Local/Regional Economic and Community Development

January 08, 2015

Time for Change in Habits?

By Scott Hutcheson

Assistant Program Leader for Community Development, Purdue Extension and
Senior Associate, Purdue Center for Regional Development

Scott Hutcheson works with local and regional communities across the U.S. and abroad, helping civic leaders implement strategies to grow their local economies and ensure quality of life for residents.


It's January, the start of a new year, which means that many of us have made some sort of resolution. Researchers at the University of Scranton tell us that nearly half - 47 percent - of adults in the U.S. make some sort of resolution, and that the most common are to lose weight, get organized and spend less/save more. They also report that only about 8 percent of those making resolutions will be successful in achieving them, but that those who do explicitly make them are 10 times more likely to achieve their goals then those who do not explicitly make resolutions.

Part of what makes resolutions difficult to keep is that they demand a change in our habits, and that's hard to do. A recent story on National Public Radio reporting on what science tells us about translating our resolve into changed behavior. One of the insights was that there are two sorts of behaviors: those that we perform infrequently and those that we perform very frequently.

So a resolution to finally build shelves in the basement to help organize your totes and boxes is a very different sort of behavior than giving up cigarettes, when smoking is something you likely do several times each day. Those who want to change the behavior of others have had pretty good success with infrequent actions. Public awareness campaigns promoting annual preventative health screening, for instance, have worked well. They work less well for more frequent actions, like smoking. The most effective way to change more frequent behaviors is to change the environment in which the action occurs.

Environment is such a powerful factor that the researchers say we often "outsource control to the environment," leaving us virtually powerless to make the change without changing the environment around us. If you eat your nightly pint of ice cream while sitting on the couch watching "Wheel of Fortune" at 7 p.m., then DVR the show and watch it in the bedroom before going to bed, ideally without the ice cream. You've changed the environment.

What, if anything, can this research on individual habits and behavior change tell us about our civic habits? By "civic habits" I mean the things we do to make the communities we live in better places. Perhaps the most obvious civic habit is that of voting. That falls into the infrequent behavior category. Although, voter turnout could certainly be higher, efforts to increase voter turnout have had some positive impact.

But what about civic habits that go beyond casting a vote? Another group of researchers provide a useful definition for this type of civic participation. They describe civic habits as those that are "aimed at solving community problems." In my experience, I've encountered very few communities that have developed the civic habit of coming together to address community issues.

The habit I have seen, however, is an enthusiastic willingness to complain about what's going on in the community. We've even come up with some clever acronyms to describe these folks: NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything).

Visit a local coffee shop or log into a local online discussion board, and you will see this particular civic habit in full force: significant numbers of folks having daily discussions about what everybody else is doing wrong in their community.

Imagine trying to change that particular civic habit by redirecting the conversation from a negative spiral to a more positive, "What could we do together to make our community an even better place?"

A few communities have been successful in changing that conversation or starting appreciative conversation where no conversations had existed at all. They took a lesson from the research on habits and changed the environment by offering a regular forum to have such discussions.

Nearly 15 years ago, Ernest Andrade decided to create a new civic habit in Charleston, South Carolina. The city's economy had been riding the wave of tourism for some time, but leaders knew this was not sustainable in the long run. Andrade launched Fridays @ The Corridor, a civic forum to talk about what might be next for Charleston and how to take action to make something happen. All these years later, the forum is still going strong and is now an ongoing civic habit. It has been the catalyst for diversifying Charleston's economy into a high-tech hub, as well as a terrific vacation destination.

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