Blog Post: Tuesday March 20, 2018

Going with the flow behind closed doors

In this Water Saving Week blog from Elaine Gallagher, environmental psychologist at Cranfield university, she talks about why it matters that much of our water use happens behind closed doors.

Social norms and private behaviours

The water industry is putting greater focus into reducing domestic water consumption through a variety of behaviour change strategies and consumer influence with varying degrees of success. However, there is a wealth of behaviour change research available which shows that other people’s actions influence our own behaviour. This is known as the theory of social norms, which has been a useful behaviour change tool and can be effective without the need for economic incentives. Social norms work because they show us the ‘normal’ way to act in specific circumstances, and function as a guide. By looking at how others behave, we can figure out what is acceptable and avoid what may lead to social sanctions. Social norms calibrate our actions and can reduce extreme or deviant behaviours and ultimately encourage us to behave like our peers. Therefore, this would appear to be an appropriate strategy for water saving behaviours.

eg blog 1

However, many of our actions which are related to domestic water consumption occur in the home and in private (e.g., washing clothes, cleaning, etc.). People like to behave in ways which are in line with how they wish to be viewed by others, however, when we are out of the view of others, our behaviour cannot be monitored. In cases, this can result in people behaving in private in ways which does not correspond with how they would typically like to be viewed from a social perspective. For example, a person who likes to portray themselves as a healthy eater in front of their peers or in public, might indulge in junk food when they are in their home and away from the view of others. While this might seem harmful, this poses the underlying issue that this pattern may also be present for behaviours which have more detrimental consequences, particularly for the environment. For example, our research shows that people who reported having high levels of environmental concern, still took very long showers, which may be due to the fact that they know this behaviour is not visible to others and therefore they cannot be criticised for it. What is more, this issue is aggravated by the fact that there are no visible social norms available in private contexts and individuals are ultimately left to their own devices to decide how to behave in private.

Does it matter?

It could be considered that it doesn’t really matter if we don’t know what is ‘normal’ in private as it is unlikely to have any major impact. However, when we explored this, we uncovered three important findings about private behaviours. We found that we have extremely varied ideas about what is normal in private, and these ideas appear to be informed by our own behaviours. Secondly, individuals in general believe that private behaviours are most harmful to the environment, and, finally, we overestimate the extent that other people engage in these behaviours which are bad for the environment (for example, running the tap while brushing teeth, taking longer showers, etc.), as shown below

graph eg blog

What does this mean?

The problem with overestimating the extent that others engage in these behaviours is that, in line with social norms theory, this encourages us to behave in the same way. Therefore, if we think other people spend twenty minutes in the shower, then this is likely to influence our own shower duration, as was found in our follow up research. If we believe that everyone else engages in environmentally harmful behaviours to a greater extent than us, this licenses us to also increase our engagement in these behaviours, despite the fact that this may not be true.

What can we do?

As it is now evident that people, in general, don’t know what is the common way to engage in private behaviours it is important to provide greater transparency. This is particularly relevant as many consumptive and environmentally significant behaviours occur in the home and in private. By providing the participants in our research with information about how long others spend in the shower, this had an immediate impact on their shower duration. Irrespective of whether participants were told they took shorter or longer showers than average, they changed in the direction of the information they were given. This shows that people will behave in a way that they think is normal or expected, until such time as their beliefs are rectified through more accurate information. When these misperceptions are corrected, it was shown that behaviour changed in line with this new information. Ultimately, providing simple and subtle guidance has the power to make significant changes to behaviour and reduce water consumption without the need for gimmicks or incentives. People do not like to be different, and this should be harnessed to help achieve greater water savings.

While campaigns encouraging water saving and resilient consumer behaviour are well-intentioned and effective to some extent, as long the public believe that other people are not doing it, they will not make change either. It is therefore important that water companies employ communication strategies which help to increase the transparency relating to how we use water in the home, so that this may encourage more conscientious behaviour.

Stay tuned to the Waterwise website for more Water Saving Week blogs, or get involved by joining us on Twitter (@Waterwise, #WaterSavingWeek) or going to the Water Saving Week website.

Keywords: behaviour change > research > water saving week >