Changing habits and routines in energy consumption: how

Changing habits and routines in energy consumption: how
to account for both individual and structural influences
while integrating the motivational dimension
Kevin Maréchal*
Centre for Economic and Social Studies on the Environment (CESSE)
Université Libre de Bruxelles – Université d’Europe
44, avenue Jeanne CP124
1050 Brussels
Nathalie Lazaric
Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis
250 rue Albert Einstein
Bât 2, Sophia Antipolis 1
06560 Valbonne
* Corresponding author: [email protected] Tel: +32 2 650 33 32 - Fax: +32 2 650 46 91
Changing habits and routines in energy consumption: how
to account for both individual and structural influences
while integrating the motivational dimension
Abstract: between 100 and 150 words …
Keywords: Habits; Routines; Energy consumption; Behavioural lock-in; Evolutionary
1. Introduction
The nature of the relationships between the many different levels of analysis at which system
change can be assessed is a crucial topic that is central to methodological and ontological
questions in social sciences. As mentioned in Hodgson (2007, p. 95), the debate can be
subsumed under the heading “rivalry between accounts based on ‘situation’ or ‘disposition’“
or, as most commonly framed, the “relationship between social structure and individual
As we have shown in more details elsewhere (Maréchal, 2007), mainstream analyses of the
economics of energy consumption have been mostly misleading, notably regarding the
“Efficiency paradox”. Our stance is that this can be explained not only by the mechanistic
nature of mainstream economics but also by its inherent reductionism1. While reductionism in
Economics led to a theoretical framework building on “methodological individualism” (i.e.
magnified with the quest for micro-foundations), this should not lead us to resorting solely to
collectivist accounts as they are nothing else than the other side of the reductionist coin of
social sciences. Acknowledging both that “only by rescuing the individual from its conflation
into the social can the social determination of individuality be fully appreciated (Hodgson,
2007, p. 101)” and that the empirical evidence has convincingly shown that group-level
analyses where equally important in explaining the existence of socially-acquired
characteristics of human beings (Henrich 2004), we thus need to turn to a framework
allowing for both sources of explanation to be accounted for.
Accordingly, the goal of our paper is, through using the example of the “energy paradox” as
an illustration, to show how the concept of habits sheds an insightful light on this dichotomy
in providing a locus that accommodates for individual as well as structural and institutional
accounts to be integrated into the picture. In line with the idea of “circularity” - which, as will
be shown, is central to our framework - the “energy paradox” will not only serve to illustrate
the idea that the notion of habits can be viewed as a “missing link” between structures and
individual agency but also to demonstrate the relevance of resorting to habits in depicting
such a complex social and ecological issue.
To start with, we must further investigate relational complementarities since it seems
scientifically untenable not to account for the basic fact that economic agents do interact2.
This amounts to turning away from the sole focus on efficiency (i.e. inspired by the typically
Cartesian idea of the domination of mechanical properties) towards efficacy, a “fundamental
economic problem – one that cannot be found at all in the neoclassical research agenda”
(Dopfer (2005), p. 25).
As we have extensively shown in Maréchal (2007, 2008), its shift of focus towards a better
understanding of economic dynamics together with its departure from the perfect rationality
hypothesis renders Evolutionary Economics an inevitable theoretical ground in setting up
policies for sustainable energy consumption. The added value of Evolutionary Economics in
providing support for designing environment-related policies lies in its reliance on Thorstein
Veblen’s concept of “cumulative causation” as one of its theoretical hypothesis. Thus,
contrarily to the rather deterministic and linear view that prevails in mainstream economics
(Dopfer, 2005), economic change is better pictured as a process of cumulative, double
Given that Economics developed “along some paradigmatic lines determined by the cultural crucible in which
the stuff of our mind is initially mixed” (Perlman and McCann, 1998, p.2), it was strongly influenced by the climate
of Newtonian mechanistic science that was reigning at the time of its first development. Accordingly, Modern
Economics can be viewed as nothing else than the coupling of the “marginalist revolution” with Cartesian “logical
rigor”. This Cartesian/Newtonian legacy thus allowed a shift of “analytical mode” which “moved from the concern
with the empirically observable to developing formal rules of analysis” (Perlman 1996a, quoted in Alcouffe and
Kuhn, 2004, p. 224).
This might not be as basic as it first seems since as recalled in Kirman (1989, p. 138) the “independence of
individuals plays an important role in the construction” of aggregation functions in mainstream economics.
(downward and upward) and interactive causation (van den Bergh and Gowdy 2003; Corning
1997, Hodgson, 1997). Such an approach is insightful in that it allows for circular and selfreinforcing interactions between economic agents to be taken into account. In other words,
economic dynamics involve processes that see individuals interacting with an emergent
population in a self-reinforcing manner. It thus provides an alternative to the aforementioned
reductionism under the form of simple aggregation (i.e. the micro-foundations of mainstream
economics) by building “on the notion of circularity between individual and population
(Dopfer, 2006, p. 18)”.
At this stage it is important to underline that this picture arises from a focus on dynamics
occurring at the “meso” level3 allowing for the role played by interdependencies of systems
elements and the emergent nature of economic evolution to be accounted for. As shown in
Maréchal (2007), integrating meso dynamics clearly provide an interesting level of analysis in
energy-related studies so much that they have been claimed to be the “missing link” of this
field by Schenk et al. (2007).
This brings us to the idea put forward in Brette and Mehier (2008) according to which habits
à la Veblen are consistent with the framework built upon a micro-meso-macro architecture as
developed in Dopfer et al. (2004). In this paper, we will provide support to this idea in
showing how habits and routines could also be viewed as a missing link of energy-related
studies and that it perfectly fits in a framework building on the above-mentioned notion of
circularity. To put it differently, our stance is that habits, through providing stronger
foundations to the understanding of interactions between structures and individuals, helps to
better depict the essence and process of meso dynamics and their related emergent
This paper is structured as follows. In the following section we will provide a definition of the
concept of habits and show how it fits in a broader evolutionary framework. More particularly,
we will try to clarify where habits stand with respect to the notion of routines that has been
more widely discussed among evolutionary economists. The third section will then deal with
the prominent features of habits focusing on the delicate issue of how to articulate
automaticity and limited awareness with free will and motivation. The fourth section will be
dedicated to specifying how habits are able to accommodate for both individual and
structural/institutional sources of explanation to be integrated into the analysis. This will
require going into the distinction (present in Veblen’s work) between habits of action and
habits of thought. In the fifth section, we will provide an illustration of how habits and routines
as developed in our framework shed a different light in the field of energy consumption most
notably with respect to the “energy paradox” issue. Acknowledging that habits and routines
may change and that unsustainable habitual and routinised practices in energy consumption
are to be broken in order to meet Kyoto objectives, the final section will conclude by
providing policy-makers with tools and instrument that specifically aim at triggering a change
of practices in this field.
2. Habits and routines in the evolutionary framework
The relation between institutions and individual behaviour has been a widely debated topic in
the institutionalist theory4. Starting with the above-mentioned idea that what is needed is a
framework that would allow for both the evolution of structures and individuals to be
understood, turning to the insights from the Veblenian tradition seems very promising.
Veblen’s view of behaviours as embedded in a wider social context through corresponding
The meso level is a level that is wedged between the traditional micro and macro scales (see the "Micro-mesomacro" approach in Dopfer et al. 2004).
