Where there’s a will there’s a way

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(Image: FAU/David Hartfiel)

Why we find it so difficult to change our behaviour

Global warming is occurring at an alarming rate and we all know the role humans are playing in it. A survey from the EU Commission found that over 90 percent of citizens think that climate change is a serious problem, and the same number think it is important that ambitious targets are set to increase the proportion of renewable energies currently in use and to ensure the EU economy is climate neutral by 2050. At the same time, however, people’s willingness to make their own personal contribution to saving the climate tends to be rather limited. In a representative survey conducted by Forsa in May 2021, only around a third of the population is willing to reduce the amount of meat they consume, to accept wind turbines or hydroelectric power stations in their direct vicinity, to avoid air travel or to switch to an electric car in the near future.

Tapping in to our motivation

Where does this discrepancy between general approval for more climate protection and an unwillingness to make changes to our own behaviour come from? Do we lack the necessary motivation? ‘Motivation is a term that is often too broadly defined,’ says Prof. Dr. Oliver Schultheiss from the Chair of General Psychology at FAU. ‘In a narrower sense, motivation addresses the affective elements of our lives, things such as specific needs or aversions, which means we are not much different from animals in this respect.’ Humans however, as Schultheiss explains, are able to act using reason and can self-regulate. If someone goes to the dentist because they have a hole in their tooth, they don’t do this because they particularly want to, but because they are aware that they need to do something about it and they are able to control their own actions. This awareness motivates people to act, even if they are not directly affected themselves, for example, when they donate money to victims of a flood.

The problem with self-regulating behaviour, says Schultheiss, is that it is quite a short-term means of control. ‘The best example of this are our new year’s resolutions,’ he says. ‘We all say we want to eat healthily, be more active or quit smoking, but we only actually do a small proportion of what we say we will.’ Experience from the field of motivational psychology shows that a proscriptive or reproachful culture is not a very useful way of getting people to permanently change their behaviour, for example, getting them to be more environmentally friendly. ‘It’s much better to provide positive affective incentives, stimulating our motivational system and tricking our sluggish system of habits,’ explains Schultheiss. Such incentives can also be financial, for example in the form of state subsidies for electric cars or cargo bikes.

It is also important to link changes in behaviour to positive experiences. ‘Someone who loves driving a car with a combustion engine might discover that an electric car is just as much fun or even more fun to drive if they took one for a test drive,’ says Schultheiss. ‘The same applies to meat substitutes, and there is a much wider range of meat-free products available now than just tofu sausages. We need to come up with and use more ways of making sure that people come into contact with environmentally-friendly options.’ Offering alternatives to make changes in behaviour more attractive is a more promising approach than ideologies and discussions about principles, which can easily end up in deadlock.

Creating new habits

The fact that the discussion about sustainability, and also research into this field, is not completely free of ideology, is something Prof. Dr. Klaus Moser, Chair of Business and Social Psychology at FAU, also emphasises. ‘One of the most compelling definitions of sustainability was coined over 40 years ago by Hans Jonas, a German-born American philosopher. He suggested that the human race should act so that the effects of its actions are compatible with the permanence of human life on Earth.’ Even if we did agree as a society on this definition of an ecological imperative, it would not always be easy to decide why certain types of behaviour should be considered as being superior in terms of their sustainability or morality.

5 Bilder einer Frau, die zunächst ungesunde isst, dann gesund und zum Schluss wieder ungesund
It’s an all too familiar feeling. We enthusiastically plan to change a bad habit, only to slip back into our old ways very quickly. Something that can help us to make lasting changes are positive external incentives, such as financial incentives. (Image: FAU/David Hartfiel)

The step from awareness in certain contexts to actual behaviour is not as easy as it sounds, says Moser. ‘You can see this already with our own health − we all know that we should eat more healthily and do more exercise, but an increasing number of people are overweight.’ This step becomes even more difficult when you start talking about considerably more abstract goals such as protecting the environment so that subsequent generations we don’t know can have a good life on Earth. ‘Human beings have no sensory organs for detecting climate change and their reflexes are not geared towards problems that are going to occur in the future.’ The fact that people often believe that their own personal contribution won’t make much of a difference to society makes it even more difficult. Why should I leave the car at home or cut down on my meat consumption when other people don’t do it either? The relationship between perceived costs and perceived benefits also plays a role. Are we ultimately willing to pay more for organic food or for fair trade clothing?

The fact that human beings are creatures of habit can be a disadvantage for environmental objectives. On the other hand, habits can also provide us with an opportunity to make lasting changes. ‘I remember the huge public outcry in Germany in 1993 when they announced they were going to introduce 5-digit postal codes,’ says Klaus Moser. ‘A few years later, these new postal codes were completely normal.’ It’s important to make change straightforward, as is the case with the system for separating household waste. ‘We all know what goes in the yellow, blue or brown bin because the system is easy to understand. If we follow these rules, we are rewarded by the fact that we have to pay less for residual waste collection.’ Such habits become social norms over time and become attractive and binding for each of us not only due to financial incentives, but also because of positive feedback.

Like Schultheiss, Moser also takes a dim view of any attempts to force changes in behaviour with a proscriptive or reproachful culture as it is a limited view of what humans are capable of. Resources are not only used, but also created, for example through education and honing our intellect. ‘Behaving in a sustainable manner doesn’t just mean cycling to university, separating your rubbish or eating less meat. It also involves developing your own talents and perceiving them not only as gifts and opportunities, but also as the obligation to make something of them.’

