New Habits – the most important aspect of behaviour change?

We know that reinforcing good habits is a good strategy, but the much bigger challenge is changing existing bad habits. The book Habit and Robert Cialdini’s Influence at Work team have flagged up a number of ways to do that.

What are the core lessons we have learned from them and also our own work in social marketing and behaviour change?

There seem to be six elements that seem to contribute in helping to replace an old habit and in doing so create a new habit:

1. Commitment. Getting someone to voluntarily set out goals and intentions will promote their own self control, and ownership of, their goals.

2. Training.  Behaviour needs to be reinforced and training is often a good way to do this. Training does not have to be formal. It is all the ways we remind people of an action. Training also enables those changing the behaviour to get the feedback to identify the aspects that might lead to the new habit failing.

3. A single vital behaviour. People are very likely to rely on past habitual behavior when they are distracted under time pressure and cognitively overloaded. Therefore behaviour change practitioners should seek to identify how those possible distractions can be minimised. This might require other activities and initiatives to be put on hold so that ample time can be devoted to the change in question.

4. Change context or cues. Change or remove any context or cue which may activate an unwanted behavior. This could include using incentives to change the activity. Making contextual changes or creating a new cue might be as simple as changing seating arrangements which eliminate an older habit and replace it with a more useful new one. Simple changes at little cost are much more likely to be maintained than large scale and expensive ones.

5. Reinforcement. This is anything that makes a new behaviour more likely to occur. In the short-run extrinsic incentives can make a big difference, but to sustain the behaviour as a habit it needs to be reinforced so the action is unconscious and not calculated. Thus simplifying things and the use of training so the knowledge is ingrained all help to reinforce the change and then sustain it.

6. Self monitoring. Encourage the recording of successes each time the new behavior is performed. Public recognition, if used carefully can also encourage consistency towards the new behaviour and reinforce it as a habit.

The above elements, if taken together as part of a serious behaviour change strategy, should make a significant difference, when they are all consistently applied, over a period of time.

Charlie Mansell is the Research and Development Officer of the Campaign Company.

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