A theory that depicts collective learning as resting on individual habits, routines and other types of more or less
formalised practices (Commons, 1934; Veblen 1914).
habits is essential here as it is those very habits that enable institutions to be maintained.
This can be illustrated by the following quote “At the same time men’s present habits of
thought which tend to persist indefinitely, except as circumstances enforce a change. These
institutions which have so been handed down, these habits of thought, point of view, mental
attitudes and aptitudes, or what not, are therefore themselves a conservative factor. This is
the factor of social inertia, psychological inertia, conservatism” (Veblen 1899, pp.190-191).
In this perspective, institutions are thus a breeding ground for thought and so are a dominant
cognitive vehicle which has extended into society. Social structure operates a kind of natural
selection for ‘habits’ allowing them to be renewed. In this context man is no longer defined as
rational and calculating ‘homo oeconomicus’, but as a creature with coherent structure of
inclinations and habits which are revealed and expressed depending on the actions
mobilising him. In sum, individuals have certain habits and behaviours that are conditioned
by experience (Veblen 1919, p. 79). As mentioned in Hodgson (2007, p. 107), “habits are the
constitutive material of institutions” while the presence of institutions make that “accordant
habits are further developed and reinforced among the population”. There is thus clearly
circular causation between individuals and institutions that is magnified through the existence
of habits. In fact, following Veblen, institutions are nothing else than “social habits of
thoughts” as shown in figure 1.
Figure 1: Veblenian process of institutional self-reinforcement
« Cultural complex »
Institutions (social habits of thought)
Individual habits of thought
Individual habits of action
Material and technical
Source: adapted from Brette (2003, 2004)
In the same vein, routines can be viewed as organisational habits. But just as organisations
are not reducible to the mere sum of their members, routines must then be considered as
being ontologically different from individual habits (Lazaric 2000). They display emergent
properties that can not be fully apprehended through solely looking at the individual habits of
their constitutive members. The organisational feature of routine is important but should not
been understood as an epistemological obstacle. Indeed in the notion of habits, social
learning is also present notably for the diffusion and for the imitation of successful habits of
other individuals (i.e in groups of individuals where social status seems to focus attention). In
the notion of routines observed in organization or groups, individuals are present notably for
activating them for interpretating them and for making sense inside the organizational context
(Feldman 2000). By this way routines observed are also the byproduct of individual and
organization whereas habits observed at individuals levels are also expanding at the
collective level. As Hodgson (2007, p. 111) clearly puts it “(r)outines are organizational metahabits, existing on a substrate of habituated individuals in a social structure”. In short, both
routines and habits emerge in social life but whereas habits may be defined as a disposition
to behave or think in a specific situation according to a specific context; routines define a
sequence of individual habits with the execution of one habit triggering the next (Knudsen
2008 p.131). This means that routines promote coordination because “the need to achieve
tight coordination among a group of people adds a further level of error control and reliability
to organizational routines compared with habits“ (ibid, 132).
The importance of habits in the Veblenian tradition of institutionalist theory is to be put in
parallel with recent works in social psychology where a substantial body of literature has
shown that - more often than not - our behaviour is guided by habits (i.e. it takes the form of
repetitive actions performed with minimum thinking) and thus without the type of cognitive
deliberation and consciousness assumed in the rational choice model (Verplanken et al.,
1998; Lindbladh and Lyttkens, 2002; Chartrand, 2005; Dijksterhuis et al 2005; Verplanken
and Wood, 2006; Ji Song and Wood, 2007). The obvious advantage of adopting this kind of
“habits” in decision-making is that it frees up resources than can be devoted to solving non
routine-like problems5 and, as such, it can be said to be a highly rational6 way of allocating
our limited cognitive abilities (Jager, 2003).
At this stage it is crucial to provide a tentative definition of the concept of habits in order to
see whether the insights from social psychology and institutional theory are compatible.
Borrowing directly from the work of Veblen, James and Dewey, Hodgson (2007, p. 106) sees
habits as “submerged repertoires of potential thought or behaviour to be triggered by an
appropriate stimulus and context”. This definition is further complemented with two essential
elements: habits are often “unconscious” and different from behaviour as they only are an
“acquired predisposition” (ibid, p. 106).
Within the field of social psychology, an often quoted definition is the one provided in
Verplanken and Aarts (1999, p. 104), where habits are viewed as “learned sequences of acts
that have become automatic responses to specific cues and are functional in obtaining
certain goals or end states”. In a more recent paper, Wood and Neal (2007, p. 843)
complement the definition with respect to goals by underlining that “habits are subserved by
a form of automaticity that involves the direct association between a context and a response
but that interfaces with goals during learning and performance”.
Before describing habits in further details in the next section, it is important to note that
Hodgson’s definition refers to both “thought” and “behaviour” (i.e. actions) whereas most of
An empirical study performed by Wood et al (2002) has clearly demonstrated that people had thoughts unrelated
to the task at hand when performing a habit while the thoughts they had when performing a non-habitual form of
behaviour were connected with the task.
Herbert Simon coined the term « procedural rationality » to characterise this use of resource-saving habit-like
decision processes.
the work in social psychology deals with habits that intervene at the level of actions (i.e.
habits that moderate the relation between intention and behaviour). Here again, the work of
Thorstein Veblen is enlightening as this dichotomy between actions and behaviour was
explicitly acknowledged through its clear distinction between “habits of thought” from “habits
of life”. Brette (2004, p. 247-248) convincingly shows how “habits of life” à la Veblen are
equivalent to the “habits of actions” defined by Charles Sanders Peirce as “a rule of action”
allowing to address “familiar circumstances in an effective way” (see also Waller, 1988, p.
114). As shown in figure 1, Veblen sees habits of thoughts as an outcome of habits of life
(Brette 2004, p. 253). This perspective of habits as depicted in figure 1 allows for going
beyond mere habits of actions to see habits as “a potential basis for new intention or beliefs”
(Hodgson, 2004, p. 656). Habits can also include habits of thoughts and is thus a generative
ground of both reflective7 and non-reflective behaviour. Hodgson’s view of habits as a
propensity is interesting as it is “both interactionist and evolutionary” (Hodgson, 2004, p. 658)
since humans are considered as socially constructed beings but with different predisposition
and aspirations. This shows how habits fit into an evolutionary framework that rests on the
concept of circularity between individuals and structures as they provide a locus allowing for
the mutual interdependence between both levels to be accounted for. Routines from the
other hand, express a form of coordination driven by individual forms of habituation, and
trigger inside an organizational context (Nelson and Winter 1982; Cohen and Bacdayan
1984). They are a result of a group of recurrent pattern of interactions between individuals
who are in a situation of triggering a disposition in a reciprocal way (Cohen and Bacdayan
3. The distinctive features of habits and routines
It follows from the above-mentioned two definitions that habits and routines can be
characterised as a context-dependent form of acquired automaticity. However, this
automaticity is somewhat limited (i.e. behaviour is only “potential”) by a required functionality
or correspondance with objectives. As we already mentioned in a previous paper (Maréchal,
2008), the crucial feature that characterises a habit is not its repetitive nature but the degree
to which it has become automatic. This is in line both with Verplanken (2006, p. 639) who
considers that “whereas repetition is a necessary condition for a habit to develop (…) it is not
repetition per se that matters“ and with Hodgson (2007, p. 106) who claims that “(r)epeated
behaviour is important in establishing a habit. But habit and behaviour are not the same”.
