3.1 Theoretical background—the process of habit formation
The concept of habit offers a promising and under-researched perspective on designing interventions aiming at persistent behaviour change (Gardner 2015
; Verplanken and Wood 2006
; Wood and Rünger 2016
). According to psychologists, a habit is a “process by which a stimulus automatically generates an impulse towards action, based on learned stimulus-response associations”
, p. 280). This makes it “a form of automaticity in responding that develops as people repeat actions in stable circumstances”
(Verplanken and Wood 2006
, p. 91). Habitual behaviour is therefore (a) highly efficient because it requires no conscious decision-making, (b) relatively stable because it is controlled by specific situational cues, and especially, (c) lasts as long as these cues remain unchanged and the behavioural outcome is sufficiently satisfying (Webb et al. 2009
; Wood and Neal 2009
; Orbell and Verplanken 2010
, Hofmann et al. 2008
; Graybiel 2008
; Strack and Deutsch 2004
; Bargh 1994
). Once formed, habits exert a powerful and persistent influence on behaviour (Quinn et al. 2010
; Oullette and Wood 1998
; Neal et al. 2011
; Ji and Wood 2007
; Walker et al. 2015
Forming a habit requires three conditions: a specific context-behaviour link, sufficient behavioural repetition, and a satisfying outcome (Lally and Gardner 2013
; Lally et al. 2010
; Verplanken and Wood 2006
; Gardner 2015
; Wood and Rünger 2016
; Wood et al. 2005
; Orbell and Verplanken 2010
; Lally et al. 2008
; Judah et al. 2013
; Bouton 2000
A specific context-behaviour link refers to the constant association of a contextual cue, e.g. leaving a room or wanting a coffee, with a concrete behaviour, i.e. switching off the light or grabbing one’s reusable cup, respectively. Often, a certain aim is part of the context, e.g. leaving for work in the morning.
of the target behaviour means that the cue is followed by the behaviour until the association becomes automatic, that is, until the cue automatically triggers the respective behaviour. The number of required repetitions varies considerably and is possibly proportional to the complexity of the context and the behaviour in question. Lally et al. (2010
) report an average of more than two months of daily repetition for behaviour to become habituated. In their study, the amount of time required for habituation ranges from around 3 to 37 weeks, even for rather simple behaviours.
A satisfying outcome implies that the act of performing the behaviour or the outcome of doing so is rewarding for the person in a way that is in line with that person’s goals.
While the concept of habit emphasizes a person’s motivation to repeat
the behaviour, it does not refer to the mechanism by which the behaviour is initiated
(Lally and Gardner 2013
). Thus, the conditions of habit formation have to be integrated into an intervention that will initially motivate employees to engage in a new behaviour. In other words, it is necessary to design and implement not a single intervention but a set of interconnected elements
aimed at (1) eliciting motivation and initiating the target behaviour and (2) enabling habit formation. The latter is, in turn, achieved by (2a) identifying the context that links the specific behaviour to a specific situation, (2b) promoting sufficient repetition of the behaviour, and (2c) making the satisfying outcome salient (see Table 1
). We briefly describe each of these elements in the following.
(1) Eliciting motivation and initiating the target behaviour
Research on individuals’ motivations to engage in pro-environmental behaviour at the workplace is still in development and inconclusive. The factors driving a person’s motivation to save resources at work differ between individual employees and also, it seems, between home and work (Pothitou et al. 2017
; Rayner and Morgan 2018
). Behaviour at home is private and often not recognized by people outside the household. Also, savings in resource use benefit an individual directly. In contrast, behaviour at work is often public or being potentially observed. Achieved savings benefit the organisation as a whole and thus become a collective good. Both aspects were proven to effectively encourage PEB in the workplace context (Siero et al. 1996
; Leygue et al. 2017
). In an organisational setting they naturally arise from group processes, performance comparisons, social norms, and many more. As an example, an employee’s motivation to engage in a particular type of pro-environmental behaviour at work may be based on altruistic intentions (e.g. to contribute towards the organization’s pro-environmental goals) or on selfish ones (e.g. to enhance their personal reputation among colleagues), whereas empirical results indicate higher effectiveness of altruistic motives in that particular context (Leygue et al. 2017
). It can also comprise both elements (the so-called impure altruism), as in the case of the “warm glow effect” when people who help others derive personal utility from their good deeds (Andreoni 1990
). Perceived organisational support for the environment is also a strong motivational factor while the literature finds mixed results on the importance of leadership support to promote pre-environmental behaviour in an organisational setting (Wesselink et al. 2017
Typically, behavioural intervention programmes focused on the workplace seek to initiate the target behaviour by putting forward arguments based on commonly accepted information or norms, offering (comparative) feedback, fostering people’s personal commitment, and by providing prompts (direct or motivated cues), i.e. small situational reminders about how one ought to behave that draw on the above-mentioned motivators. Non-monetary and monetary incentives can also trigger a motivation to engage in particular behaviours, although monetary incentives are rather likely to backfire in the context of the public good (e.g. environmental protection).5
With regard to the frequency of the desired behaviour (repetitive or one-time), the same motivational factors can make an employee engage in a particular behaviour over and over again as well as just once (e.g. comparative feedback on energy use can motivate a one-time behaviour such as buying an energy-saving device and repetitive behaviour such as avoiding stand-by mode when leaving the office). However, please note that in a habit framework, a decrease in motivation over time is accompanied by an increase in behavioural automaticity which guarantees behaviour continuity (even when the initial motivation disappears).
