Lick your teeth and recycle: The power of Habit and climate change.

I have been struggling with a question for couple of months now: how to motivate people when there is no return on investment? So, what do I mean by this and why is this important? This is how I see the future of our planet with regards to climate change(1). There are two obvious outcomes, we (humans) either fail and live in a world of rising seas and prolonged droughts, or we succeed and live life in a world that looks the same as the one we live in today. Success without gain troubles me. It is a far cry from the idea of success you see with the likes of Conor McGregor, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey and Phil Knight. How can you motivate someone to make a change in their life when this change (if made by all of us) will make essentially no difference? I write now with the belief that we will tackle climate change and win.

The first thing I’d like to answer is, what else is this like? Is there a situation where we do something every day just to be the same? I believe I have found the answer. BRUSHING OUR TEETH. Please, bear with me here. I know it’s a bit ridiculous.  For the average person, we brush our teeth so they don’t fall out. Fair enough, some toothpastes make your teeth whiter, but in general we do it so our teeth don’t rot and decay. Can you see that parallels to climate change? If we fail to brush our teeth they will fall out sooner rather than later, and if we do decide to brush we will have the teeth we have now, as they are, for the foreseeable future. We tackle something now so that it can be the same in the future. Not so dissimilar to climate change in my opinion.

This wasn’t always the case, people didn’t always brush their teeth. So, what caused the change and can the community tacking climate change learn from this? Let me take you back to early 1900s America and introduce you to a great man, Claude Hopkins. He was an original ad man turning unknown products into household names and did so for the likes of Quaker Oats and Goodyear tires.

In the early 1900s Hopkins was approached by an old friend who had discovered an amazing product, Pepsodent, a minty and foamy toothpaste. Now Hopkins was at the top of the advertising industry, and frankly at the time this was financial suicide.  Hardly anyone brushed their teeth, and prior to Pepsodent only 7% of Americans owned a tube of toothpaste. It was no secret either that the health of Americans teeth was in sharp decline. As the country became wealthier, people were buying larger amounts of sugary, processed foods. When the government was recruiting people for World War One, so many recruits had rotten teeth that officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk.  Regardless, Hopkins took the job.

Now almost everyone brushes their teeth, so what exactly did Hopkins do?

He created a Habit Loop, and more importantly (and by mistake) he created a craving. The habit loop is a well-studied phenomenon and in its simplest form has three stages: Cue, Routine, Reward. First, there is a cue, a trigger, to tell your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. And finally, the reward, which helps your brain figure out if the loop is worth remembering. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward –becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.  See here for a deeper explanation, http://charlesduhigg.com/how-habits-work/. I got this information from Charles Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

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So how did Hopkins develop this habit loop for brushing your teeth? To sell Pepsodent, Hopkins needed a trigger that would justify toothpastes daily use. He focused on tooth film, the mucin plaques found on teeth. This film is a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush. In fact, toothpaste didn’t do anything to help remove the film, but that didn’t stop Hopkins. This he decided was the cue to trigger the habit. So, he plastered ads all over America. One read “Just run your tongue along your teeth. You’ll feel the film – that’s what makes your teeth to look off color and invites decay”. The brilliance of this ad is that the cue was simple and almost impossible to ignore. Tell someone to run their tongue across their teeth and most will, and sure enough they will find the film. In fact, did you just run your tongue along your teeth?

After the campaign launched a quiet week passed. Then two. In the third week, demand exploded. There were so many orders for Pepsodent the company couldn’t keep up. In three years, the toothpaste went international. Before Pepsodent, as I said earlier, only 7% of American households had a tube of toothpaste, a decade later 65%, and after World War 2, the military downgraded their concerns about recruits’ teeth because most soldiers were brushing anyway.

However, there is something more needed to ingrain the habit loop, something that Hopkins didn’t know about: the reward, the craving.  Unlike other toothpastes at the time, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals. The inventor of Pepsodent included these ingredients to make the toothpaste fresh, but what he didn’t realise is that they are irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums. People began to crave this sensation, and believed that if this sensation wasn’t there, their teeth didn’t get cleaned. Hopkins wasn’t selling beautiful teeth, he was selling the sensation. As the German/American economist and Harvard Professor said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”.

So, bringing it all back to climate change. What have we learned?  To create a habit you need a cue, routine and a reward. This is the same with anything, for example exercise. Create a cue, an alarm maybe, then exercise and perhaps give yourself a nice smoothie when you’re finished. Another parallel to the climate change is sunscreen and skin cancer. If you apply sunscreen every day you reduce the risk of skin cancer, yet less than 10% of Americans do it. Why? No cue nor reward. So, to tackle climate change and create small changes in our daily lives we need to create the Habit Loop. Let’s take waste for example. You may see a cue on the packaging which causes you to recycle, then a reward of some kind. What this could be I have no idea, perhaps the recycling bin says, “good job”. Similarly, with cycling to work, the cue could be a sunny day and perhaps the business gives you a free coffee when you arrive.

I don’t know what we could use create these habit loops, but I believe they are the way forward. I find that many reasons we are pushed to make small positive changes is because of guilt and I don’t believe this is good way to motivate people. I think the Habit Loop is key, like the teeth brushing, it will help us to make many small positive changes even though there isn’t a direct or immediate return on investment.  Perhaps it isn’t the best way, but I believe it is a good answer to the question, how to motivate people when there is no return on investment?

 

  1. True, the climate is always changing, but here I am using United Nations definition of climate change. “Attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability”. https://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/background_publications_htmlpdf/application/pdf/conveng.pdf
  2. For a bit of fun check out this old pepsodent ad: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pepspdent+ad+1956
  3. https://mustbethistalltoride.com/category/stuff-i-need-help-with/page/2/

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