To put it more precisely, the main feature of habit is “the automatic elicitation of behaviour
upon encountering specific cues” (Verplanken and Orbell, 2003, p. 1317). This
situation/behaviour association is often referred to as a cognitive script which can thus be
viewed as the knowledge structure behind the habits (Jager, 2003). In sum, provided that a
habit has been formed through the satisfactory repetition of a given behaviour and that the
goal associated with that habit is activated8, the presence of the specific cue automatically
triggers the habitual behaviour9. However, acknowledging the third principle that follows from
the aforementioned recent definition provided in Wood and Neal (2007), this is only valid as
long as a conflicting goal-habit interaction does not result in people exerting control over their
triggered habits. Although automaticity is regarded as the main feature of habits, it is of
crucial important to note that “(h)abit is not mere automatic behaviour; that mistake
reproduces the Cartesian dualism of thought and machine. Even the most ingrained habits
are the objects of recurring mental activity and evaluation. (…) Consequently, habits have
both intentional and causal facets. Furthermore, we do not have to regard the evolutionary
selection process as operating simply on the raw material of programmed action. There
should be a place in an evolutionary explanation for some freedom of the will, but not in quite
This would thus include rational optimisation as a process that relies on habits.
The functionality (or the goal-directed nature) of habits is important as shown in Ouellette and Wood (1998).
Veblen (1899), p. 106, also mentioned the fact that habits were “a method of responding to given stimuli”.
the same sense as the fully deliberating and choosing agent found in the rhetoric economic
theory ” (Hodgson, 1993, p. 229).
Indeed, highlighting the role that habits play in mediating behaviour does not mean that there
is no room left for controlled or deliberate processes in the causal factors of behaviours. In
fact, since habits are acquired and learned, they originally require deliberation as free will is
essential to memorization10. The often quoted “driving metaphor” indeed perfectly illustrates
that even though experienced drivers are able to change gears without having to think about
it, this cognitive automatism was “acquired through a long learning process in which
motivation plays a far from negligible role” (Lazaric, 2007, p. 3). In fact, as noted in Wood
and Neal (2007, p. 850), “the habit-goal interface is constrained by the particular manner in
which habits are learned and represented in memory”. It appears that the instigation of the
goal to act is necessary to activate the associate actions automatically (Aarts and
Dijksterhuis 2000).
Thus, if it can be said that “consumer behaviour is often mediated by processes that occur
outside of conscious awareness” (Chartrand, 2005, p. 209), it could also sometimes be
qualified as unconsciously resorting to previously consciously determined evaluation. In sum,
we have “intelligent habits”11 and thus, the puzzling question of how to account for both the
automatic and motivated nature of habits can not be eluded. As it will be shown in section 4
accounting for free will and motivation is essential for analysing the important issue of how
habits and routines may be changed. As Martha Feldman has highlighted in this regard:
“Routines are performed by people who think and feel and care. Their reactions are situated
in institutional, organizational and personal contexts. Their actions are motivated by will and
intention. They create, resist, engage in conflict, and acquiesce to domination. All these
forces influence the enactment of organizational routines and create a tremendous potential
for change” (Feldman, 2000, p. 614).
This idea that knowledge is not inert but may change is induced by the idea that free will is
essential and is at the heart of many cognitive automatisms. This idea is central in the work
of Bargh (1997) who progressively integrates the principles of motivations such as they are
described in the « self determination theory ». In this theory, John Bargh observes to what
extent the emotional, cognitive and motivational conditions that characterize an environment
can serve as the basis for a preconscious psychological state that can generate an automatic
response – automatic in that it escapes the individual’s awareness and direct consciousness.
This hypothesis is summarized in the following figure.
Figure 2: Bargh ‘s motivational system
As shown by Bargh (1997). It is also important to note that social processes like imitation and conformism are
involved in habit forming (Hodgson, 2004, p. 652). This is in line with Jager (2003) where is it mentioned that the
initial performance of behaviour before it becomes a habit forming is deliberation, learning form peers or imitation
of successful behaviour.
Echoing Dopfer’s sentence on “emotional intelligence and intelligent emotions” (see Dopfer, 2005, p.25) we
could say that the general disposition to rely on habits could be considered as a form of “habitual intelligence”.
The underlying idea – which Bargh borrowed from Whitehead (1911) and Shiffrin and
Dumais (1981) – is that the routinisation of certain procedures helps an individual focus
his/her attention on essential, new and creative tasks. What is new compared to the
traditional theory on cognitive automatisms is the manner in which Bargh analyses
motivation. Indeed, nothing happens by accident. Echoing the aforementioned driving
metaphor, Bargh (1997, p. 28) underlines not only that before walking may become an
automatic process, we have learnt how to walk but also, and not less important, that we
intended to walk. He even talks of an « auto-motive model » to explain to what extent mental
representations are essential to the development of cognitive mechanisms. The interactions
between cognition and motivation are therefore essential and must be taken into account.
Consciousness is essential in that it initiates the process of skill acquisition with possible
tensions during this learning stage:
« But even in the case of these automatic motivations, it is possible for a person to become
aware of his or her actions and, as in the case of bad habits, attempt to change those
behavior patterns. This question of how automatic and conscious motivations interact when
in conflict is one of practical as well theoretical importance, and we are now investigating
parameters of this interaction” ( Bargh, 1997, p. 52).
Recent studies converge on the fact that the consciousness vs. automaticity opposition is a
dichotomy that is no longer valid because it has now become clear that consciousness
accompanies, rather than replaces, the processes of automatisation (Baumeister & Sommer
1997; Tzelgov 1997; Bargh and Chartrand 1997; Gardner and Cacioppo, 1997). Parallely,
the same can be said about the long-held idea that there exists a clear division between
automatic and controlled processes. In line with the work of Damasio (1995, 2000) that
shows the presence of cortical interconnectivity in the human brain, it is now clear that
mental processes generally involve a mix of automatic and controlled attributes at the same
time12. In sum, both consciousness and deliberation accompany the process of
automatisation. Hodgson (2007, p. 107) goes further in saying that “(h)abit is not the
negation of deliberation, but its necessary foundation”.
This explains why automatisation should thus not be overlooked as reminded by Camerer et
al. (2005, p. 11) who claim that “human behavior requires a fluid interaction between
controlled and automatic processes and between cognitive and affective systems( …) since
we see only the top of the automatic iceberg, we naturally tend to exaggerate the importance
of control’“.
See the work of Bargh (1996) or more recently Betsch et al. (2004) and Jackson (2005).
In order to provide an answer to the question of how a decision process that has become
automatic may evolve and change, let’s turn again to the work of John Bargh. Following
Bargh (1994), automaticity can be considered as displaying four distinct features (the “four
horsemen of automaticity”): lack of control, lack of awareness, efficiency (i.e. saving up
cognitive resources than can be used for other purposes) and lack of intention13. Verplanken
and Orbell (2003) provide evidence that habits tend to display the first three features of
automaticity, at least to a certain extent (which can serve to distinguish the strength of
different habits). For instance, even though habits are controllable in principle, it is often quite
difficult to override strong habits such as smoking cigarettes (Verplanken and Faes, 1999).
