Household Dynamics and Habits

28/08/2014 12:27 BST | Updated 27/10/2014 09:59 GMT

Cooking, gardening, cleaning - each household tackles these every day tasks differently. Some might have a timetable for completing tasks; some might have more of an ad hoc approach, and some employ others to help. While this might depend on the age and attitudes of the household as well as the individuals it comprises, such behaviours also certainly apply to recycling and demonstrate the key role of learned habits, or daily routines, in shaping what we do and how hard it is to change behaviour.

This observation is supported by the results of a six-month study, Unpacking the Household, by the University of Exeter and Coca-Cola Enterprises, which researched at-home recycling practices. In fact, one of the top findings was that household dynamics, roles and relationships have a major role in influencing and shaping recycling behaviours. Critically, the research demonstrated how such relationships are critical in the formation of habits and the ways in which such habits become embedded in everyday routines, which can be hard to shift given the time-poor lives that many people lead. For example, have you ever really thought about why you dispose of a particular item in one bin and not the other? In our research, many participants simply responded that 'well, it goes in there', demonstrating the ways in which what we do, our habits, become rapidly learned and embedded in daily routines. Indeed, household composition often means that people take the 'line of least resistance' to avoid tensions. And this is no different than the arguments we all have about whether the house is too cold or too hot, or whether the tap should be turned off when we brush our teeth!

Yet despite the seemingly intractable problem of embedded habits, the research also demonstrated that people in general do want to recycle. In fact, like many other research projects in this area, it highlighted some of the frustrations people feel about recycling and getting the accurate information they need about how to recycle and what materials can be sent for processing. For example, participants in the research frequently debated what types of materials could be sent for recycling in their area, what condition they had to be in and which container was appropriate. Indeed, participants also highlighted the controversies surrounding the likely destination of products sent for processing: would they actually be recycled, or landfilled?

The intra-household tensions that such questions raise meant that for many of our participants, it was simply easier to dispose of many items in the landfill bin, thus avoiding controversy and simultaneously supporting existing habits. So how can we begin to encourage greater recycling through directly tackling the issue of habit formation?

We can identify two approaches. First, there is a growing body of evidence in the social sciences that suggests we need to use 'moments of change' to break old habits and establish new ones. Such moments might be when people move home, have children or install a new kitchen, bathroom or have their garden landscaped. These changes in household dynamics, surroundings and physical infrastructure present significant opportunities for re-casting habits through the installation of new technologies (such as storage containers in a new kitchen) or changes in daily household routines (brought on by changing roles, for example when children are born). Creating opportunities from moments of change are often in the form of targeted and sometimes bespoke information that enables households to quickly assimilate new habits that seem 'normal'. A simple example of this might be providing accurate and timely information on what can be recycled, how the system works and what happens to materials sent for processing.

A second approach is to use the social norms that we all respond to in daily life as a motivator for change. Put simply, if recycling is not something that is socially desirable, why would you do it? Within work settings research has shown that setting recycling challenges and using key motivators, as respected people within an organisation, can be an effective way to promote change. For households, our research demonstrated that children, for example, often play a key role in challenging adult assumptions about recycling through the environmental education that is becoming more prominent in schools. Indeed, evidence from social science highlights the role that key individuals can play in motivating behavioural change. This type of evidence means that if we up-scale this to a neighbourhood level, it's likely that forming new social norms for recycling could establish changes in household recycling habits, led by key advocates for recycling and utilising incentive schemes to enact habitual change.

Changing habits is never easy and it's a particular challenge when such habits are within the household setting and are deeply embedded in everyday routines. However, by understanding household dynamics in detail and by relating these to the settings in which people live, we can identify some key opportunities for change. Critically, these changes will be most effective if they emerge from households themselves, through engaging in the change process through innovation and co-creating strategies for shifting habits.