Overcoming our brains: The psychology behind month-long challenges

Fruit and veg in a reusable bag

In our latest blog Sustainability and Behaviour Change Consultant, Livvy Drake, unpacks the psychological factors at work in how undertaking a challenge such as Veganuary, Fish-free February or Plastic-free Lent can achieve long-term behaviour change. Livvy runs behaviour change workshops for environmental campaigners and communicators who want to have a greater reach with their campaigns.  

If you have ever started a diet, or told yourself you are never eating sugar or chocolate again, you will know how tough it can be and how all you think about is the forbidden items. It can be the same if you or others are trying to make environmentally motivated lifestyle changes, like going vegan, plastic-free, or giving up a car or flying. 

In this blog, I will unpack the psychological factors at work and how undertaking a month challenge like Veganuary, Fish-free February or Plastic-free Lent can achieve long-term behaviour change. 

Livvy is running a series of behaviour change workshops this month

Habits are not conscious

The first thing to understand is that habits are not conscious, but are actions that the brain has automated to save thinking energy. This means that in order to change a habit, a person needs to:

• become conscious of what they are doing

• make a decision to change it 

• focus on embedding in new practices. 

Easier said than done. If the brain has a lot on it will default to old ways. 

TIP: Don’t overwhelm the brain with lots of new habits or tasks, just choose one at a time. Also, choose a time when you have a reduced mental load!

Why is giving something up painful and daunting?

Loss aversion

When we are told, or tell ourselves, that we can’t have something we experience ‘loss aversion’. And due to our human survival mechanisms, we are actually wired to experience loss twice as painfully as the joy of pleasure. So it actually hurts to give something up!

The brain also doesn’t like change – especially sudden drastic change – as it perceives it as dangerous and sets off the amygdala (a collection of cells near the base of the brain and the core of a neural system for processing fearful and threatening stimuli) and subsequently anxiety. In the Weekend University lecture, Dr Gabija Toleikyte, explains that to make habits last we need to change slowly without alarming the brain.

Temporal discounting 

We put more value on what’s available right now, rather than a distant and future goal.  Also due to our survival instincts, we struggle with long-term comprehension, but are more focused on the immediate future which is why, for so long, we have struggled to comprehend climate change as explained in the book ‘Don’t even think about it‘.

How to make month-long challenges less painful for the brain

By doing a month-long challenge with incremental changes the brain can try things out, build them into a daily routine and habitualise them. If a month seems too long, then how about starting with one week? There are many new behaviour change apps like Ailuna which start with just a week of meat-free for example.

Also, it’s helpful to replace one habit with another. For example, replacing meat with an equivalent meat substitute so that your plate doesn’t look bare and that loss aversion comes back in! 

Rewards along the way are also essential, as the brain loves to feel good about its actions, so treats, praise and recognition are recommended.  Rather than thinking about all the things that you are missing out on, can you focus on all the gains like health, or the novelty of trying new foods? (The brain loves new things!)

The importance of public commitment

Little fingers hooked in a promise

As humans, we are very social creatures and we care a lot about what other people think of us. This means maintaining our public persona is important, so if we make a public commitment we are more likely to stick to it than if we just commit to ourselves (public commitment bias). For this reason, committing to actions under the Bristol Bites Back Better banner is important. Join the conversation and tell people about it, download the Bristol Bites Back Better resources and again, tell people about it. Use the #BiteBackBetter hashtag on social media and talk to people in person when you can about your engagement with this campaign and others.

Also getting friends, family and work colleagues involved in a challenge helps with accountability. And if you are trying to convince others, it is good to share how many others, like them, are taking part (social proof).

TIP: Get your friends, family or even your street involved – use an app like Giki.Earth, or other similar apps to track your progress and experience the benefits of your collective action. 

Livvy Drake is a Sustainability and Behaviour Change Consultant at Sustainable Sidekicks and she has developed these tips from studying behaviour change at UWE, as well as hosting an annual Plastic-free Lent event. She now provides training on sustainability and behaviour change for environmental campaigners and communicators who want to have a greater reach with their campaigns.

For more tips on behaviour change for environmental campaigns and communications check out this blog: From animal activists to buff bodybuilders: what the vegan movement can tell us about mainstreaming environmental products and behaviours.

Livvy is running a three-part series of behaviour change workshops this month. Workshops start from £12 and there is discount for buying the series. 10% will be donated to the Amazon Fund. Find out more at www.sustainablesidekicks.com/events.

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