Dijksterhuis et al (2005) as well as Chartrand (2005), provide ample and well documented
evidence regarding the minimal awareness that is involved in performing consumer
behaviour. As far as efficiency is concerned, Wood et al (2002) provides evidence that
people can think about other things while performing a habit. Regarding the unintentional
feature of habits the picture must be somewhat qualified: if habits can turn to be
“counterintentional” (Verplanken and Faes, 1999), the fact that they are functional (i.e. goaldirected) make them intentional (or volitional) to some degree (Polites, 2005). All together,
this again shows that, as mentioned earlier, habits and routines are not purely automatic as
reflex-type of behaviours could be deemed to be14. This is what makes them amenable to
Echoing the question raised in Klockner et al. (2003, p. 400) who consider inappropriate “to
ask people to report the strength of their habits when an essential feature of habit is its
unconscious character”, it is then necessary to explain how people can exert control over a
decision process that is considered unconscious. First, it must be recalled that the essential
feature of habits is their automatic nature and not their unconscious character. Lack of
awareness is only one of the four features of automaticity and is thus sufficient but not
necessary for a process to be qualified as automatic. Then, in line with Chartrand (2005), it
seems appropriate to start with setting a clear distinction between the different stages at
which awareness may operate: the environmental cues, the process by which these cues
influence behaviour and the outcome of that process. Dijksterhuis and Smith (2005), p. 226,
claimed that while we are usually aware of the outcome and sometimes aware of the cues,
we are usually not aware of the process. Following that line of thought, many choices are
thus “introspectively almost blank” (Dijksterhuis et al., 2005, p. 193) with respect to
behavioural details but, at the same time, consumers are nonetheless aware of their action in
a broad sense (Dijksterhuis and Smith, 2005, p. 226).
In sum, whereas people certainly do not have access to many automatic and tacit processes,
they are still able to report on the occurrence of some of these provided we touch on this
“broad sense awareness” (i.e. if they are presented question in a meta-cognitive fashion that
touches on the “learned sequences” part of habits). We are thus aware that we rely on
habits15 even though we are not fully conscious of it when performing the habitual behaviour this broad awareness being a distinguishable feature of habits as compared to fully
automatic behaviours such as reflexes. For instance, building on the example of grocery
shopping described in Dijksterhuis et al. (2005), p. 193, consumers may have picked most
items that end up in their cart with nothing more than “a fleeting moment of awareness” and
thus have no memory of making those choices, but they would still be able to realize (and
report) afterwards that they have not been thinking about those decisions when “making” it.
These features are comparable to the “distinctive properties of routines actions” mentioned in Cohen (2006, p.
As noted in Limayen et al. (2001), p. 277, habits are, unlike reflexes, “based in part on the ability of the
individual to learn or acquire/absorb the particular behaviour into a cognitive schemata or script”. See also the
encoding or cognitive processing that characterises the first stage of habit formation in Jager (2003).
As mentioned above, free will plays a role in the learning phase of habits. More generally, relying on habits is a
deliberate choice since “there is still a sort of economic calculation in the unwillingness to subject existence to
economic calculation” Bourdieu (1986), p. 180.
This meta-awareness may explain the finding of Bartiaux (2007) where it is shown that
reporting on personal habits is a first step towards bringing knowledge from practical to
discursive consciousness which, in turn, is deemed to be a necessary condition for changing
habits. The distinction between practical and discursive consciousness - that is borrowed
from the work of Anthony Giddens - is similar to the difference between “procedural” and
“declarative” memory (see Lazaric, 2007)16. This seems intuitive since habits are thought to
be “acquired through a process in which repetition incrementally tunes cognitive processors
in procedural memory” (Neal and al., 2006, p. 198). As it is known since the work of, among
others, Cohen and Bacdayan (1994) and Egidi (1996), procedural memory is the storehouse
of our habits and skills17. Consequently, bringing information from procedural (or practical) to
declarative (or discursive) memory could be conceived as a step backwards (or a return trip
to the source) since the declarative stage (i.e. the cognitive processing of information in
memory) is the first stage of habit formation which ends up with the procedural stage (Jager,
2003). This would suggest that going back, in some way, to the initial phase of habit
formation could provide a starting point for changing habits and routines.
This echoes the view suggested in Langer (1989) and in Langer and Modoveanu (2000) that
routines may be activated in a “mindful manner” - which thus acknowledges that declarative
and procedural memories co-evolve and that determination and consciousness also do.
Langer defined this process in a similar vein that Giddens (1984) with the notion of
“mindfulness” highlighting individuals’ attention inside cognitive automatisms. In this
perspective, individuals should make sense of what they do and perceive by increasing their
acuity so as to be able to integrate new information and to continuously update and refine
their mental categories. Indeed, the notion of “mindfulness” emphasizes the necessity of
focusing not so much on simple quantitative questions of data storing, but on the quality of
the cognitive process.
4. The process of habits and routines formation and their persistence
In a recent article, Cohen (2006, p. 388) gives the example of Russian soldiers that, although
disguised as civilians, formed up in ranks and marched away to illustrate what he calls “the
occasional “misfirings” in which routines are executed in inappropriate but compelling
circumstances”. This picture is quite similar to the idea put forward by social psychologists
that show how habits may often become “counterintentional” (Verplanken and Faes 1999) as
the stronger they are, the more effect they have on behaviour relative to intentions18. Indeed,
in line with the collective example of Russian soldier, even in cases where a single individual
does form intentions to perform a given behaviour (e.g. eat more healthily), he sometimes
does not implement it because it contradicts existing habits (e.g stop by the fast-food
restaurant around the corner)19. Strong habits have also been found to moderate the impact
It also reflects the difference generally made between tacit and explicit knowledge in Evolutionary Economics
(see footnote 8 in Nelson and Winter, 1995, p. 32). Wallenborn (2006), allows us to come full circle in trying to link
concepts developed within evolutionary economics with the work of Giddens. Indeed, after mentioning Gidden’s
definition of “practical consciousness” as being “all things actors know tacitly …without being able to give them
direct discursive expression”, he adds that it is not “unrelated to the concept of routine” (Wallenborn, 2006, p. 65).
Following Dutraive (2008), we can relate habits to the concept of “routine transactions” developed within the
school of Old Institutionalism (Commons 1934, 1950). Routines transactions are the ones related to habitual
activities involving stabilized knowledge (embodied in rules) and “strategic transactions” are those related to
situations of novelty implying new practices and new opportunities and for which there is no stabilized knowledge
and rules of thumbs. In other words, “routines transactions” are stabilized procedures deeply entrenched in the
individual procedural memory whereas ‘strategic transactions’ concern new ways of doing things, that are not yet
classified by the human mind
As already suggested in Triandis (1977), p 205, habits thus « become a better predictor of behaviour than
behavioural intentions”.
The failure for intentions to predict behaviour for people with strong habits has been shown to be the case for
car use (Verplanken et al., 1998) as well as for food purchases, watching TV news and riding the bus (Ji Song
and Wood, 2007).
of moral norms and self-concepts on behaviour (Wood and Neal, 2007, p. 853). In
consequence, beyond explaining how habits and routines form, it is also necessary to
explain why they sometimes persist although they are conflicting with norms, goals or
Knusden (2008) provides an explanation of this process by showing common characteristics
of habits and routines in social populations. First, habits and routines multiply and spread in
social contexts. These potential externalities lead us to have a specific glance on the
environmental feedback which may be viewed as a force causing the reinforcement as well
as the elimination of some forms of behaviours judged un-adapted. Second, habits and
routines contain ‘ready-made solutions to common problems in a sable context’ because
they have been elaborated in a frame of bounded rationality. These two characteristics may
explain some potential sub optimality of habits and routines, notably why despite these
intrinsic features, they may be widely diffused in populations and organizations (Knusden,
ibid 133).
