What British Drivers Can Teach Us About Sticking to Our Ideals

A few years ago, the media noticed something off about people who claimed to support environmental causes versus people who did anything about it. In polls, millennials ranked highest among the generational groups for support of climate change legislation, yet oddly ranked last for daily participation in “green” habits, such as shopping with reusable bags or unplugging devices when they left for the day. While half of the overall population recycles regularly, only a third of millennials are equally as conscientious. As one could probably guess of a generation fond of “hashtagivism,” millennials, it seems, are all talk and little follow through.

This trait is not unique to those aged 18 to 35. By studying the driving habits of United Kingdom citizens, researchers Gregory Owen Thomas, Wouter Poortinga, and Elena Sautkina showed that fading idealism is extraordinarily prevalent. Age, socioeconomic status, race and environment (urban vs. rural) all appear unrelated to our ability to stick to our stated ideals. Using data from a UK driving study, which asked about driving habits, stance on environmental causes, and the length of time spent at current residencies, the scientists found a disturbing pattern: Strongly pro-environmental attitudes only predicted changes in driving habits immediately after a respondent moved to a new home. A month after moving, someone with strongly pro-environmental views was significantly more likely to use alternative transportation as opposed to driving. “However, this effect is relatively short-lived,” the authors write in their report, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE. “A sharp rise in probability of car use is observed as the time spent living at the same location increases, before gradually increasing over time.”

In all cases — regardless of age, status or setting — as time progressed (the researchers examined periods one month, one year, and 10 years after the move), people with strong pro-environmental attitudes and people with weak pro-environmental attitudes looked no different at all. Reading the study is fascinating: What was happening to the British drivers? What about the move allowed them to suddenly stick to their ideals, and what about the ensuing years prevented them from doing so? Most importantly, what could we learn from them?


“If you know something’s bad for you, why can’t you just stop?” asks a blog post on the National Institutes of Health website. “About 70% of smokers say they would like to quit. Drug and alcohol abusers struggle to give up addictions that hurt their bodies and tear apart families and friendships. … So why don’t we [quit]?”

The answer, the NIH postulates, lies in a chemical called dopamine. If you’ve ever done any late-night browsing about chocolate, drug addicts or runner’s’ highs, you’ve read that dopamine is one of our brain’s “feel-good” hormones. Dopamine is released any time there is a positive payoff, including when we successfully complete a goal or repeat a familiar action. This serves as a compelling way to establish routines, good or bad: Once your brain gets used to the release of dopamine, it’s difficult to stop a behavior. If you’ve ever tried to kick the habit of drinking a glass of wine each night (like I have), you probably noticed it seemed much more emotionally exhausting than physically exhausting. Life doesn’t seem as rich as before. You’re left with a feeling that can only be described as “hollow.”

This is why new dieters are told to focus on including good foods — and not, as most people’s intuition instructs them, on avoiding bad ones. The brain tries to maintain familiar behavior to guarantee its daily doses of dopamine. But, if we can give the brain the dopamine it wants without engaging in bad habits (by, say, enjoying a mountain of steamed asparagus instead of a pile of white potatoes), we can trick ourselves into forming a new routine. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, explains in the blog post: “Certain groups of patients who have a history of serious addictions can engage in certain behaviors that are ritualistic and in a way compulsive—such as marathon running—and it helps them stay away from drugs. These alternative behaviors can counteract the urges to repeat a behavior to take a drug.”

The trick, the NIH and others have argued, is to make dopamine work for you. For this, you’ll need the element of surprise.

Shock value

In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, authors Chip and Dan Heath examine common attributes of stories, campaigns or ideas that are “sticky,” based on the term developed by Malcolm Gladwell in his iconic book The Tipping Point. To prompt a big, sweeping change, not only does an idea need to be phrased in a way that is interesting, it must also be unexpected, the Heath’s argue. It must stand out.

The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern. Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. Consistent sensory stimulation makes us tune out: Think of the hum of an air conditioner, or traffic noise, or the smell of a candle, or the sight of a bookshelf. We may become consciously aware of these things only when something changes: The air conditioner shuts off. Your spouse rearranges the books.

I can’t begin to count the number of times I have been part of a marketing brainstorming session in which we bemoaned the need for something “new” or “original.” But legal will never approve it! Marketers constantly fight with legal teams who tightly control messaging, forcing the use of old, safe-but-stale messages. This results in campaigns that are dismally ineffective. The Heaths would likely argue it’s because these campaigns are dismally expected. After all, what is an election ad, other than a spot about how a candidate is different from all other candidates, in ways identical to all other candidates? In a recent NPR piece, political scientist Diana Mutz commented that these ads return a miserably low value for the investment. “There’s very little evidence that ads make much of a difference in a presidential campaign.”

Contrast that with an ad the Heath’s detail in their book, produced by the Ad Council for the Department of Transportation.

[A] minivan cruises slowly through suburban streets. ‘With features like remote-controlled sliding rear doors, 150 cable channels, a full sky-view roof, temperature-controlled cup holders, and the six-point navigation system … It’s the minivan for families on the go.’

The Enclave pulls to a stop at the intersection. The camera zooms in on the boy, gazing out a side window that reflects giant, leafy trees. Dad pulls into the intersection.

