Why your brain stops you from being eco-friendly…and what you can do about it

Do you want to have a more sustainable lifestyle?

Probably yes.

Almost everyone would like to act more responsibly and sustainably.

In Futerra’s new survey of over 1,000 consumers in the USA and UK, it was found that 96% of people feel their own actions, such as donating, recycling or buying ethically, can make a difference. If you read these lines, you’re likely to feel the same.

However, are your actions totally aligned with your beliefs? Are you doing everything you wish to do to have a more sustainable lifestyle?

Probably not.

Some of the core reasons can simply be found in the way our brain is wired.

The aim of this article, the first of a series on this topic, is to look at some of the biases that play a role in our decisions process and explore the gap between our attitudes and our actions towards sustainability.

Part 1: The status quo bias.

Roughly 50% of our actions are made out of habits. For most of us, consuming responsibly means to develop new habits or to change existing ones. In either case, you might be well aware that it’s extremely challenging to change existing and/or to develop new habits.

Let’s have a look at the power of the effect of this status quo; in other words: why is it so hard to change?

1) Status quo, a biological justification

Biologically, your brain accounts for 2% to 3% of your body mass but uses 15% to 20% of the total energy used by your body.

As the brain need in energy is high and the energy of our body limited, the brain tends to do everything to optimize the energy use.

The Nobel Prize winning psychologist, and one of the fathers of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman, is at the root of a groundbreaking theory regarding the way our brain operates.

There is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: "System 1": fast, instinctive and emotional; and "System 2" is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

Doing things by habit allows the brain to save energy: this is part of “System 1” mode of thought. The repetition and automatization of the task don’t require our full attention on the various decisions we’re making while doing the action. This also allows us to do multiple things at the same time. Because it’s energy-efficient, the brain will constantly push us to use this mode of thought.

On the contrary, executing a new task requires the brain to fully focus to consider a new set of decisions, which is energy consuming (System 2).

No wonder we tend to avoid making decisions and our habits stick so much.


Examples of Systems 1 and 2

System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, unconscious. Examples (in order of complexity) of things system 1 can do:

  • determine that an object is at a greater distance than another

  • localize the source of a specific sound

  • display disgust when seeing a gruesome image

  • solve 2+2=?

  • drive a car on an empty road

  • understand simple sentences

System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.

  • dig into your memory to recognize a sound

  • sustain a higher than normal walking rate

  • count the number of A's in a certain text

  • give someone your phone number

  • park into a tight parking space

  • determine the price/quality ratio of two washing machines

  • determine the validity of a complex logical reasoning

  • solve 17 × 24


2) The status quo bias as psychological blocks

We like what is familiar.

Robert Zajonc is the first psychologist who showed that the more you are familiar with an object, a stimulus or a person, the more you will develop a sense of preference towards them, independently from what you think about their qualities and characteristics.

Repetition creates familiarity. Familiarity seems safe.

One explanation of the fact that we like familiarity can be found in the struggle for survival. As humans evolved we repeated behaviors whose outcome was known in an effort to stay safe and limit risks.

Novelties could kill us while familiar products/action were by default proven to be safe.

This can explain why buying healthy snacks for the first time is never easy or why you didn’t pick up this organic deodorant although you promised yourself you would try it months ago. While you might not think that you are going to die if you try that new snack or deodorant, you will feel more comfortable and have a strong tendency to keep buying the known tried and true products.

So now that we understand the biological and psychological factors, what can we do to change the status quo?

3) how to challenge the status quo

The following is my attempt at giving some directions to behaviour change within a context of habits. These steps are fundamental points to explore, yet they are only starting points and the list is non-exhaustive.

A) Hack your future self

In their book, Nudge, about decision making, Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein describe the planner and the doer. The planner and the doer exist within each of us. The planner sets the plan of grocery shopping in the evening after work with the intent of going to the store to get healthy food. The doer is the part of us that, at the supermarket, might follow the plan or buy a few, or a lot of unhealthy food he/she is craving for.

When the plan is not executed, we tend to blame the “doer” part of us that failed in implementing the plan.

However, according to the authors of Nudge, the problem comes from the planner.