First, habits and routines are persistent during time and may even promote some form of
inertia for individuals as well for organizations ((Hannan and Freeman 1989).
Habits and routines being able to accommodate for both individual and structural/institutional
accounts, the reasons for their persistence will thus refer to both levels of explanation in an
intertwined and mutually interdependent manner. To do so, it quickly appears that the
concepts of “lock-in and path-dependence” are very useful. Indeed, Paul David, who
pioneered together with Brian Arthur the research on “lock-in” processes, already asserted in
the mid-80’s that path dependencies may arise “in the presence of strong technical
interrelatedness, scale economies and irreversibilities due to learning and habituation” (David
1985, p. 336 -emphasis added). As mentioned in Barnes et al. (2004, p. 372) only the first
two arguments were used in the literature on “technological lock-in” that has followed from
the work of David and Arthur to the detriment of the “behavioural” part of the lock-in process.
In fact, there is a sort of mutual (i.e. or circular) form of reinforcement that arises from the
influences of the socio-technical system (STS20) in shaping behaviour which makes individual
form habits in specific ways that are consistent with the STS operating constraints (Hodgson,
2004, p 656). As mentioned in Ramazotti (2007, p. 774), “consumers can only ask for what is
available; they cannot demand what is deemed "technically" impossible to produce. These
real constraints eventually feed back on mental habits”. There are thus institutional reasons
that make individual resort to the use of habits as habits allow for collective structures to be
sustained through being a vector for the transmission of norms and customs (Waller, 1988).
The influence of institutions in forming habits is illustrated in Barnes et al. (2004, p. 373) with
the example of the influence of financial market on the management decisions taken by firm
actors. In fact, as claimed in Pierson (1993, p. 603), “policies provide incentives that
encourage individuals to act in ways that lock in a particular path of policy development”.
However, we can also find explanatory factors at the level of individuals. As mentioned
earlier, the primary reason for people to resort on habits is to efficiently allocate their limited
cognitive resources. Relying on habits liberates the individuals from “the burden of all
decisions” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966, quoted in Lindbladh and Lyttkens, 2002). As it has
convincingly been shown in Tversky and Kahnemann (1974), people use a variety of
cognitive and emotional heuristics to deal with the impossibility of amassing all possible
information and thus tend to make immediate and sometimes not even conscious choices of
behaviour. This is where people become somewhat “locked in” their decision routines as
illustrated by Simon’s concept of docility - which refers to the “human propensity for
accepting information and advice that comes through appropriate social channels” (Simon,
For a definition, see Geels and Kemp (2006).
2005, p. 95)21. Starting from the idea that social learning is the most important form of
learning of human beings (Tomasello et al., 2005) and that it is impossible to verify every
piece of information we consider legitimate (i.e. rationality is bounded), there is some form of
“path-dependence” of the information that we use to make our decisions. This is confirmed in
an empirical study by Hoeffler et al. (2006) that shows how the impossibility to experience all
options before making a decision makes that initial choices have long lasting effects on
future preferences. Interestingly, this “path-dependence” of preference is stronger when early
decisions are deliberate as this reinforces the adoption of a biased search process.
Another reason for the potential persistence of habits lies in the presence of strong shortterm rewards that override long term benefits as illustrated by the case of “bad habits” such
as smoking where people can not give up the pleasure of a cigarette (i.e. short term reward)
even though they formulate strong intentions to quit given the potential health damage it
could help avoid (i.e. long-term benefits). This is what we called the “temporal asymmetry”
problem (Maréchal, 2008). The benefits attached to a habit may be economic/financial,
biological or psychological (Verplanken and Wood, 2006, p. 92). Immediacy and recurrence
of positive feedbacks – which are clearly both valid in the cigarette case – are two important
factors that contribute to the reinforcement of habits. There can also be what Jager (2003)
calls a “contingent reinforcement” which denotes the fact that a deeply ingrained habitual
decision strategy will likely be tested in different but comparable situations.
The very nature of habits may also explain their persistence as, due to their automatic nature
(i.e directly cued by environmental stimuli) and the minimal cognitive effort they require,
habits “assume precedence over more thoughtful actions” (Verplanken and Wood, 2006, p.
93). This is important as in today’s society that can be said to be characterised by a feeling of
generalised time pressure, people will tend to use simple heuristics such as habits22. In fact,
the trend towards individualization and the parallel rapid technological and institutional
changes that characterises contemporary society engenders a feeling of information
overload which renders habits an element enhancing security and comfort (Lindbladh and
Lyttkens, 2002). For mainly risk-adverse people, habits can also be considered less risky as
outcomes and probabilities are allegedly known with greater certainty23. Routines also play
the same role by exhibiting some feeling of comfort and security associated to the notion of
truce in organizations. This explains their possible persistence because routines can be seen
as truces amongst potentially conflicting interests. Consequently their modification creates
the fear of breaking some durable social interactions in which they are embedded (Dosi et al
Finally, it should be noted that this picture on the pervasiveness of habits is even enhanced
through self-reinforcing processes acting both on the general propensity to rely on habits and
on the existing habits themselves. First, as mentioned above, there is a form of pathdependence of the information that is used to make our decisions. Second, people with
strong habits display what Faiers et al. (2007, p. 4385) call the “confirmatory bias” which
refers to the fact that people tend to favour and seek out information that confirms their
views, beliefs and behaviours24. This may be explained by the fact that discarding
contradictory information is a way to solve the problem of psychological discomfort known
as cognitive dissonance. Those two elements25 contribute to make existing habits even more
deeply ingrained with time26. Furthermore, at a broader level, it has been shown that people
Simon (2005) explains this concept using the example of hot stoves that we learn not to touch without actually
having to experience touching it ourselves.
Betsch et al. (2004) show the importance of time pressure on the prevalence of counter-intentional behaviour.
As noted in Lindbladh and Lyttkens (2000), this does not preclude the possibility that habitual behaviour can
sometimes be more risky like, for instance, the habit of not wearing a seat belt in a car.
See also the aforementioned empirical result in Hoeffler et al (2006).
We could also add the reduced capacity to detect environmental change in the presence of strong habits
(Verplanken and Wood, 2006, p. 92).
As noted in Jager (2003), short term benefits of habits often tend to increase with time.
relying on habits adjust their cognitive perceptions, matters of appreciation and normative
judgements in coherent structures (Lindbladh and Lyttkens, 2002) which strengthen the idea
that the reliance on habits is dependent upon past experience and conditions. To put in other
words, not only do existing habits get more entrenched through time but so does the general
disposition to rely on habits. This also was already acknowledged in Veblen (1899, p. 107108) where it is said that “the longer the habituation (…) the more persistently will the given
habit assert itself”. There is thus clearly a form of lock-in process of habits.
Finally, it must be noted that the interplay of emotions with habits provides another source of
reinforcement (Carrus et al. 2008)27. The aforementioned empirical result from the study of
Hoeffler et al (2006) which shows that the long lasting effect of initial choices is stronger
when the latter are deliberated could be explained by the influence of emotions. In fact, it is
known that deliberation is more likely to happen when the degree of involvement is high
(Jackson, 2005). We could thus make the assumption that the increased emotional charge of
the initial decision that make people more reluctant to contradict it when they are faced with
conflicting information. It is likely that the cognitive dissonance is higher in those cases which
would reinforce the biased search process highlighted in Hoeffler et al. (2006). The
reinforcement role of emotional involvement was also implicitly recognised by Veblen (1899,
p. 108) where he asserted that habits were stronger if they were “largely and profoundly
concerned in the life process” or “intimately bound up with the life history”.
