture, water, defence, energy and immigration, to name a few, is unimaginable if public policy continues to be captured by evidence-free ideologies.

  3. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    December 10, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    Nice to see you’re back with us, Max. Governments and big business overseas are using the concept of ‘nudge’ to gently push folk into doing what they want. This is rather like advertising but done in a more subtle way to change the way people do something or not do it. It takes time and money but appears to work. Now I’ve started this I can’t for the life of me think of an example.

  4. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    December 11, 2017 at 9:13 am

    Some belated examples to my comment above:

    Anyone applying for a driving licence in the UK now has to answer the question “Do you wish to register as an organ donor?”. People are free to say no, but by changing the default option – to keep people off the register unless they seek out registration – the unit eventually expects to double the number of voluntary donors to about 70 per cent of the population.

    The Director of Taxation says their biggest success is in recovering unpaid tax. People who owe money now receive a letter telling them (truthfully) that most people in their area pay their taxes on time. This social nudge has increased compliance from 68 per cent to 83 per cent.

    It was 1999, and the authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam were looking to cut costs. One of the most expensive jobs was keeping the floor of the men’s toilet clean. The obvious solution would have been to post signs politely reminding men not to pee on the floor. But economist Aad Kieboom had an idea: etch a picture of a fly into each urinal. When they tried it, the cleaning bill reportedly fell 80 per cent.