Last year, Delft University of Technology  – the university where I work – launched a mobility programme. The goal was threefold: (1) fewer cars on campus, (2) a CO2 neutral campus by 2030, and (3) dealing more smartly with space scarcity. The relevance of such a programme is clear: around 27,000 people travel to our campus every day and this number increases every year. Part of the mobility programme was to stimulate the use of e-bikes among employees, facilitated by the offer of free bike use during a trial period.

I felt pressured to participate in this e-bike programme because I am prototypical for the target group: I live less than 20 kilometres from the university, I drive a car to work, and I do this more than three times a week. I felt even more pressured because I am a climate psychologist. I study sustainable behaviour and am well aware of its importance for carbon footprint reduction. Furthermore, I like bikes. I mean, I am Dutch, and Dutch people like riding bikes as a mode of transport. I know it is healthy to cycle, and I was pretty sure it would give me a positive feeling to go to work by e-bike instead of by car. Stated differently, I had the right knowledge and the right attitude to participate in the e-bike programme. But did I enrol?

According to classic views on behaviour change, you would guess I did enrol in the e-bike programme. For example, the knowledge–attitude–behaviour continuum assumes a relation between sufficient knowledge about desired behaviour (i.e., why and how I should ride an e-bike), a positive attitude towards this behaviour, resulting in a positive behaviour change. However, this linear, rational model does not take into account important psychological mechanisms that could function as a barrier towards the desired behaviour. In reality, this chain of effects is not so straight-forward (e.g., Bettinghaus, 1986). So guess what? I did not sign up for the university’s e-bike programme.

I have to admit, I did not feel good about myself. So, being a psychologist by training, I did some self-analysis to find out what prevented me from signing up. I identified that the two main psychological barriers were habit and hassle.

Habits are automatic performances of behavioural patterns triggered by context cues (Triandis, 1980). A habit is a potent and direct predictor of environmental behaviour (Klöckner, 2013). In my example, taking the car to work for over 20 years is a habit with a direct impact on my carbon footprint. Habits are easy to perform, cost relatively little time and little cognitive effort, and are functional in achieving goals (e.g., Verplanken and Aarts, 1999). Therefore, habits are hard to change, as anyone who has tried can confirm.

Hassles are annoying practical problems that characterise everyday transactions. In my example, I perceived enrolling in the e-bike programme as a hassle. That is because I needed my personnel number to complete the online subscription and could not find it. Furthermore, I anticipated hassle in collecting and returning the e-bike at the university, and storing the e-bike at home. Hassles are micro-stressors that can become big stressors when they add up. And because stress is unpleasant, people tend to avoid it (e.g., Roth & Cohen, 1986). So, if you perceive accumulated hassle during your journey towards a green life, your stress levels might increase, leading you eventually to avoid taking green measures.

Having identified these two important psychological barriers to a green ride, I went looking for interventions to break my car habit and minimise hassle perceptions. That is because I still believed that I should go to work by bike instead of by car.

First, I found that in order to discontinue my habit of choosing the car as my travel mode, I had to make use of a context change. A survey at a small English university demonstrated for example that academics and non-academics who had just moved recently (and were environmentally concerned) used the car less frequently for commuting to work than employees that had not just changed residence (Verplanken et al., 2008). I am not moving, but I reckon the current COVID-19 situation, which has kept me working at home for three months already, counts as a context change as well. I plan to take the e-bike as soon as the COVID-19 measures allow me to return to the university.

Second, I mapped out what hassles I expected to encounter during my journey to a green ride. Moreover, I wrote down how to deal with them. One by one. I got the inspiration for this intervention from one of my own research projects. We found that people perceive hassle during different stages: when they are informing themselves about green measures, when they consider taking a measure, and when they make the decision to invest in it (de Vries, Rietkerk, & Kooger, 2019). Being aware of hassles, and tackling or accepting them one-by-one took away my stress because it increased the feeling that I have control over them.

So, I am ready to hop on the e-bike. Now let’s see if my good intentions lead to long-term behaviour change.



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Gerdien de Vries is a behavioural scientist with a strong interest in unwanted – and often unforeseen – effects of (public) management strategies. She is assistant professor of public management and director of the TPM Energy Transition Lab at the faculty of Technology, Policy, and Management at Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands). Follow Gerdien on Twitter: @GerdienDeVries