(2) Enabling habit formation
(2a) Identifying the specific and stable context-behaviour link
Interventions that focus on behavioural change with regard to resource conservation, e.g. energy efficiency at the office, almost always address a variety of behaviours: using the stand-by mode of various devices, switching off lights, turning down the heating, using energy-saving modes etc. Addressing a set of different behaviours over the course of a working day, however, does not facilitate habit formation. Habit formation requires a strong association between specific circumstances and one specific behaviour
. From a habit perspective, switching off lights
is a specific behaviour while office energy use
is not. In addition, Lally et al. (2010
) recommend focusing on one habit at a time, i.e. forming several habits sequentially, not in parallel. When it comes to very complex behaviours such as pro-environmental mobility, habit formation is even more challenging. One possible approach to overcome this problem is to divide the complex behaviour into a sequence of simple behaviours so that each behavioural step triggers the next one. To give an example: when planning a business trip via the office software the website of the railway service opens automatically. The website triggers to check a railway connection for the trip. A convenient railway connection triggers its booking. The ticket finally triggers the usage. Each of these steps can be habitualised much easier than the link between the situation “need for business trip” and the behaviour “taking the train”. A current hypothesis is that complex behaviours such as commuting or regular business trips can readily be initiated habitually, even if they are performed non-automatically (Gardner 2015
(2b) Promoting repetition of the new behaviour
Behavioural repetition is the most important factor in forming a habit. Accordingly, any successful habit-enabling intervention will promote and monitor the actual performance of the target behaviour. A range of measures, from hard (restrictive) through economics incentives to soft (non-restrictive), can be applied when promoting certain behaviours: from prohibiting, sanctioning, or “blaming and shaming” (e.g. emphasizing the high environmental cost of eating meat) through reminding and facilitating (increasing the convenience of certain behavioural options by adjusting physical arrangements) and increasing the enjoyment factor of performing the target behaviour (e.g. piano stairs that resemble a piano keyboard and play tunes when people step on them6
) to public self-commitment, social competition, or awards for the best performers. A satisfying behavioural outcome also contributes significantly toward encouraging further repetitions. All these measures are extremely important because, after a time, even a strong will and the motivation to engage in a particular behaviour are likely to fade; further repetitions will ultimately depend on the ease, convenience and pleasure of performing the target behaviour (Gardner et al. 2012
In terms of monitoring, the quality of the data obtained will depend on the type of behaviour in question. Public behaviours such as commuting, meat consumption, stair use, or opening windows in the wintertime can be measured by observation. Other behaviours, such as printing off documents or heating a room, could be monitored by technical means. At least the frequency of (conscious) behaviours can be measured using questionnaires (self-reporting).
(2c) Making the satisfying outcome salient
Habit formation is clearly supported if the behaviour itself or its outcome is appreciated by the person concerned. Appreciation of the behaviour can result from convenience and facilitation (e.g. easier handling, defaults, a supportive infrastructure) but also from pleasure and delight (e.g. walking through greenery, fun, social interaction). Satisfaction with the behavioural outcome is likely to arise if it achieves the original aim (e.g. a readily legible printout, a delicious meal, safe transportation) and at the same time serves higher-order personal or organisational goals and values (e.g. in terms of nature, health, profit, status). Since these goals are somewhat abstract, feedback on how far the behavioural outcome contributes to these goals is helpful (e.g. saved energy, improved blood pressure, social recognition). The goals and values of individual employees are heterogeneous and, in most cases, unknown. An organisation, however, can focus on its own goals and collective values when communicating the intervention to its employees. To increase employees’ satisfaction from performing the new behaviour, the intervention designer can address all three aspects: an easy and enjoyable performance, an attractive concrete result (a legible printout, a satisfying meal, compliance with company’s environmental policy etc.), and positive feedback on goals achieved and values maintained.
Please note that many of the described measures can fit multiple stages of the habit enabling intervention. For example, increasing the ease and fun of using stairs (measure: facilitating infrastructure), can (cf. 1) motivate an employee to initially take the stairs instead of the elevator, (cf. 2b) encourage repetitions so that they use the stairs daily or many times a day, (cf. 2c) facilitate experience of a satisfactory outcome (e.g. having fun and feeling fit, compliance with company’ environmental policy) when using the stairs.
The lack of clear attribution to one of the identified categories does not have any negative impact on the effectiveness of the habit-enabling intervention. On the contrary, measures that support different stages can ease intervention setup and increase the probability of a successful outcome. Thus, the aim of this subchapter was not to categorize different measures but rather to emphasize the importance of the elements of a habit-enabling intervention that must be reflected in intervention design process and subsequently facilitated by means of suitable measures.