More generally emotions play a major role for social groups and organizations. For
illustrating the permanent interplay between motivation and cognition, Rouleau (2005)
observes the specific role of ‘middle managers’. These groups may appear to be critical in
organizations by encouraging employees to take into account the emotional impact the
changes can have on individuals (Floyd and Woolridge 1992, Huy 2002). It is beyond the
scope of this paper to develop these aspects further but they are obviously a line for future
research as the role of emotions and affect is clearly not something that can easily be
grasped (Lowenstein and Lerner, 2003).
5. Habits, routines and energy consumption
Behavioural lock-in under the form of “habits” is important for understanding the continued
increase of energy consumption in spite of existing environmental awareness and concern
among the population28. This echoes the potentially “counterintentional” nature of habits
(Verplanken and Faes, 1999) or the “occasional misfiring” (Cohen, 2006). As we developed
in more details elsewhere (Maréchal, 2008; Maréchal and Lazaric, 2008), the presence of
strong habits could also serve to explain the existence of what is known as the “Efficiency
paradox” in energy consumption (DeCanio, 1998). This paradox refers to the fact there exists
a substantial amount investments in energy efficiency that is not spontaneously undertaken
by actors even though they are highly profitable based on traditional financial criteria
(Maréchal, 2007). Our stance is that the existence of energy-inefficient habits of life may
provide one explanatory factor of this paradox. Indeed, in line with those authors that see
energy consumption as “the routine accomplishment of what people take to be “normal” ways
of life (Shove, 2005, p. 117), a study has shown that consumers’ intrinsic (i.e. not determined
by market signals) habits and preferences were important determinants of energy-inefficient
choices in motor technologies (de Almeida, 1998, p. 650).
Beyond its use for highlighting the inertia of consumption (Duesenberry 1949), Veblen’s
perspective of consumption as incorporating important a potential element of waste (waste of
time, effort and of goods) is also interesting in that it may serve to explain the unconscious
As noted in Cohen (2006, p. 388), the emotional grounding of routines was implicit in Nelson and Winter (1982).
Concerning the rise of environmental awareness, see for instance the many studies that have used the NEP
(New Environmental Paradigm) scale. A survey of a great deal of such studies can be found in Dunlap et al.
character of some consumption practices. Indeed, Veblen argued that some consumers may
not always be aware of wasting in their daily life : “For the great body of people in any
community, the proximate ground of expanditure in excess of what is required for physical
comfort is not a conscious effort to excel in the expensiveness of their visible consumption,
so much as it is a desire to live up to the conventional standard decency in the amount of
grade of goods consumed (Veblen 1899, 103, underlined by us )”. This means that part of
the conspicuous consumption is not always known by individuals and groups because it is
built-in in their daily life, a way of consuming part of their history and of their social way of
Obviously, a lot of everyday energy consumption corresponds to these unconscious forms of
built-in consumption practices. The fact that energy consumption takes the form of habitual
behaviour can be explained using the three conditions identified in Jackson (2005) – low
degree of involvement, low perceived complexity and high degree of constrain – which are all
met for energy consumption. Indeed, the decisions taken in everyday energy consumption
are likely to be considered as having less important consequences than other decisions.
According to the work of Tversky, people are more likely to use simple heuristics (such as
habits) in such situations. Needless to say, the low complexity of decision tasks related to
everyday energy consumption does not require a lot of cognitive effort either. Finally, as we
mentioned above, the constraints of today’s society (i.e. the feeling of time pressure as well
as the information overload that characterise it) tend to favour the use of habits and routines.
All together, this suggests that everyday energy-related behaviours do not require much
intentional effort to be set in motion such as it has been shown to the case of, for example,
food consumption of adolescents in Kremers et al., 2007. For Schäfer and Bamberg (2008),
p. 213, energy use along with nutrition and mobility are “forms of behaviour that are hardly
reflected upon in everyday life”.
In such a context, it is difficult to expect consumers to be capable of exercising control over
their consumption of energy in reaction to given incentives (whether economic or
informative). This may explained why the focus on efficiency and the “incentives obsession”
have failed in delivering energy reductions (Wilhite, 2007, p. 23)29.
Since the central perspective of this paper relies on the idea that individuals and institutions
(i.e. here under the form of the aforementioned STS) “mutually constitute and condition each
other” (Hodgson, 1997, p. 404), we intend to further explore the concept of habits and
routines for explaining the “efficiency paradox” in energy consumption bearing in mind the
broader institutional and social context within which those behaviors develop.
The view that technologies are embedded in a strongly influential social context of institutions
makes that consumption is shaped by (whilst also shaping) technological constraints. In line
with Gidden’s Structuration theory that sees structures as both enabling and constraining, the
current carbon-based STS both constraints and enables the forming of habits. Indeed, the
current carbon-based STS shapes consumers’ choices towards more energy-consuming
ways of life. Cultural and technological changes go hand in hand as illustrated by the rise of
average internal temperatures in UK houses from 13.8 °C in 1970 to 18.2 °C in 2004 30 while
the average number of electric appliances increased from 17 to 47 over the same period of
time (Martiskainen, 2008).
In addition, as it comes out of the “circular causation” concept highlighted in our perspective,
while choices in energy consumption are being strongly influenced by the existing carbonbased STS, they, in turn, contribute to reinforce and maintain the incumbent STS. Indeed, if
See also the limits of traditional instruments as, for instance, market forces in de Almeida (1998), of energy
labels in Gram-Hanssen et al. (2007) and of price signals in Meier and Eide, (2007).
Even though the range of what people report to be a comfortable temperature is wide, indoor climate are
converging (Shove, 2005).
the use of highly automatised behaviours such as habits is undoubtedly “procedurally
rational” in stable contexts, it quickly turns into a change-resisting factor when conditions and
circumstances vary such that alternative behaviours would yield better outcomes. The inertia
of habits and routines is not intrinsically negative as it serves to hold entities together
(Hannan and Freeman 1989. In line with Carillo-Hermosilla and Unruh (2006, p. 708) who
resort to “old institutionalism” to explain the “apparent paradox in the increasing returns and
lock-in conceptualisation”, we thus consider habits and routines as an additional explanatory
factor of long term technological stability.
The “predisposition” concept inspired by Veblen is also very insightful for the issue of energy
consumption. If it can be convincingly argued that every individual have habits (i.e. routinised
forms of actions), the attitude towards habits in general (i.e. the idea of relying on habits as a
general strategy of decision-making) can be different among individuals as it is clearly shown
in the qualitative analysis performed in Gram-Hanssen (2008). In fact, as claimed in Brette
and Mehier (2008, p. 5), “it is only by defining habits as propensities or predispositions, and
not as behaviours as such, that we can understand why the same habit may have several
actualisations”. This is in line with recent empirical analysis of energy consumption in
Denmark and that display both “similarity and collectivity” as well as “variety and individuality”
in behaviours (Gram-Hanssen, 2008, p. 14) as well as with Veblen’s acknowledgement of the
“varying degrees of ease with which different habits are formed by different persons, as well
as the varying degrees of reluctance with which different habits are given up” (Veblen, 1898,
p. 108).
