Using digital health to understand and change climate-relevant human behaviour
By Artur Direito, on 4 November 2017
By Dr. Amanda Rebar (1) & Dr. Benjamin Gardner (2)
(1) Senior lecturer at Central Queensland University, Australia
(2) Senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at King’s College, United Kingdom
Climate change has effects on preventable illnesses, infectious diseases, and malnutrition resulting in more than 150,000 lives lost per year. There is a 95% probability that human behaviour has led to climate change. Much of the human contributions could be mitigated through small changes in everyday consumption patterns (e.g., reducing car use).
The ubiquitous integration of modern technology into daily life has created new opportunities to monitor and modify climate-relevant behaviours.
Acting on auto-pilot: Habitual climate-relevant behaviour
Much of our day-to-day behaviour – e.g. driving to work – is repetitive. Our minds make automatic ‘short-cuts’ so that repeated daily actions become less effortful over time, but these can make it difficult to change behaviour. Habit is one such short-cut. Habits are automatic impulses to act brought on by mental cue-behaviour associations, which develop through repeated cue-behaviour experiences. For example, people may develop a habit for driving to work as part of a morning routine. It is likely that meaningful change of climate-relevant behaviour will require breaking or replacing habits.
Habits are difficult to change. People typically act habitually without considering alternative options – and when people do become motivated NOT to continue their habitual actions, their subsequent behaviour tends to be directed more by the unwanted habit than their deliberate motivation. Breaking habits depends on disrupting mental associations between cues and actions.
Using technology to break habits
Insight into people’s climate-relevant habits: The massive amount of data being passively, unobtrusively collected through modern technology (e.g., vehicle logs, smartphones, wearable monitors, wireless thermostats) can give feedback on the cue-behaviour pairings that underlie climate-relevant habits. By identifying the contextual elements (e.g., locations, movement patterns, time of routines) that are most reliably present when the unwanted behaviour is initiated, the cue that triggers the habit can be isolated. Some climate-relevant habits may be broken simply by helping people become aware of their habit cues, so that they can adjust their behaviour at the right moment. For example, if it can be pointed out to a person that they tend to drive faster when they are late, they can make small adjustments so that they monitor their speed more diligently when they are running late.
Real-time intervention with people’s climate-relevant habits: For climate-relevant behaviours that are more resistant to change, modern technology allows opportunities to intervene in real-time (i.e., immediately before the triggering cue is present). Timing interventions to occur immediately prior to a triggering cue allows people to monitor and control the behavioural response. For example, if people tend to turn up their thermostat when temperatures drop, automatic notifications could be sent to people’s smartphones/watches to remind them about their habit and offer alternative responses to this cue (e.g., put on warmer clothing).
Habits play an important role in driving everyday behaviours, by ‘locking in’ repetitive actions so that we can do them with minimal mental effort. However, when such actions have adverse consequences for the climate and human health, it is crucial that we ‘unlock’ them. But this is often difficult. Modern technology offers a set of new keys that may help us unlock our bad habits, and take back control over our actions. So, we ask:
What climate-relevant habits could you adjust in your daily life and what would make breaking those habits easier for you?
How can you apply the work you are doing in digital health to help mitigate climate-relevant human behaviour?
Amanda Rebar (@AmandaRebar, firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior lecturer at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Australia and a research fellow of the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.
Benjamin Gardner (@drbengardner, email@example.com) is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at King’s College, London in the United Kingdom and an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the University College London. They have overlapping research interests of understanding the psychology of habit and translating this knowledge into strategies for making meaningful improvements in human health and wellbeing at individual and societal levels.