How can people become more environmentally sustainable? One theory that describes how human behaviour may be influenced is behavioural spillover. Spillover is the notion that doing one behaviour triggers adoption of other behaviours. It’s the idea that engaging in certain behaviours can put you on a ‘virtuous escalator’, where you keep doing more and more. Spillover has grabbed the attention of researchers and policy makers since it offers a cost-efficient, self-sustaining form of behaviour change that when understood properly could be harnessed for fostering the adoption of desirable behaviour. Spillover as a concept is intuitive, since it ‘makes sense’ that one behaviour may influence another. Yet spillover as a phenomenon is far more elusive than intuitive, since there are a growing number of studies with mixed findings about whether or not spillover occurs.
The important question within spillover research these days is “how can spillover be encouraged?” We were interested in one particular mechanism: self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable enough to be able to do a certain behaviour. We were interested in self-efficacy as a spillover mechanism since it is theorised to have a bi-directional relationship with behaviour. Self-efficacy is influenced by what you have done in the past and self-efficacy influences what you choose to do in the future (known as reciprocal determinism).
Across 2 studies with Australian participants, we explored whether self-efficacy may be a potential mechanism for fostering behavioural spillover.
In the first study, information was gathered on participants’ past engagement and intended engagement in 10 water-related behaviours (i.e., behaviours that influence water use, such as water conservation/efficiency and water quality protection behaviours). A pilot study showed that 6 of these behaviours were considered ‘easy’ to do and 4 were considered ‘difficult’ to do. We also measured participants’ sense of self-efficacy towards protecting water quality and conserving water (e.g., I feel confident I can engage in ways to protect water quality). We found that the easy behaviours people have done in the past were related to their sense of self-efficacy, and this greater sense of confidence was associated with increased intentions for more difficult behaviour in the future.
These findings were exciting, but two questions remained: 1) is self-efficacy a consistent spillover mechanism? E.g., can we find the effect again? And 2) can this effect lead to actual behaviour? To answers these questions, we used data collected over two occasions with Australian householders that reported whether they were participating in certain water-reducing behaviours and had installed water efficiency devices (e.g., water tank, water efficient washer).
Similar to the findings of Study 1, we found that the more water reduction behaviours (i.e., easy behaviours) householders had adopted, the greater their self-efficacy, and the greater their intentions for installing water efficiency devices (i.e., difficult behaviours), in turn, the more of these water efficient devices were actually installed. In lay peoples’ terms, we found that the easy things people had been doing fed into their self-efficacy, which increased their intentions and actual adoption of more difficult behaviour. Ultimately these findings demonstrate support for the idea that self-efficacy may be a mechanism that encourages spillover.
These two studies demonstrate associations between past behaviour, self-efficacy, and intended and actual future behaviour, shedding some light on a potential mechanism of spillover. Further testing in real-world settings is needed to understand if self-efficacy can be harnessed and used to inspire adoption of more impactful behaviour. What these findings do suggest is that “from little things, big things grow”! The things we do, even if they are easy and simple, help us to gain the confidence to take on more difficult behaviours in the future.
- By Nita Lauren
Lauren, N., Fielding, K. S., Smith, L., & Louis, W. R. (2016). You did, so you can and you will: Self-efficacy as a mediator of spillover from easy to more difficult pro-environmental behaviour. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 48, 191-199. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2016.10.004
The coronavirus restrictions are slowly being eased but the pressures on families at home still probably lead to many tears of frustration.
It could be tensions about noise and clutter, keeping up with home schooling and mums and dads torn between parenting and their own work duties.
So to make sure our memories of being locked in with our families are as positive as possible, here are some evidence-based tips for calming down, preventing conflict and dealing with any sibling rivalry.
Take a deep breath
If you feel yourself getting angry at something, breathe in while counting to three. Then breathe out slowly counting to six (or any patterns with a slower out breath). If you do this ten times you should notice yourself becoming calmer.
If you’re too agitated to breathe slowly, put your hands on your heart and simply wait until you feel more relaxed. Try counting to ten or 100 before you react.
Leave the room and take a break. Plan to deal with the niggle another time. When you’re on break, do something to distract yourself like make a drink, listen to music, look at a beautiful picture or play a video game that is absorbing.
Call a friend or professional helpline to help you get another perspective, especially if you feel scared or hurt.
Different strategies work for different people, so try them all. Encourage your kids to keep trying if they don’t initially succeed. You need to practise any skill to make it feel natural. For younger children, taking a break may be simpler to master.
Ease the tension before things blow
It’s good to calm down from explosions but it’s even better if you can reduce the build-up in the first place.
Take time to share some of the problems upsetting people and see if as family you can negotiate a solution.
It’s likely everyone in your family is more tense because of the COVID-19 crisis. Many aspects can’t be easily fixed, like lost work or money stress, but others can, such as creating new routines or sharing space, resources or chores.
Work out different ways to get exercise indoors, like games or apps. Plan ahead for the times that need extra care, like when people are tired, or if difficult tasks need finishing. Let others know what to expect.
And importantly, lower expectations for everyone. What used to be easy might now be hard, and that’s okay.
Control the emotions
Help everyone work on managing their emotions. Just because you are experiencing extra distress doesn’t mean you should snap at your loved ones.
You need to grow your toolkit of things that make you feel calmer and happier when you’re under pressure.
It could be spending time talking about what is going right and what is okay, working with your hands, meditation or prayer, time with your partner, reading or learning something new.
Every day, take time do something from your toolkit to chill out.
