Rethinking behaviour change with Dewey

The annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers ended two weeks ago but I have not been able to write about my experiences during the conference so far. This post will address the presentation I gave at the conference, where I was part of a very interesting panel on what pragmatism — the philosophical movement that emerged from the work of RW Emerson, CS Peirce, W James and J Dewey around the turn of the 20th century in the USA — has to contribute to contemporary human geography. I gave a paper on how the work of Dewey (and James) on habits can be used to rethinking existing conceptualisations of behaviour change in academia and policy with regard to mobility, energy consumption and in other domains.

The thrust of my argument was that Dewey in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) offers a useful perspective on behaviour change that can function as a corrective for prevailing conceptualisations in behavioural economics, social and behavioural psychology, and thinking on habits in sociology and geography. This is because Dewey strikes, perhaps more successfully than other thinkers, a genuine balance between body and mind: he refrains from privileging one over the other and avoids the risk of making too much (economics, psychology) or too little (non-representational thinking in geography) of reflective thought.

More specifically, Human Nature and Conduct understands habits as forceful predispositions to act and interact with one’s environment, and not as actual behaviour. As such habits are socially constructed, ecological (they are not attributes of an individual but distributed across individual and environment) and generative. For Dewey repetition is not the essence of habits; what is important is that they propel individuals into action. The key distinction is not between habit and (reflective) thought, but between routine habits and intelligent habits. Both entail mechanism but in quite different ways. Routine habits reflect the often inert and maladapted mechanism of the ‘mere technician’; it amounts to ‘enslavement to old ruts’. In contrast, intelligent habits  amount to the mechanisms of the artist which are infused with thought and feeling and which afford mastery of emergent conditions; the archetypal example would be the piano virtuoso. The implications of this way of thinking are that  habit and reflective thought are non-exclusive of each other, and that thought itself is habitual.

Dewey also offers an interesting perspective on how habits and thought emerge. Discussing this is beyond the scope of this post but suffice to say that, on a Deweyian view, an always changing configuration of habits allow people to move through the situations of everyday life in a more or less unthinking manner. However, the working of those configurations can be disrupted by problems thrown up by the ‘on-flow’ of situations of which individuals as bundles of habit become part. Habits of movement , for instance, are impeded when suddenly confronted with a forked road. It is at such moments that, triggered by ‘impulse’ or instinctive and biologically driven action, emotions surge and reflective thought (as a function of mental habits) emerges in a person. So, as in recent perspectives in the life sciences, the philosophies of AN Whitehead and M Merleau-Ponty and contemporary social theories of affect, reflective thought is not primordial to action but a consequence of how individuals interact with their environment.

The point of reflective thought, for Dewey, is to transform (disrupted) action, impulse and emotions into a new course of action and so create a new meta-stable equilibrium between individual and his/her environment. This may imply that previously created habits need to be updated or revised. And for Dewey the role of reflective thought in habit change is crucial as it alone makes durable change possible. Impulse and emotion are crucially important to behaviour change but their surge wears off over time in ways that does not (always) happen with reflective thought. At the same time, Dewey was adamant that emotion and thought are continuous. They are not to be thought of in dualistic terms, but as mutually reinforcing: thought powered by feeling is likely to be more effective in bringing about change.

What does all of this mean for thinking about behaviour change with regard to mobility and energy consumption? I believe there are two key lessons here. One pertains to education — a topic on which Dewey has written extensively throughout his academic career and for which he is arguably most well known; the other to change of the environment which gets incorporated in habits.

Dewey was clear that changes to the ‘objective environment’ were the only way to influence habit formation through policy and governance. On the face of it, this reasoning appears to support such initiatives as New Urbanism or road pricing policies to trigger behaviour change in everyday mobility. However, a Deweyian perspective moves us beyond  this. It is not enough to increase densities, walkability and public transport accessibility in general; the challenge is to start from the situations of ongoing activity: what were people doing before taking a trip? where do they want to go? what/whom do they need to travel with? etcetera. This means that the lessons from activity-based approaches to passenger transport and time-geography need to be taken serious and to the extreme. The focus should really be on how each individual trip is embedded in the lived experience of everyday life and on all the problematisations (where problem is defined in the Deweyian sense outlined above) one may encounter along the way.

With regard to education, a Deweyian perspective foregrounds the importance of helping the younger generations — society’s future — to learn mental habits and habits of overt action that differ from ours. They, first of all, need to develop the skills to low-carbon mobility. So cycling training where children learn-by-doing how to navigate complex traffic situations should be a key part of primary education across the Global North: today’s practical skills are tomorrow’s mental habits. All generations — but especially the younger for whom mental habits are easier to change — should also be stimulated to develop new mental habits. Educating them about the ‘unfreedoms’ and socio-environmental costs of automobiles would be one part of this; another would be to learn them to resist to think in silo’s about energy use. This would hopefully prevent the pattern of what behavioural economists call mental accounting and that can be observed in many users of transport systems (myself included) who walk and cycle extensively to access everyday activities and hence consider themselves to be environmentally conscious but who also treat themselves to one or more long-distance trips by airplane for holiday or leisure purposes and so increase their emissions of greenhouse gases far beyond those of people who use the car much more often and only make short-distance holiday and leisure trips by surface modes of transport. Clearly, then, the forms of education that can be derived from a Deweyian perspective on habit and behaviour change are quite different from the social marketing and attitude oriented approaches that would result from a behavioural psychology account.

Exploring all details of Dewey’s account of habits is beyond this post, and the same applies to all the lessons for policy and governance. However, I hope to have made clear that a Deweyian vision can usually complement existing thinking on behaviour change. I am sure I will be writing more on this theme in the future.