Old Dogs Only Learn New Tricks When They Forget The Old Ones

When the doorbell rings at our house, our pet dog gets very excited, as Yorkies tend to do. I am trying to teach wee Haggis to sit obediently by the door. But to be successful, I need to get him to stop running out and jumping up on our visitors.

When we design approaches to fostering new behaviours and habits, whether for dogs or for people, we have to understand we are also trying to get them to drop their old habits. And old habits are hard to break.

Recently I was part of a team that conducted research on the use of curbside organic carts in a community that already provides the service to residents, but is not satisfied with the take-up. We already knew many residents weren’t putting food waste in their green carts. In a sample of waste taken from 100 homes, we found that most of the food waste (85%) was being thrown in the garbage.

When we asked residents why they didn’t put kitchen scraps in the organic cart we found the following:

  • Almost half felt it was inconvenient to sort kitchen scraps into the green cart
  • Almost 1 in 5 didn’t know that they could put kitchen waste in the green cart, with most thinking it was only for leaves, grass and other yard waste (despite having received information expressly telling them that the cart was for both kitchen and yard waste)
  • About 10% said they were concerned about potential odours or bugs

These issues represent both real and perceived barriers to people using the green cart properly. They are like a glue that keeps people stuck to their old habit of putting kitchen scraps in the garbage. It is impossible to get people to use the green bin properly without first getting them to stop putting kitchen scraps in the garbage.

To move people away from the old habit and towards the new, there are several things that can be done:

  1. Make sorting kitchen scraps just as convenient as putting it in the garbage by providing a free small kitchen scraps container that fits under the sink. Many people won’t sort the organics simply because they don’t have a container for it in the kitchen.
  2. Bridge the education gap by sending out a notice to every home telling them that kitchen scraps are to go into the green carts, and are no longer acceptable in the garbage. Include a description of what should go in the organic cart, and what should not. This information can go in the under-sink container you are providing, or can be a sticker on top of it.
  3. Reduce concerns about odours and bugs by providing tips on how to avoid them, and testimonials from people just like them who are sorting their kitchen scraps without any problems.

A key to fostering behaviour change is helping people move away from the comfort of their old behaviours so they can transition to the new, preferred ones.

As for wee Haggis, he is learning that if he comes to me instead of scrambling to the door when the doorbell rings, he gets a treat. And if he sits beside me quietly as the visitor enters, he will get another. He doesn’t always do the right thing, but he is getting better with reinforcement. Just as people do.
Find out about a behaviour change myth you should stop believing now!