Research & Insights

Science suggests your water conservation messages are all wet

As California imposes its first ever mandatory water restrictions to deal with a historic drought, water conservation is on everyone’s mind. But it turns out that when it comes to conserving water, people are a lot different than horses: when you lead them to water, you can’t make them stop drinking. A new study out of California State Polytechnic University and the University of Southern California suggests that simply providing information about how to save water to high-consuming households is unlikely to get them to change, and may even be counterproductive.

The study, conducted by social psychologist and 2015 frank prize winner Viviane Seyranian, psychology and education researcher Gale M. Sinatra, and education researcher Morgan S. Polikoff, examined the water usage patterns of 374 Los Angeles County households and compared the effectiveness of various conservation messages. All households were given information on how to save water, encouraging residents to “[r]un only full loads in the dishwasher and washing machine,” for instance.

While some households only received the conservation information, others were given additional messages aimed at encouraging them to conserve. Some people, for example, received a message comparing their water usage to their neighbors. It had a happy face if they used less and a sad face if they used more. Others received a message about the severity of the drought and how conservation was part of “what we stand for’ as a city.” Finally, a message sent to other residents emphasized a personal commitment to use less water: “Starting today, do your absolute best to conserve your precious water resources!”

Researchers found that water use went up for people who received only the conservation tips. Households that received the other messages – comparison with neighbors, or the message about city and personal conservation values – neither increased nor decreased their consumption.

Seyranian, Sinatra, and Polikoff suspect that part of these findings may be related to the study’s timing. Because the study occurred in the summer – a time when people usually ramp up their water usage – it’s possible that the conservation messages encouraged some people to avoid this increase. That is, people who would normally be increasing their consumption of water during the summer managed to hold steady after receiving the call to conservation.

Importantly, though, the study shows that simply telling people how to conserve natural resources isn’t enough to get them to change their behavior. In fact, it may even be encouraging people to use more water because they feel that the tips “threaten…their freedom to consume as much water as they please…”

“[M]any water conservation campaigns spearheaded by water management companies and municipalities are still employing the knowledge deficient approach [of only providing conservation tips],” Seyranian, Sinatra, and Polikoff note. “Our results suggest that the knowledge deficient approach may not only be an inefficient strategy, but it may even be counterproductive.”

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Viviane Seyranian, California State Polytechnic University
Gale M. Sinatra and Morgan S. Polikoff, University of Southern California

Posted: May 13, 2015
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