Breaking Old Habits with New Games

A recent Xcel Energy blog debunking energy myths illustrates the interconnections between our products and our habits.

The blog addressed the practice of pre-rinsing dishes for the dishwasher, asserting for a second time that this was not necessary.  The echo post was prompted by the feedback Xcel got the first time they said pre-rinsing wasn’t needed, from lots of folks who disagreed.  The second post explained the cause of this disagreement:

In July 2010, several states banned the use of phosphates as an ingredient in dishwasher detergent for environmental reasons. While phosphates may be a “super cleaner,” they can cause algal bloom, disrupting the ecosystem by killing fish, insects and other plants. In response to the ban, big detergent manufacturers removed phosphates from all of their U.S. products.

Many consumers were unaware of the new anti-phosphate legislation. However, they did notice that their dishes weren’t nearly as clean.

Within a year, many detergent makers were able to successfully reformulate their products to get dishes clean without pre-rinsing.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by Xcel’s blog, the practice of pre-rinsing is lasting longer than the less-powerful dish soaps.

This story reminded me of other examples where momentary experiences with particular products produce enduring wasteful habits.  I know people who leave on the CFLs, for example, because they still remember those first bulbs that took a while to get bright.  Even though the new bulbs are much better than those early ones, there’s an assumption that the light will be compromised.  And some people waste a lot of gasoline warming up (i.e., idling) their 2010 Ford in a manner that was better suited to a 1975 model.  Again, they do this even though the user’s manual for that 2010 model recommends little or no idling.

These wasteful habits are easy to adopt because—in the moment we first tried them—we received positive reinforcement.  Rinsing dishes did ensure that they came out clean in those first months of detergents without phosphates and I can attest that warming the car meant it was a lot less sluggish on the way to high school in the 1980s.  Once formed, these habits endure because there is little incentive to test the alternatives.  Most of us don’t have time to rethink everything we do on a daily basis to determine whether or not it is wasteful.

Indeed, that is part of the challenge of adopting more environmentally sustainable behaviors—the time and effort required to identify potential actions that could be changed.  At Cool Choices we aim to overcome that barrier by offering participants in our games opportunities to earn points for simple changes.  Any action we recommend is framed in simple, clear actionable language.  People are too busy to spend time trying to guess what we intended for them to do!

More, we offer actions in digestible segments.  There are literally hundreds of ways a household might reduce waste and save money but it is overwhelming to look at that big list all at once.  So our games mete out possible actions a few at a time, giving players multiple manageable opportunities to save.

Cool Choices also includes in our games online links to credible information sources that address player skepticism.  It is hard to let go of habits that served us well in the past; some players want to see the proof that the dishes will get clean so we provide it.

Easy actions, the opportunity to earn points and independent verification that it will turn out ok…taken together all of that can help individuals shed their wasteful habits and adopt more environmentally sustainable practices.

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