Article: Behaviour Cha(lle)nge

Article written by Katharina Jasmin Gottwald from the magazine committee

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

―  Albert Einstein ―

Changing our behaviour is quite a challenge. We get excited about an idea, so we start making promises and making plans: We are convinced that it will work out just the way we imagined. But after a while, we realize: It didn’t work out! We didn’t change! Let’s think of recurring New Year’s resolutions, the promise to stop smoking, the plan to eat less meat. The intentions are noble. The results are poor. We committed to something, but we fail to take action. Why is it so hard to change our behaviour? And can we make behaviour change easier?

A familiar feeling

We sometimes have beliefs or attitudes that feel dishonest, even hypocritical, because we are not actually living up to them. Let us take plastic waste as an example: We are aware that the oceans are full of plastic. We are aware that most food comes with unnecessary wrapping. Whenever one starts talking about it, we get reminded that we make the same mistakes everybody else is making. And we would like to do better, we know they are right. We want to change, and yet – we don’t. And an uncomfortable feeling creeps up on us: Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance.

An epidemic

Cognitive dissonanceis the state you find yourself in when your cognition (thoughts, opinions, plans) are not in line with your behaviour (what you actually do). I’m sure this phenomenon occurs in all of us, but not everyone is aware of it. Those are the ones that choose the easy way out: Making up excuses to eliminate the discomfort. These individuals are easy to spot, saying things like “Oh, too bad I didn’t make it to the gym for TWO MONTHS… I’m just SO busy, you know!” or “Buying biological food is just too expensive for me, that is why I spent my money on an excessive amount of clothing instead.” Others might be more reflected, they are aware that they are not acting the right way, but they are still trapped in inertia – the resistance to change.

Ready to escape?

We all do it. It is hard to admit our weaknesses, and it is even harder to change our behaviour. But what if we use the dissonance as our motivator? Because that is what this mechanism is trying to do, it makes us feel uncomfortable about the current situation so that we will be motivated to change our behaviour. It is time for us to break free from inertia, to stop feeling guilty and to make a move into the right direction. May it be an environmental concern, or your plan to start studying earlier for the next exam period – there are numerous ways to change behaviour, some of them easier than you might think.

A guide to change

Okay, cards on the table: All of the following strategies were designed as selling strategies. But why not use them for something that we actually want instead? These are called “alpha strategies”, inducing behaviour change by making the desired behaviour seem more attractive. My favourite is the social proof strength theory, accounting for our misconception that something must be okay as long as everybody else is doing it. Oh, he is buying a plastic bag? Then it must be accepted, and I can do the same. But we can use this for behaviour change as well: Once people notice that others start doing things differently, they will be more inclined to “join the movement”. Commitment and consistency is another central idea: Once someone has committed to an idea (like protecting the environment), they will be consistent in their actions and not only bring their reusable shopping bag, but also stop using straws. Knowing these strategies, we can sell the people some behaviour change! You might feel like you as an individual will not have much impact, but as soon as people notice the change in their environment, it is easier for them to adapt to the change. And once they committed to the idea, they will be consistent in their actions: Welcome to the counter-epidemic!

A famous example

Just recently, a whole team of world-leading scientists (the EAT Lancet Commission) tried to sell us a plan on how to feed 10 billion people, the expected world population in 2050, in a sustainable and healthy way. They are using the strategy called ‘authority’, making the message more believable when it is communicated via experts or other authoritarian figures. Still, not everyone is convinced by their idea of a ‘global planetary health diet’: The commission promotes consumption of more plant-based food and less meat and animal products. Of course, this earned them a lot of criticism. However, their message is: “Small changes for a large and positive impact”. On their website, they give useful information on how to implement these in your daily life.

Your own behaviour cha(lle)nge

Be self-reflected. Try to become aware of your own shortcomings instead of making up excuses. Of course, it is not up to you to make the world a better place. But make sure you know what your priorities are. Maybe you don’t care about the environment, but you do care about your health. Or your studies. Then come up with a plan: What is the first step to get closer to your goal? Do you have the resources, the knowledge you will need to achieve it? Break your goal down into a lot of small, realistic goals and you will feel ready to make that first step. Perform more and more actions that are in line with your thoughts  and at the end of the day you will be proud of your achievements.