Assessing habits at the level of individuals is thus also relevant in our framework although it
is recognised that consumers’ choices are strongly influenced by structural, cultural, social
and institutional forces such as norms, media, etc. More than “willing” consumers should
then rather be viewed as partly “locked-in” (Sanne, 2002). Consumers are thus neither fully
rational (in the sense of traditional economics) nor omnipotent.
Given this picture, policies aiming at promoting sustainable energy consumption would thus
have to both shift the incumbent STS for it to shape decisions towards the desired direction
and also deconstruct habits that this same STS has forged with time (as increased
environmental awareness and intentions formulated accordingly are not sufficient in the
presence of strong habits).
6. Changing habits and routines: implications for policy-making
The previous sections served to describe how an evolutionary perspective building on both
structural and individual accounts of change through the concepts of habits could prove
insighful for depicting the idea that unsustainable energy consumption practices can be
viewed as somewhat locked-in. Accordingly, it appears straightforward to turn to the same
framework in trying to find ways of unlocking those same practices. This will inevitably
involve going into the long explored concept of routines and see what important insights on
routine change may be useful for our purpose.
Starting from an evolutionary approach to consumption, Cowan et al (1997, p. 715) explain
this process of unconscious consumption inertia with the importance of path dependency and
suggest to have a better look on the consumer‘s own past consumption history. They
distinguish various groups which may interfere on the creation and formation of consumer’s
behaviour: the peer group, the contrast group and the aspirational group (Cowan et al : 712).
This may explain the evolution of consumption and the interdependencies between various
groups of consumers which may have (or not) an active role in influencing consumption.
Consumption here is shaped by the social interactions but also by the importance of the
past. Some recent models try also to show the cultural dimension inside social learning,
notably how ‘green’ attitude towards consumption has to be learned with enventually diverse
incentives systems (for example ‘eco taxes’) which may have a role for promoting new kinds
consumption patterns (Buensdorf and Cordes, 2007). The main insight of their model is that
it suggests to go beyond the assumption of permanent ‘lock in’ by demonstrating possibility
of learning and change inside consumption patterns ( Buensdorf and Cordes, 2007; Witt
2001) .
Those insights lead Munier and Zhaou Wong (2005) to coin the concept of routines’
consumption with the aim of depicting social consumption as the product of history and of
individual habits. This raises the thorny question of sovereignty in human action – i.e. how
routines‘ consumption defined as a product of past choices, repetition and prior interactions
may require some new opportunitities for incorporating change. This insight is worthful to be
examined with recent findings in the concepts of habits and routines.
In line with recent works in evolutionary economics (Dopfer 2007), it is essential to account
for the interplay between the individual and the collective levels of action. Indeed, individuals
shape their judgment, beliefs and acts not only by themselves but also in interactions with
others. And the nature of these micro interactions can produce ‘recurrent interacting patterns’
that need to be carefully observed (Cohen et al 1996). Besides, it is also important to recall
the aforementioned crucial role of institutions which should be understood as the working
rules of collective action that may restrain the individual deliberation and plays a cognitive
role by creating “institutionalized minds” and “institutionalized personalities” (Commons, ibid,
p.874). But, although deliberation and calculative processes are not always mobilized, in
some circumstances the mind may reveal “a creative agency looking towards the future and
manipulating the external world and other people in view of expected consequences”
(Commons [1934], p.7 ; Hodgson 1988).
In consequence, even though the old institutionalist framework is very insightful in
highlighting the embeddeness of individual habits and organisational routines as well as the
emergence of routinisation processes, it should also serve to analyse change as pictured in
the recent approach to organisational routines (Feldman 2000; Lazaric and Denis 2005;
Becker, Lazaric and Nelson and Winter 2005). Indeed, several studies have shown the
importance of stability and change in organisational routines (Feldman 2000, 2004, HowardGreenville 2005). Routines are repertoires of knowledge partly activated by the members of
an organisation (Lazaric 2000, p. 164), consequently they are generative, dynamic systems,
not static objects (Pentland and Feldman 2003, 2005).
It follows that the collective level of routine might explain its potential for change. Michael
Cohen and Bacdayan (1994) are confronted with the same question in their observation of
collective forms of memorization that go beyond individual forms of memorization : ‘the
routine of a group can be viewed as the concatenation of such procedurally stored actions,
each primed by and priming the actions of others.’ (Cohen and Bacdayan (1994, p. 557).
This issue has been by Hutchins (1995) who shows how the social and technical
environment conditions individual processes of memorization31. The question that arises is
thus that of the role played by the individual in the development and control of these
cognitive processes. This again shows the need to look for ways to change habits that target
not only the collective dimension but also the individual one. This is explicitly acknowledged
in a recent paper on routines where it mentioned that “(a)ccounting for for the reliable spread
and differential adoption of routines is only part of the puzzle, however. What is missing is a
theory of endogenous generation of distinctly novel routines” (Becker al., 2006, p. 361,
underlined by us). However, existing analyses of change in routines concentrate on internal
Indeed, in his study of a marine crew, he concludes that there definitely is a type of memory distributed at the
group level (Hutchins 1995, p. 228). On the other hand, this study also reveals that most members of the crew
conduct their cognitive activity in an active manner - i.e. they go beyond what is formally prescribed so as to be
able to anticipate possible breakdowns or future problems (Hutchins 1995, p. 201).
or external changes, and few of them examine the possible interactions between both
sources of change. Organizations have the ability to interpret external signs in many different
ways; as a result, the intentional or non-intentional nature of change is often difficult, for an
outsider, to observe. As shown in section 4, the motivational dimension should not be
neglected for looking beyond the historical contingencies that limit the possibilities of novelty
(Castaldi and Dosi, 2006).
In the aformentioned perspective of the “mindful” nature of routines – which may be related
to the functionality or goal-directedness of habits - potential change in routines should not be
seen as a fateful coincidence related to external and disruptive factors, but as a crucial
ingredient to the revitalization of individuals and organizations. At organizational level, this
has significant implications as the social groups that rely on routines might, in their daily
mobilization, forget the context in which they were learned and their significance. This is the
reason why in certain collective tasks, some groups may tend to rely on old procedural
knowledge without questioning its adequacy. Nevertheless, conservatism is not a fatality and
depends on the peculiar features of the organizational context. This points to the double
recursiveness in this process, such as it is described by Orlikowsky (2000), and prompts us
to examine organizations’ capacity of improvisation in order to reveal the “essentially
transformational character of all human action, even in its most routinized form” (Giddens, in
Orlikowski, 2000, p. 425).
Together with the meta-awareness of people with respect to their habits, it thus seems
necessary to build on the mindfulness or goal-directed dimension of habits in order to trigger
a change. As reminded in Wood and Neal (2007, p. 844), “habits possess conservative
features that constraint their relation with goals. Within these constraints goals and habits
can direct each other”. It follows that interventions combining elements aiming at interrupting
habitual behaviour with others designed towards increasing the motivation to change will be
more effective (Eriksson et al, 2008).
Accordingly, disrupting habits could be achieved through inducing deliberation and/or
modifying the satisfying nature of habitual behaviour. With respect to positive feedbacks
enjoyed when performing a habit, the most effective way to change a habit would be to
prohibit it or to, alternatively, to make it impossible. However, as mentioned in Jager (2003),
strategies that interfere with individual freedom are likely to be often rejected by the
population in many cases which makes necessary to turn to alternatives ways.
