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Sci-Q: Understanding The Psychology Of Water Conservation In San Diego

A water-efficient sprinkler sprays plants in a Chula Vista yard in this undat...

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: A water-efficient sprinkler sprays plants in a Chula Vista yard in this undated photograph.

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Sci-Q is a new series on Midday Edition where scientists give the audience a different way of looking at the problems we face.

One of those problems is the California drought and the challenge to conserve water.

What does it take — beyond the facts, figures and warnings — to get people to change the way they use water? And what ethically is an individual's responsibility to conserve water during the drought?

Christopher Bryan, assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said when it comes to changing behaviors, signs like “Serious Drought” only go so far.

“I think highlighting the problem is a first step,” Bryan told KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday. “But if you need to change behavior, you need to apply more sophisticated techniques.”

Bryan said many studies suggest that individuals are likely to mirror an action if they see the majority performing that action. For example, if a person sees many people walking out of an apartment building with umbrellas, that person is likely to bring an umbrella. He said if people see the majority conserving water, then they’ll follow.

“Telling people what most other people are doing is a driver for what we’re inclined to do,” Bryan said.

Sci-Q is a monthly series on Midday Edition, and KPBS listeners are invited to join in on the fun. If you have a scientific topic you'd like to explore or a question you want answered, contact us on Twitter @KPBSMidday using the hashtag #Sci-Q.

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