Holidays: Leaving green behaviours behind

Last week I went on holiday, and a strange thing happened as soon as I took off my daily life hat, and put on my holiday hat – my behaviour changed. I’m not talking about the fact that I started having a beer with lunch, or wearing shorts to dinner. There’s nothing strange about that.

No, what I’m talking about is the fact that as soon as I flipped the holiday switch, some of my green/sustainable/environmentally friendly behaviours seemed to go out of the window. First the car window, then the plane window, then the window of another car.

I usually see my transport choices as a significant part of my ‘green’ lifestyle – I use a car as little as possible, I get public transport or walk wherever I can. But for some reason, once I was on holiday, I gave no more than the briefest moment of thought to jumping in the car to drive to the airport, hopping on a cheap flight, then collecting another car to get to my accommodation at the other end… and to pop to the shops, to an interesting sight, or out for dinner.

This piece of self-reflection raised two interesting questions for me: First, is it just me? Second, why did I behave like this?

Following a bit of asking and a bit of digging around, I discovered that some attempts have already been made to answer these questions. Dr Stewart Barr and colleagues at the University of Exeter questioned over 200 people, and discovered that, like me, often their behaviours at home don’t reflect their holiday behaviours. This is particularly apparent when it comes to flying – paradoxically it seems to be those people who are most aware of the damaging effects of flying who are most likely to commit the cardinal sin of air travel. These are also the people who are most likely to be ‘doing their bit’ to mitigate the effects of climate change at home, such as recycling, and using low carbon transport alternatives.

One finding from the study is particularly interesting: the researchers discovered that when someone is a ‘green living’ person, who makes an effort to behave in an environmentally friendly way, often they feel entitled to “reward” themselves with things – behaviours – that are less green, either because they have earned it, or because their usual behaviour means that they have “offset” it. After a bit of post-holiday soul searching, I realised that this may have played a part in my unusual behaviours. That I somehow felt a bit entitled to some environmentally unfriendly fun, because of the amount of effort I put into my behaviour on a daily basis, because I’d ‘done my bit.’

Now this is about as rational as ex-smokers who reward themselves for their months of abstinence with a cigarette. I know, because I’ve been there too. But more and more evidence suggests that we’re not the rational creatures classical economics expects us to be – and this is why changing people’s behaviour is such a challenge. Because the range of influences that go into making a decision are so varied and rapid, that we rarely realise that we’re not being rational. It took some considerable effort and thought for me to even identify my odd behaviours, and yet more to try and understand their source.

I wonder now if I can identify other areas of my life where my behaviours are at odds with what I think of as my ‘usual mode’, and whether I’ll pay more attention to this thought process next time I come to arrange a holiday?

One Comment

  1. Chris
    Posted August 2, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Check out the Bluestone resort in West Wales, who have recognised this holiday effect, but turned it on its head – they are communicating sustainability messages to people whilst on holiday, and encouraging them to be green whilst there.

    Maybe whilst on holiday we choose to switch off the complex decision making processes that lead to green decisions in order to relax… but if somebody helps us to continue making them they are easy.

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