Habit Forming

We all engage in habits, some of which are better than the others. For example, most people have the habit of brushing their teeth twice a day without any conscious thought. You just do it when you get up in the morning and before you go to bed at night. For others, they may have habits that are detrimental, like biting their nails or browsing Facebook when they should be writing blog entries (ahem). Regardless of whether a habit is positive or negative, they follow what researchers have identified as a “habit loop”, consisting of a cue, a routine, and a reward.

These are typically enacted without thinking or engaging the brain’s decision making processes. This is what makes them so powerful, especially when used for a positive behaviour. Your alarm goes off and you get out of bed.  You go for a run. You feel good because of the endorphins racing through your body. You lose weight, have more energy, feel more physically fit. Those rewards can be enough to keep you going, to strengthen the habit loop so that you practically leap into your running shoes when you hear your alarm go off.

Or look at biting your nails. Maybe this is something you started doing when watching an intense television programme; now, it happens every time you’re in front of the TV, whether it’s Game of Thrones or The Great British Bake Off. Each time the television turns on, the habit loop gets just a little bit stronger until the behaviour is more or less set. It will require conscious effort to break the loop or replace it with a new, positive habit.

What does all of this have to do with litter? I am convinced that habit plays a part in the problem. The cue is easy: there is something that needs to be disposed of. Maybe it’s a crisp packet that was just emptied, or a half-full can of soda. There is a split second for action to occur. Making decisions costs mental energy, so the body falls back on habit. There is no desire to get covered in crumbs or spill something. It’s something that no longer has a purpose so there is no point in keeping it. There are no bins in sight, or the nearest bin requires backtracking. The easiest option? Just drop it.

Or imagine someone in a car at a red light. They catch sight of an empty coffee cup on the floor of the passenger seat. It’s not needed for anything. The light is still red. And look, there are a few bits of rubbish in the verges already. Why not just add the cup to the pile?

It’s not difficult to see these scenarios being played out across the country day in, day out. And each time someone litters, that habit is reinforced just a little bit more. Perhaps a person starts to use the time at a red light (cue) to clean out their car (routine) because it is then one less thing they have to do when they get home (reward). Their behaviour then reinforces that of others by setting a new social norm: littering is okay. After all, if litter is seen everywhere, then everyone must litter.

In order to stop this habit, we must take a step back. What allowed this loop to be built in the first place? Lack of education at home and in school. Social norms that send the wrong message. Lack of connection with the community. A mistaken belief that picking up litter creates jobs for people so therefore littering must be good (I wish I was making this up, but I’ve seen it crop up again and again). And so on.

What can be done? Well, to start with, reverse those things that allowed the habit to take root: Ensure proper education.  Make it clear that littering is not only socially unacceptable, but that there are consequences for it. Foster community engagement. Stop the habit from starting in the next generation.

There is an oft-repeated myth that it takes 21 days to pick up a new habit: this makes it seem like old habits can be overwritten and replaced with new ones at the drop of a hat. However, research has shown that on average it’s more like 66 days … and can take up to 8 months (or more). Imagine this multiplied across the population of the UK: the amount of time it will take to not only get a new litter-free habit up and running, but also reinforce the new norm, is far more than the few days or weeks usually given to an anti-litter campaign. If we are serious about wanting change to occur, then we need to be prepared to give the time (and effort and money) needed for the desired behaviour to spread. There is no quick fix.

And finally, I am not saying that habit is the only reason for the UK’s litter problem, nor do I feel that people who litter always litter (more on that in a future blog entry). But I do believe this is a factor that needs to be considered when designing anti-litter interventions: we need to disrupt the national habits that have developed over the past few decades and encourage people to re-engage their brains, re-consider their behaviour, and rethink their habits.

[If you’re interested in learning more about habits, I highly recommend Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit for a good overview of the research behind habit formation and habit change.]

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