What behaviours should you change?

Written by Karen Spehr & Rob Curnow, Community Change, 2011


In theory, the best behaviours to select are the ones that are likely to have the most environmental impact. If you are successful they’re the ones that will give you the biggest reductions in carbon emissions, the most water savings, the largest reduction in waste.


In a snapshot of energy use in the U.S, distinguished environmental psychologists Gerald Gardner and Paul Stern found that 38% of total energy is consumed in the home and non-business travel, more than in other sectors like industry, commercial or transport (1). Most of the energy is used for only two purposes – to run the car and heat and cool homes. Considerably less is used in other tasks like cooking, washing and computing. They developed a list of 17 household actions which, if all undertaken, have a potential total energy saving of up to 58% of household carbon emissions. Some of the actions improve efficiency, like buying and maintaining a petrol-efficient car, whereas others require people to curtail their behaviour such as carpooling to work, lowering driving speed or consolidating shopping trips with other activities like dropping the kids off to school. Gardner and Stern argue that lists like these that lead to the biggest environmental impacts, should be used to help set priorities for which behaviours to target.


For argument’s sake, from this list of 17 energy saving behaviours, how might you further prioritise specific behaviours for your program? Efficiency behaviours have the benefit of needing only one or two actions with little need for ongoing attention, whereas actions that require people to change the habits of a lifetime can be very resistant to change. Should we then go for mainly efficiency actions in our programs? In principle probably, but there are often significant barriers to change for many efficiency actions. For example, while buying a fuel efficient car is an excellent decision in terms of financial return, people still have to come up with the money to buy one. And a programmable thermostat for your heater is an unlikely purchase for a renter since the landlord wears the cost and the tenant gets the savings. But for those people who have the financial and personal capacity to buy a fuel efficient car and who can be induced to make the change, the energy saving rewards are there.


Apart from considering the costs and benefits of focusing on efficiency and curtailment behaviours, we could of course simply focus on those behaviours that are easiest to change. There may not be a large environmental impact per household but the effect may be widespread, simple and inexpensive to achieve – for example fitting a trigger nozzle to your garden hose to save water or sweeping your decking instead of hosing it. In Australia, these behavioural changes have been selected as part of legal water restrictions, and have been effective largely due to their relative simplicity, low or no cost and few other barriers to change.


Although there is no single correct method to select the target behaviours for your program, it needs to be done carefully. When we asked program staff from a large water saving program to clearly identify the behaviours they wanted to change they were surprised to discover they had 15 actions on their hit list. The garden and the bathroom were the primary focus since these were the places in the home where most water was used. Some were efficiency actions, like buying a trigger nozzle and drought tolerant plants for the garden, but most involved curtailment activities such as shorter showers or turning the tap off when you brushed your teeth. It didn’t include things like installing rainwater tanks or collecting grey water for reuse.


They decided to work on all 15 with the dawning knowledge that there was a different level of difficulty for each action and a different amount of environmental impact that could be achieved if the program was a success. The actions demanded diverse strategies and vastly different resources to implement them. For example, garden related behaviours would eventually lead to a joint program with garden nurseries to help people select the right species of drought tolerant plants and re-mulch their gardens. However changing bathroom related behaviours like shorter showers and turning the tap off when brushing your teeth needed another approach. Some actions were relatively easy, like installing hose trigger nozzles. Others, like getting people in the habit of four minute showers were extremely difficult due to the highly ritualised nature of showering and its associated physical and psychological rewards – warmth, sensate pleasure and time out from a busy day. Installing low flow shower heads was also on the list and although challenging, a somewhat easier target.


Although we can’t be sure, we suspect that this list, as thoughtful as it was, might well be changed or reduced by program staff next time. Some of the behaviours were probably too difficult to change or had arguable environmental impact given the available time and money which needed to be spread pretty thin over 15 separate actions.


Whatever factors you take into consideration when choosing your target behaviours - efficiency or curtailment, level of difficulty, length of program, staff, budget or available expertise – do as much groundwork as possible in being able to justify the most effective choice you can make.



1) Gardner, G.T & Stern, P.C. (2008). The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S Households Can Take to Curb Climate Change. Environment, Sept/Oct.