Talk to each other
When the tension is lower, quiet family conversations can help by naming any stresses. Naming things like “this is a stressful time” or “I’m a bit grumpy about work today” helps children process emotions.
It’s important to actively listen to others and celebrate strengths.
Listening and repeating back what others say makes people feel heard, and so does acknowledging shared feelings (“I miss my friends too”). When parents calmly talk about how some things cannot be easily changed, it builds acceptance.
Over time, the most powerful thing to prevent explosions is to notice when anger is building so you can deal with it before things escalate.
It’s useful to reflect on questions such as “Will this matter in 20 years?” and “Am I taking this too personally?”
You can help children by exploring what might really be bothering them. That argument about a toy might be about feeling sad. Try to listen for the deeper message, so they feel understood.
Calm that sibling rivalry
If sibling rivalry is driving you to distraction, the good news is it does not mean there is something wrong. Low-level sibling bickering is common during times of tension and boredom.
But you should step in when the volume goes up with nasty name-calling or physical contact.
Acknowledge emotions, help the kids express what they feel and encourage empathy. Try to help them decide what’s fair, instead of imposing your view.
More serious incidents require you to stop the interaction. If there is harm, separate the kids, care for the hurt child and consider a consequence. Use time-outs to calm things down, not for punishment.
But like all conflict, prevention is better than punishment. Does one child need more attention, exercise, stimulation or structure? Do certain toys need to be put away, or shared?
Depending on the age of your children, you can help older kids to learn to react gently to provocation. Praise children when they take steps to manage their stress.
Remember, these are stressful times for many families around the world. If we can use this time to stay patient, manage tension and act with goodwill towards our loved ones, our families will be better equipped to weather COVID-19, and many other storms that will follow.
For more help and information see our website or go to 1800Respect and No To Violence.
- By Winnifred Louis, Tori Cooke, Tom Denson, and Peter Streker
Tori Cooke is the Head of Workforce Development at No To Violence.
Tom Denson is a Professor in Psychology at the University of New South Wales who researches anger regulation and aggressive behaviour.
Peter Streker is the Director of Community Stars.
This article was written with help from Carmel O'Brien at PsychRespect, and the University of Queensland’s students Ruby Green and Kiara Minto.
This post was originally published in The Conversation.
Facing COVID-19, communities are trying to strike the balance between locking each other out and keeping each other safe. As government experts and political commentators examine the art of public health messaging for effective behaviour change, lessons could and should be drawn from the most devastating health emergency in recent times: the 2013-2016 Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic in western Africa. EVD had an incredibly high death rate (50%) and broke out in countries with severely under-resourced healthcare and little public health access. During the EVD epidemic, communities faced similar challenges as with COVID-19, though with even more deadly consequences.
Multiagency reports show that early in 2014, EVD public health messaging was understood, but failed to motivate meaningful behavioural change. For example:
Why comprehension may not result in action
During an emergency, the individual’s ability to shape what is happening to them is severely reduced. This loss of control leads to a perceived reduction in personal efficacy (an inability to produce desired effects and forestall undesired effects by their actions), leaving individuals with little motivation to act. Social psychological researcher Bandura argues that due to an increasingly interdependent world, people will turn to their communities to accomplish what they cannot individually. Perceived collective efficacy will subsequently determine how confident or discouraged they are to tackle bigger societal problems.
In countries with strong emergency infrastructure, however, individuals may turn to state proxies instead of the collective. They may call an ambulance, fire services, or police to assist them in overcoming a challenge they cannot, rather than a neighbour. The proxy replaces the collective. Therefore, it may be argued that collective action during an emergency is made redundant by the state-led initiative. If this were the case with COVID-19, epidemiologists speaking from a government platform via the national broadcaster should command public compliance. Yet, in many cases they do not.
Similar patterns were also borne out during the EVD epidemic. Studies confirm that the disconnect between individual comprehension of public health messaging and meaningful behavioural change, was due to a failure of national and international responders to address community practices. That is, national and international leadership overlooked potential collective solutions at the community level, with fatal consequences for those communities.
In the latter part of 2014 community health workers and local journalists intervened. To confront EVD, these groups translated public health messaging through a community lens, directly addressing rumours and misinformation. Within six months of community interventions, humanitarian agencies reported significant improvements in prevention measures; over 95% of EVD patients presented to health facilities within 24 hours of experiencing symptoms. Emergency response organisations were able to leverage understanding of local explanatory models, history of previous emergencies, beliefs, practices, and politics through community health workers. Contact tracing and education campaigns were undertaken by local volunteers. Together with religious authorities, new burial practices were enacted.
Especially in countries with developed health systems, the COVID-19 response has largely overlooked community responses. The focus on unified top-down policy is important, but the efficacy may be limited as during EVD. Collective efficacy is key to mobilise to save lives and keep each other safe.
- By Siobhán McEvoy & Laura K Taylor
Laura K. Taylor (PhD) is an Assistant Professor, School of Psychology, University College Dublin (Ireland) and Queen's University Belfast (Northern Ireland). Her research integrates peace studies with developmental and social psychology to study how to promote constructive intergroup relations and peacebuilding among children and youth in divided societies.
Siobhan McEvoy is a humanitarian consultant specialising in social mobilisation and community engagement with people displaced due to conflict. Her work has included tackling misinformation during migration of refugees in southern Europe, understanding the use of Rohingya language in responding to health emergencies in refugee camps in Bangladesh and creating strategy for community mobilisation in South Sudan to prevent the spread of Ebola virus disease.
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
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