That’s when it happens.

A speeding car barrels into the intersection and broadsides the minivan. There is a terrifying collision, with metal buckling and an explosion of broken glass.

The screen fades to black, and a message appears: ‘Didn’t see that coming?’

The question fades and is replaced by a statement: ‘No one ever does.’

With the sound of a stuck horn blaring in the background, a final few words flash across the screen: ‘Buckle up … Always.’

Simple. Shocking. Memorable.

Breaking the routine

Why is unexpectedness so successful? It again goes back to dopamine. While we typically associate a dopamine release with gratification, stress plays an equally important role in getting ourselves to feel good. A runner’s high only comes about after physical stress. Scientists who studied the brains of veterans suffering from PTSD found that the sound of gunfire triggers a release of dopamine. These experience can hardly be described as purely “pleasurable.” Today, psychologists argue dopamine is less a feel-good hormone and more a motivational hormone. When we encounter uncomfortable experiences, we are motivated to act, to find a solution to the problem. As anyone who has pushed through mile 20 of a marathon can attest, this act of surmounting a challenge results in an intense feeling of masochistic happiness.

At first glance, this appears contradictory. How can both a low-stress habitual process and a high-stress challenge each result in the same outcome? Due to the way our brain processes timing, these processes are not mutually-exclusive. When we complete a daily ritual, our brain views it as a success. We get rewarded. When we’re met with a difficult task, our brain anticipates future success. We get rewarded. This is undoubtedly a response humans have developed over time: The feeling of excitement you get when you think about a daunting challenge (like day one of marathon training) is supremely motivating. If you felt differently there’s little likelihood you would take the first step.

These two types of dopamine triggers can be seen in the UK study, beginning with the habitual drivers. In their paper the authors describe something called the habit discontinuity hypothesis. “A complication with habits is the difficulty in changing them. Habitual behaviours are characterised by automatic processes, which may prevent people considering information to change their behaviour.” Previous research has found that people’s expressed intentions (I want to go to the gym more… I want to use alternative means of transportation… etc.) rarely correlate with actual behavior. Conversely, habit strength is highly correlated with behavior, and habits, as the authors point out, are “contextually-cued, and thus dependent on a stable context.” Familiarity breeds a sense of control. In deciding to drive to work, the UK drivers felt certain they would successfully navigate the drive home each day, which their brains projected as a future achievement. Thus, each morning, they were rewarded with a small hit of dopamine.

Is this hormone-induced behavior the reason the pro-environment respondents appear incapable of committing to their stated beliefs? Are the drivers, in effect, addicted to the habit of driving? The answer, as the authors argue, is yes:

With a breaking of previous habits and increased consideration of travel mode choice after moving home, the self-activation hypothesis would suggest that pro-environmental views become a stronger influence on decisions of travel mode choice. Additionally the inverse is also supported; people who resided at the same location for longer periods of time (a more stable context) had negligible links between their pro-environmental views and their travel mode choice behaviour. The lack of association between attitudes and behaviour is likely to be reflective of the weaker link between intentions and behaviour when habits are stronger, and stronger travel habits minimise the impact of conscious intentions on travel mode choice.

New Year’s

With each data point, it’s as if you can see the tragedy of New Year’s played over and over again. After moving to a new home, the owners look around, considering their travel options, and suddenly, the world is open to them: Released from their previous commutes, they are suddenly free to consider public transportation. And if protecting the environment is important, they’ll begin to take alternative means of transportation to work. However, a few weeks into their new life, they are running late. In a rush, they resort back to what they know best: driving by car. Because they feel more certain of the car than the bus — and thus more certain they’ll get the dopamine reward for the achievement of being on time — they choose the car. They’ll be back on the bus tomorrow, they rationalize. Then tomorrow comes around, and they remember how difficult it is to take public transportation. They are surrounded by people they don’t know, who are often in a terrible mood. They can’t control anything, the schedule, the traffic, the music, the air temperature.

As the data show, it takes less than a year for the impact of environmental views on driving habits to disappear. People get tired. People return to their familiar ways of life. Dopamine wins out, and the chance to form new habits is gone.

Does that mean hope is lost? Are we to sit back, relegated to the complete inability to make a positive change? Not at all, the authors would argue. And this is where the second type of dopamine trigger takes effect. Each year, a small percentage of UK drivers switch to alternative transportation. UK Census data shows a decrease in driving and an increase in public railway usage since 2001, especially in urban areas such as London. Annually, a few people are able to adapt to the new living situation and use dopamine to their advantage. They are able to project the feeling of achievement not on the completion of their daily car-based commute, but on their contribution to protecting the environment. They’ve taken advantage of their new situation, in which nothing seems familiar, and they’ve outsmarted their dopamine reward system.

However, it’s only after the respondents move homes that they are able to make the switch. Only after they are met with the challenge of finding a new way to commute are they able to consider other options. Habits can no longer restrict their choices because their living situation has changed. This supports other research that has indicated that it’s easier for people to make positive changes after moving to a new city, or after getting back from vacation. To borrow the terminology from the Heath’s book, a fresh slate, while not a guarantee, is the unexpected tipping point the UK drivers need to make public transportation stick.


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Image from: Pixabay.com 

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