A nudge in the right direction

Financial rewards and positive social feedback are not the only incentives for promoting a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. During the last few years, new instruments that can be used to manage environmentally friendly behaviour have been the subject of much discussion. These instruments are summarised under the collective term ‘nudging’. ‘The aim of ‘nudging’ is to influence individuals’ decisions without limiting their freedom of choice or providing any financial incentives,’ explains Prof. Dr. Verena Tiefenback, Professorship for Digital Transformation at FAU.

Ideas for this ‘nudging’ can be found, for example, in the supermarket when organic, zero emission, regional or fair trade products are positioned in a prominent place or have special labelling. The traffic light labels on foods have a similar aim. ‘This all sounds good in theory, but the results aren’t very convincing,’ says Tiefenbeck. ‘Traffic light labels are not very effective unless they are accompanied by other measures.’

Tiefenbeck is therefore conducting research into what potential digital systems have for use as behavioural interventions. In an experimental online supermarket, for example, the products were labelled using a Nutri Score, which is similar to the traffic light labelling. In addition to the labelling, the product images of unhealthy foods were shown in paler colours than those of healthier alternatives to one test group. The results were clear: This visual reduction meant that the test group purchased 44 percent less unhealthy foods than  the control group. ‘This result was achieved despite the fact that we informed the participants about the nudge beforehand,’ says Tiefenbeck.

Another experiment with surprising results involves digital intervention and energy consumption while showering. Digital displays were installed in the bathrooms of several hundred households that clearly showed the current energy and water consumption. The displays led to a 20 percent reduction in energy consumption compared with the control group that did not have them installed in their bathrooms. In another study, the devices were installed in the bathrooms of eight hotels. The results were comparable with those of the households with the device, which is quite remarkable considering that guests do not have any financial benefits from saving energy in a hotel. ‘The important thing is that consumers receive feedback in real time that provides a direct link between behaviour and effect,’ explains Tiefenbeck. ‘One central water meter or the annual electricity bill are nowhere near as effective.’

Even though it is not possible to make reliable statements about the long-term effects on changes to behaviour, the energy savings made in the studies carried out in the households during the course of several months remained stable. This leaves some hope of significant potential savings that could also be made in other areas of our daily lives. ‘This is already happening in some cases, which can be seen to have a similar positive effect, for example when the current fuel consumption is displayed in a car, ’ says Tiefenbeck. The most important aspect to consider is that nudging is not associated with manipulation. People should always be informed about nudging and it must not mislead consumers in any way.

Playfully achieving your goals

Mann, der auf Couch sitzt und Videogames spielt
There is a large market for video games worldwide. Gamification apps could help promote environmentally friendly and sustainable behaviour in future due to their playful approach. (Image: FAU/David Hartfiel)

Using games to increase awareness about sustainability is also becoming increasingly common. ‘We are often fascinated by games and really get caught up in them,’ says Prof. Dr. Benedikt Morschheuser from the Chair of Information Systems at FAU. It’s not a coincidence that a third of the world’s population regularly play video games and this applies to both women and men in equal measure.’ Morschheuser has been researching gamification at the interface between psychology, game design and computer science for nine years. For example, he investigates how banks or automotive manufacturers can launch products or technologies onto the market using game applications.

Morschheuser says that games are extremely suitable for overcoming cognitive and emotional barriers. An increasing number of programmes for teaching various subjects therefore make use of gamification. Duolingo, for example, has become the world’s most successful app for learning languages using this method. Content is taught from level to level rather like a computer game and users can compare themselves with their friends and even prove their ability in various league tables. ‘Challenges like these not only help us to learn new things, they can also motivate us and influence our behaviour,’ says Morschheuser. ‘Sports apps like adidas Runtastic are an example of this effect,’ he says.

In a current project with the University of Koblenz Landau, Benedikt Morschheuer is investigating how gamification apps can promote environmentally friendly behaviour. Using playful intervention with a web or smartphone app, employees in small and medium-sized companies are motivated to cut their electricity consumption at the workplace, reduce the number of car journeys they make and to produce less waste. ‘We know from our experiences with private households that points systems, ranking lists, challenges, personalised tips and direct feedback are proven methods of reducing energy and water consumption,’ says Morschheuser. ‘Why shouldn’t it also be just as effective at the workplace?’ he says.

Research conducted during the last ten years shows that gamification is a very effective tool for influencing our motivation and behaviour in the short term at least. ‘The special challenge as far as the environment and the climate are concerned, however, is the fact that the results will only become evident in several years’ time and they cannot be traced back to one single individual’s behaviour,’ explains Morschheuser. He is therefore also conducting research into to what extent sustainability can be promoted using games beyond league tables or competitions. ‘In games such as Ingress, Pokémon Go or World of Warcraft, people join forces to solve difficult tasks together,’ he says. ‘The design elements of such games are evidently suitable for stimulating cooperation and even altruism’. Initial experiments already show that this also works for environmental issues: When testing an app to make looking for a parking spot easier and thus cutting CO2 emissions, the games that required teams to cooperate with each other had the best results.

About the author

Matthias Münch studied sociology and worked as a freelance journalist for various daily newspapers. Since 2001 he has been supporting companies and scientific institutions in public relations and corporate communication.

FAU research magazine friedrich

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This article first appeared in our research magazine friedrich. You can order the print issue (only available in German) free of charge at presse@fau.de.

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