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
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