Motivating water-saving behaviour
How simple group-based appeals can be used to increase water-saving behaviours.
If you’re reading this on a rainy British day, worries about a lack of fresh water may be the last thing on your mind.
You may be surprised to learn that even within the UK water shortages are recognised as one of the greatest climate change-related threats. Recently, the UK’s Environment Agency warned that England will not have enough water to meet demand within 25 years.
Ensuring a sustainable water supply requires a multifaceted approach. To maintain long-term water supply and achieve water security in the face of disruption (PDF) – to be resilient –we must reduce the amount of water being consumed or enable water to be used more efficiently. Reducing individuals’ water demand is considered to be the most sustainable approach to achieve water supply security.
How can we encourage people to use less water?
By using social identity to motivate water-saving, Dr Rose Meleady and Dr Charles Seger, Associate Professors in Psychology at UEA, have studied how simple messaging and social influence techniques can be used to encourage people to save water.
Social identities describe our sense of attachment to a place (e.g. Norwich) or a group of people (e.g. UEA students). These identities influence our attitudes, emotions, and behaviour – sometimes even when we're not aware of their effects. So if we provide information about the behaviour of others who share an important social identity with us, our attitudes and behaviours should change accordingly.
Normative messages linked to social identities can have a powerful influence on our behaviours: people internalise the attitudes, behaviours and values of their important group memberships. Having previously studied social identity in regard to political issues6 and intergroup relations, here, Drs Meleady and Seger turned their attention to the environmental domain, aiming to use social identity and normative appeals to motivate water-saving behaviours.
Increasing commitment to water solving behaviours
In one series of studies, Meleady, Seger and former UEA PhD student Ellin Lede demonstrated that appeals to in-group norms added into current print or social media campaigns can increase the number of people signing up for water-saving initiatives. These include Anglian Water’s Bits and Bobs programme, which provides water-reduction devices to residential homes
In research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Meleady and Seger developed messaging highlighting how fellow Norwich or Norfolk residents care about the environment and are therefore signing up for this programme. Homes receiving these messages were nearly twice as likely to sign up for Bits and Bobs compared to those who received a standard letter. Similar messages also increased consumers’ general willingness to engage in other pro-environmental behaviours (Lede et al, 2019).
“Something as simple as changing the form of messaging, and in a way that doesn’t cost any more, can make messaging more effective and lead to behaviour change”
Dr Charles Seger, University of East Anglia
Using less water every day
Other studies have demonstrated that behavioural messaging can have an impact on everyday water-usage behaviours. One of the highest-impact water behaviours is bathing. Showering accounts for the largest proportion of total household water consumption in the UK. At UEA, student accommodation accounts for 64% of the total water consumed on campus.
In one study, stickers that said UEA students were attempting to save water were posted in the university halls of residence for a period of one week. It was found that this appeal to in-group norms (i.e. what UEA students believe) reduced shower time by nearly 80 seconds - significantly more than when this appeal focused on what people in general believe, or to a no-treatment control.
These stickers, posted in halls of residence, significantly reduced the duration of showering.
Small changes add up
This research demonstrates how behavioural-based approaches to encourage water conservation can form an integral part of demand reduction strategies.
These interventions target small and everyday behaviours that can be repeated over time. They can be implemented with very little money. They do not ask for a large commitment. Although these interventions are not dramatic in nature, their cumulative effects can be quite large. For example, if every adult in Norwich reduced their shower time by 1 minute, over 400 million litres of water would be saved annually.
A model for the future
Behaviour change is recognised as a key part of water utilities being able to deliver a secure water supply into the future. Collaborations between researchers and industry are essential for maximising the potential of behaviour change interventions that encourage climate-resilient water behaviour (Lede & Meleady, 2018). Such partnerships have provided tangible benefits to each organization and can be used as a model for other stakeholders in the water domain.
“This work undertaken with the team in Psychology represents one of the first collaborations between Anglian Water and UEA.
Based on the success of this, and other emerging projects, we have now established an official partnership between the two institutions in the form of the Anglian Centre for Water studies. The centre seeks to ensure the independent research done by UEA informs business outcomes, policy and innovation.”
Andrew Brown, Head of Sustainability at Anglian Water