As described in section 3, since habits can be seen as the automatic cuing of behaviour
induced by stable features of performance context32, analysing the habit-triggering cues is a
first step towards disrupting existing habits. Indeed, as noted in Verplanken and Wood
(2006), p. 9, “the dependence of habits on environmental cues represents an important point
of vulnerability”. Here again, it is crucial to underline that habits differ from purely emotional
responses since what is effective for controlling those responses might be counterproductive
in the case of habits. Indeed, as noted in Wood and Neal (2007, p. 854), “instead as
inattention to the cue, high level of vigilance to it appear to be effective”.
Following Ji Song and Wood (2007), the main context cues include physical surroundings,
social surroundings, temporal perspective, task definition, antecedent states. As mentioned
in Maréchal (2008), physical location is obviously an important environmental cue in the case
of energy consumption. Accordingly, economic incentives aimed at improving energy
efficiency would probably be more effective if supporting information was specifically targeted
towards new residents (whose previously-determined habits have been perturbed with the
change of physical location) than they would be among the population of incumbent
For an overview of studies that show the ways in which behaviour is influenced by performance context, see,
for instance, Dijksterhuis et al. (2005), Chartrand (2005) and Wood et al. (2005).
residents. This is supported by the evidence contained in Wood et al. (2005) that shows how
a change of location would induce decisions to be more in line with intentions than with
habits. All together, this shows the greater efficacy of measures when they are tied with
contextual change.
Beyond the importance of cues, we also saw that the persistence of habits could be partly
explained by the presence of short-term rewards coupled with what is called the problem of
“temporal asymmetry”. Besides disrupting the performance context of habits33, another policy
measure that could also turn out to be effective would be to reduce the direct rewards
experienced when performing the habitual behaviour. Jager (2003) provides some interesting
examples of such rewards-reducing strategies like, for instance, applying nasty substances
on fingernails to avoid biting them or the use of anti-alcohol pills.
Whereas there does not seem to be any obvious similar strategies in the field of domestic
energy consumption, policy-makers could turn to their counter-parts which aims at increasing
the rewards attached to the alternative behaviour. Making the alternative behaviour more
rewarding seems to provide an interesting point on which to found sustainable energy
measures. This is confirmed by the answers provided by respondents that have taken part –
on a voluntary basis - in the Brussels Energy Challenge as it is the very notion of “challenge”
that is considered to be most “interesting” aspect of the proposed policy34. The participants
also considered the idea of challenge as a facilitating factor in implementing their behavioural
change on a daily basis (especially with respect to their neighbours and their broader social
network). In fact, as mentioned in Matthies et al. (2006), p.94, commitments strategies (i.e.
as the Brussels Energy Challenge) enhances “self-satisfaction as a result of acting in
accordance with personal values” and therefore increases “the cost of not acting”. This
obviously reflects the aforementioned importance of the social and collective dimensions of
habits and routines.
Another strategy that builds on predictions from social identity theory and social comparison
theory is the use of comparative feedbacks. These have been shown to increase the
performance through raising motivation in a study of two units of a metallurgical company
(Siero et al., 1996). In one unit, employees received information about energy conservation,
had to set goals and received feedback on their own conservation behaviour. In the second
unit the only difference was that they also received information about the performance of the
other unit. As expected, employees who received comparative information saved more
energy. The authors note that it is “remarkable that behavioural change took place with
hardly any changes in attitudes” (Siero et al. 1996, p. 245).
Another approach that may prove successful for disrupting habits is to tie them to emerging
fashions and trends (Jager, 2003) or to naturally occurring life changes (Verplanken and
Wood, 2006). For instance, Schaefer and Bamberg (2008, p. 215) mention empirical
evidence about the increased openness of young mothers to receiving information about
healthy nutrition practices. Sensitive life events (such as retirement, change of job, moving,
disease, etc.) thus provide window of opportunity for change of behaviour to occur (Schaefer
and Bamberg 2008, p. 215). Echoing the above-mentioned relevancy of targeting new
residents, the idea is to propose policy measures to those individuals that are more likely to
be receptive due to their context.
A good example of a perturbed habit context is the 8-day closure of a freeway that lead to the development of a
new script-based travel mode choice (Fujii and Gärling, 2003).
It has a 9.06 on a scale ranging from 1 to 10 anchored by « not at all interesting » to “very interesting ». For
instance, “the feeling of acting individually to fight against a global issue” has a score of 8.30 whereas the score of
“individual follow-up” is of only 5.60. The complete result can be found in the June 2007 Report (in French) on
Bearing in mind the path-dependent reinforcement process described in section 4,
disrupting habits would also require dealing with above-mentioned “confirmatory bias” in
information search displayed by people with strong habits. Drawing from the experience of
cigarette packages, the important points to keep in mind in designing information seem to be
the immediacy (i.e. at the time of performance) and the indisputableness. Regarding,
domestic energy consumption, direct feedbacks under the form of smart meters (displaying
instantaneously either your consumption or its translation in financial or ecological terms)
could be a way forward to this respect.
Finally, it is important to recall the context within which habits and routines develop. Bearing
this is mind, it is obvious that disrupting an unsustainable habit of energy consumption is only
a first step as policy-makers must also ensure the new (more sustainable) behaviour is
tested, adopted and maintained. As mentioned in Matthies et al. (2006), p. 104, “a temporary
situational change as a defrosting of habits can only lead to a long-term change to new
behaviour if the evaluation of the new behaviour is positive, which require that the internal
and external determinants are in favour of the new behaviour”. Within our framework, this
clearly means that external aspects (i.e. wider societal, cultural, institutional and
technological aspects) must be taken into account. According to the typology developed in
Verplanken and Wood (2006, p. 96), such measures that “focus on the lager structural
conditions in which people’s behaviour is embedded” would qualify as “upstream
interventions”35. The case of recycling illustrates how the presence of a structured
environment promoting the alternative behaviour may greatly contribute to changing
unsustainable habits. Consequently, policies should also be aimed at helping consumer “to
escape the restrictions imposed on their knowledge by the mental habits they have acquired”
(Ramazzotti, 2007, p. 776).
In this perspective, motivation and creativity are only one part of the puzzle for changing
habits and routines. They are necessary for revitalizing traditional policy making and for
creating new recurring interactions patterns and for learning new ways to dela with new
sustainable consumption (Witt 2001). Without motivation individuals and collective
procedural knowledge may be trapped by prior network externalities and existing path
dependency. Contextual factors, mentioned above may vanish without an enabling
environment supporting new behaviours. Changes may be directed to environmental factors
for generating new conditions for sustainable change with the generation of distinctly novel
habits and routines. In short for changing habits and routines durably, not only incentives and
rewards are required but new cultural conditions are also needed. Action, at a policy making
level for example- may be driven by their improvement but more broadly on the environment
in which they emerge and are selected.
In short changes in energy consumption require new kinds of procedural knowledge.
Individual volition and structural influences are more likely to disrupt existing cognitive
automatisms present at individual and collective level if values are rewards coming from
these two dimensions appear to be self reinforcing and complementary. One role of the
policy maker may be to reduce the gap between what individuals and institutions ought to do
and what they really implement in their daily actions.
Conversely, those measures that target individual are considered “downstream interventions”.
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