Transitions: the sweet spot for behaviour change

I moved house in the summer. A new place, a new environment, a new commute.

Old habits were broken and new ones emerged. Briefly:

  • I don't have a recycling bin. I stopped recycling;
  • Tesco is now on my doorstep. I no longer shop at Sainsbury's;
  • I now have to drive to the park to go for a jog. I now run less, twice a week not three times.

My attitudes haven’t changed. I still believe in recycling, still prefer Sainos to Tesco, still prefer to run every other day.

But my behaviour has changed. The transition to a new environment molded my behaviour. Environmental cues exerted a strong influence, more so than my beliefs or preferences.

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I was thinking about this when Danny Kahneman introduced “the best idea I ever heard in psychology” on this week’s Freakonomics podcast. In the 1950s, Kurt Lewin posited that behaviour is held in equilibrium between driving and restraining forces.

For change to happen the equilibrium must be upset – the theory says you must add conditions favourable to the change or reduce restraints.

But in practice, if you want to change behaviour, rather than increase driving forces (arguments, incentives and threats), you should diminish restraining forces (barriers, incentives, environmental cues). This is unintuitive:


"A lot of things can be described as an equilibrium between driving and restraining forces. Lewin’s insight was that if you want to achieve change in behaviour, there is one good way to do it and one bad way to do it. The good way to do it is by diminishing the restraining forces, not by increasing the driving forces…"

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Research – of course – has a role to play. To understand restraining factors we need to look at the situation from individual’s point of view. I insist on mapping behavioural patterns (revealed preferences, environmental cues, triggers) rather than ask/answer research in this situation.

Coming back to moving house, any transition can be seen as an opportunity if you’re looking to change behaviour. Moving home, changing job, buying from a new category – all are chinks in the armour: our habit-formed behaviour breaks down and there is a chance for change. Targeting interventions here (e.g. recycling bin, auto-enrolment to pension, offering a repeat subscription) effectively remove restraints, meaning positive forces for change prevail.

Kahneman’s advice: to design a behaviour change intervention, the strategy can be defined with the question ‘why aren’t they doing ‘it’ already?’ not ‘how can we get them to do ‘it’?’

The tactics should focus on making it easier for people to behave the way you want. This is almost always about controlling the environment e.g. putting the healthy snacks near the till or in my example, giving me a recycling bin the day I move in.