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Life-changing moments: best or worst time to change behaviour?

I've just received the first newsletter of a new EU project called MIND-SETS. They will develop a new interdisciplinary view of mobility behaviour, focusing on the underlying incentives and motivations of user behaviour. Salient detail, they claim: "Particularly during certain life stages, many people show a strong preference for habitual routes with no surprises over less expensive/faster but potentially more volatile ones." (Why the 'why' matters, MIND-SETS website)

I seem to remember from other projects such as SEGMENT that life-changing moments (new job, new baby, retirement, moving house, etc) are the best times to change people's behaviour, as they have to form new habits and thus are more susceptible to change. But is this really so? Don't people have enough other things on their minds at these moments?

Does anyone have any data to resolve this question?

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2 Comments

Margaret Pesuit's picture

From Laurie Pickup, International Projects Director at Vectos (South) Limited and Scientific Coordinator of MIND-SETS:

‘I was part of the team at TSU Oxford in the 1980s that came up with the idea of ‘life shocks’ for changing travel behaviour.

However, I have not seen a piece of sound empirical work that has tested this out with large survey samples.

The theory is fine but I think it is better to think in terms of changing the mood and changing behaviour.

Behaviour has to have a background change in the mood to sustainable living (and where campaigns can help), which is nudged into a behaviour change – for example by a new mobility offer – the campaign on its own is not enough and transport planners place too high expectations in this respect. Together in the right time and place, it can be effective. I am not sure life changes on their own are significant, if only because when the theory was developed in the 1980s, society was more simple and life shocks clear to see. Now people fade into retirement, their mobility is already sufficient for the start of a family etc.’

Margaret Pesuit's picture

From Berfu Ünal, researcher in traffic and environmental psychology at the University of Groningen, and member of the MIND-SETS team:

‘There has been some research indeed showing that habits can be countered via certain interventions when a person is experiencing a life-changing event. I think such studies have been carried out with people who recently changed house and moved to a new place. The question was whether that led to reducing your car-use and switching to environmentally-friendly transport modes for everyday commuting. We know from literature that habits are strong in the environment where they were initially developed because certain cues in that environment activate the (transport) habits automatically. When you change your environment, those cues are absent. As a result, the automatic nature of the habitual behaviour would be weakened for a certain time, and you would be more likely to consider alternative ways of commuting or be receptive to evaluate new knowledge regarding alternatives. 

I can totally see why people might hold on to their old habits even more due to having many things on their minds, such as when they move to a new house. But apparently, breaking the old habits is easier when the context is different. Maybe this also depends on the life-changing event, and whether it is a negative or positive event. 

I am not aware of any studies that have focused on having a baby or having a new job, but I have a feeling that such life-changing events work like New Year’s resolutions. With new beginnings you might like to change bad habits, like quitting smoking when you have a baby. But again, I am not aware of any studies that have empirically tested these assumptions.’