If the doer has not executed the plan, it’s because the planner didn’t anticipate and stimulate the motivation factors at the time when the doer needs to take the action.

In other words, the planner’s job is to understand and utilize things that will motivate our doer to take action when the time comes. And this is especially true in situations where the action to be taken is challenging.

One solution is to commit yourself/your organisation prior to the execution of the task.

Example 1: ask yourself to complete an on-going process

Prior to the grocery shopping moment, you could decide on a healthy meal to cook. Prepare the recipe of a tasty healthy meal from which all the ingredients needs to be bought at the supermarket to cook this meal later on. The thought of having a yummy meal is a motivator and planning the recipe is a strong way to keep the “doer” on track.

Example 2: position yourself as accountable socially

By connecting your own action to the action of external partners, you are engaged in a collective movement where you are less likely to drop out because you are committed socially. The 10x20x30 Initiative is a good illustration: the initiative brings together 10 of the world’s biggest food retailers and providers to each engage with 20 of their priority suppliers to aim to halve rates of food loss and waste by 2030.

B) Generate unconscious automatisms

One means of transitioning people from an old habit to a new one is to have them consider implementation intentions, steps they will take to engage in the action.

Basically, an implementation intention is an “if – then” plan (“if situation Y is encountered, then I will initiate behaviour Z in order to reach goal X”).

The individuals should easily recognise the anticipated situation when it arises and then initiate the linked action immediately, efficiently, and without requiring a conscious intent to act in the critical moment.

One popular implementation intentions is the concept of stacking habits developed in the book from James Clear “Atomic Habits.” One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behaviour on top.

Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, pair it with a current habit.

Example 1: When doing your weekly laundry, check your closet to identify what you have that you haven’t worn and what use you could make out of it.

Example 2: in your company, place recycle bins nearby the coffee machine with colour coding and simple instructions.

These implementation intentions should be:

• easy

• prompts

• incentivised

• be fun

WeSpire has created a platform where users earn points for completing certain sustainability actions, such as recycling or using more environmentally-friendly products. Points are shown on a leaderboard and achievements can even be posted on Facebook, turning the persuasive power of social media into a tool for positive change. You can imagine rewarding the most performing employees on a weekly basis using this game.

C) Trick your self-perception to align actions towards your goal 

People like to be consistent with the things they have previously said or done.

This principle of consistency is one of the 6 principles of persuasion explained by Cialdini in his brilliant book “Influence and Manipulation, 1984.”

Consistency is activated by looking for, and asking for, small initial commitments that can be made. In one famous set of studies, researchers found, rather unsurprisingly, that very few people would be willing to erect an unsightly wooden board on their front lawn to support a Drive Safely campaign in their neighborhood.

However, in a similar neighborhood close by, four times as many homeowners indicated that they would be willing to erect this unsightly billboard. Why? Because ten days previously, they had agreed to place a small postcard in the front window of their homes that signaled their support for a Drive Safely campaign. That small card was the initial commitment that led to a 400% increase in a much bigger but still consistent change.

When a small sustainable action has been taken, ie: I bought organic vegetables, I didn’t buy plastic packaged products etc. The perception of the person evolved to match this small action, mainly unconsciously. Moving forward, this person will be looking at repeating similar actions because of our need to be consistent.

Example 1: People who first brought a reusable shopping bag to the market will spend more on sustainable food options moving forward.

Example 2: A company that is committed to reduce energy consumption and has put a measurable process in place will be more likely to develop waste management solutions.

Our life is a sum of habits.

Defining individual and holistic habits that will generate positive outcomes for ourselves , and our impact on the planet is one of the biggest challenges of our time. The achievement of adopting a sustainable lifestyle lies in our capacity to overcome biological and psychological blocks so we can shift habits for the greater good.

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

Questions? Thoughts? Get in touch — I’d love to hear them!

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Nudge. Richard Thaler Cass Sustein. 2008

Green Nudge. Eric Singler 2020.

How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviors to be More Sustainable: A Literature

Review and Guiding Framework. 2019

American Marketing Association. Katherine White , Rishad Habib, and David J. Hardisty

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