Overcoming our Brain: The Psychology behind a Plastics Challenge

If you have ever started a diet, or told yourself you are never eating sugar or chocolate again, you will know how tough it can be and how all you think about is the forbidden items.
This can be the same, if you try to make changes to your lifestyle for the environment, like going vegan or plastic-free. In this blog, we will unpack the psychological factors at work and how undertaking a month challenge like Veganuary or the Lent Plastic challenge or Plastic Free July can achieve long-term behaviour change.
​Read on for the psychological drivers that influence our behaviours. 

Why giving something up is painful and daunting?


When we are told, or tell ourselves, that we can’t have something we experience ‘loss aversion’. And due to our human survival mechanisms, we are actually wired to experience loss twice as painfully as the joy of pleasure; so it actually hurts to give something up!

Also due to our survival instincts, we also struggle with long-term comprehension, but are more focused on the immediate future which is why, for so long, we have struggled to comprehend climate change as explained in the book ‘Don’t even think about it‘.

So how do we overcome this?

By doing a month-long challenge, we can tell our brain, it is not forever which is less daunting and painful.

Rather than the loss, we can also focus on all the things we are going to bring into our lives and how we can replace the items we are giving up by finding recipes and solutions. And our brain will love this process because our brains enjoy solving problems, which is why crosswords and computer games are so popular

​The allure of convenience and plastic packaging

No, our brains are not wired to find satisfaction in un-packaging and throwing away plastic wrappers. However, our brain is constantly seeking out the easy option and the shortcut which is why convenience is king and plastic-packaged goods have become so indispensable.
Trying to overcome convenience can be challenging, but it is why when you seek out alternatives you need to find things that are quick and easy- which is all the recipes in Lent Plastic Challenge are simple and straight forward (because I don’t have much time, and I actually switch off from a recipe with lots of ingredients).


​At least 21 days to change our plastic habits

Whilst we humans like to think we are rational beings making conscious choices, it turns out that most of the time we are going through life on autopilot because our brains like to automate as much as possible. This means that most of our day-to-day shopping behaviours and purchasing choices are because of habit or impulse, whereas shopping plastic-free requires more conscious thought and planning.

It is believed that we need at least 21 days to create or break a new habit, hence why month-long challenges work so well. To avoid overwhelm it is important not to take on too many new behaviours at once, which is why during any plastics challenge we suggest doing a couple of items a week, rather than going all-out plastic-free at once, because this can be overwhelming and too much to remember for a life on autopilot.

​The importance of public commitment

As humans, we are very social creatures and we care a lot about what other people think of us, so maintaining our public persona is important. This means if we make a public commitment, we are more likely to stick to it than if we just commit to ourselves.
So getting your friends, family and work colleagues involved in a challenge, or joining a Facebook plastic-free group (there are local, national and international ones); and making a public pledge will increase your success rate.


Apply behaviour change thinking to your challenges


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