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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 undated photograph.
Katie Schoolov
A water-efficient sprinkler sprays plants in a Chula Vista yard in this undated photograph.
Sci-Q: Understanding The Psychology Of Water Conservation In San Diego
GUESTS:Christopher Bryan, behavioral science assistant professor, University of Chicago Booth School of Business Stanley Maloy, dean, San Diego State University's College of Sciences

When you think about ordinary issues in an extraordinary way, when you use a new paradigm to evaluate an old idea, you are about to expand your personal site cube. One of those problems we face is the California drought. Our challenge to conserve. What does it take beyond the facts figures and warnings to get people to change the way they use water X are Sci-Q guest are Christopher Brian. Thank you. Also, Stanley Malloy who is Dean of the College of sciences and professor of biology, San Diego State University. He is on the advisory board for Sandia Center for ethics of science and technology. Welcome to the program. Chris, we had a good number for water conservation in the month of May. The amount we are conserving seems to go up and down with how much rainfall we get. What does that say to you about our mind is that the conservation? I think there's going to be some fluctuation driven a lot by how salient this problem is. There are no regulations that makes the issue more salient for people. One thing I think about it presents an opportunity to drive further conservation. When you get a spike in conservation, that lets you use a really powerful technique that psychologists have identified for changing behavior which is a descriptive norms. That means telling people what most other people are doing. It turns out knowing what those other people are doing is a really important driver of what we are inclined to do. That makes a lot of sense if you think about leaving in an apartment building and everyone leaving the apartment building as she walked your part is caring and umbrella it probably makes sense for you to have one also. That's ingrained in our unconscious behavior. As someone who studies human behavior, happy been thinking about human behavior when it comes to water? A little bit. Drive the freeways and see the messages. These are the sorts of problems I work on. As I've not done anything with respect to drought. I think about it. I think highlighting the problems is a worthwhile first step. I think it's not much more than a first step. I think if you want to actually change behavior, they need to apply some more sophisticated techniques that haven't been applied yet. We all have a certain amount of water we need. Until recently we have been free to use as much water as we want how do we make ethical transaction between need and want. The choice we haven't had to make before. I think this is a competent at issue that ties into topics that Chris just mentioned. How do we get people to change the behavior go with it comes down to ethics, it gets collocated. If you were to ask a branch, individuals should be able to do whatever they want to. While most of us believe the good of society is a critical ethical responsibility for all of us as citizens. The big thing here is when water is scarce, the need affects us all in so many ways that we often don't think about it. We think about our lawns but we don't think about issues like the impact of the cost of water on low income people. That affects all of us. We don't think about changes in Ings where really drought conditions can influence infectious disease transmission. We don't think about the impact on businesses that employ so many citizens throughout the community. When you put all of those things together, I think the social impact of those things is something that influences you whether you're wealthy or poor. Chris, you are saying you have to build on the idea that other people are doing this and you should be doing it also. It has a great deal of psychological power. Insert tipping point when most people substantially change their behaviors according to how many people are doing the same thing. We don't know enough to answer that question. There are a large number of studies showing to be kidding to people that most others are doing something is effective. One compelling classic demonstration was conducted in hotel rooms where they used those little science in the bathrooms urging you to reuse your talent rather than have it be washed again the typical way to encourage people to do that is to say this will save the environment. Acker researchers -- researchers found an untargeted way to do this considerably more effective was just to say 70 something percent of people stayed in this room have chosen to reuse of their tiles. That worked better than saying this is going to save the environment even though you ask people, what do you care more about, people overwhelmingly say they care about the environment. That tells us something important we often don't have insight into the drivers of our behavior. It's really important to base our approach to this sort of messaging on empirical research. In discussing the issue, use the tragedy of comments. This is a famous story that ties into ecology to economics and psychology. The story came back from the Victorian era when a lot of times, a community would have an area they called a commons were farmers would graze. If your comments could support the survival of 30 sheep and everyone in the committee agreed to limit their number of sheep so the total was 30, that would be a sustainable agriculture that was support the community. If one person cheats, and increases the total number of sheet -- sheep right 10, the grass would be devastated and sustainability of that agriculture worked the entire committee. What benefits one individual, sometimes hurt the community. That's the fundamental concept between tragedy of commons. It applies to any natural resource we all share. Water is a great example of that. Let's talk about lawns. Officials say 60% of our water use roads -- goes to watering lawns. Should the question of keeping a line becoming ethical issue for San Diegan's in this drought. Clearly, their benefits of the line. Their psychological benefits to being able to use lawn, having the greenery appeals to people in general. The difficulty is, as our water supply gets less and less, if we don't conserve and watering lawns is a good place will reuse water unnecessarily, if we don't conserve, we will lose our other fundamental needs for water that we have. I would argue we should get rid of our individual lawns but maintain community spaces like parks where people can get their dose of lawns for recreation and greenery pick a I was going to chime in about the important psychological anger here. I completely agree with the classic dilemma. One of the most insidious problem is in the absence of absolute trust that everyone is going to stick to conservation, you'd be a fool to do it yourself. You're sacrificing your own well-being for nothing if even one person -- if other people aren't conserving the way you are. It's like unilaterally disarming a race. You've is and you have sacrificed her well-being more than anyone else. The majority of people doing it are so powerful because it does reinforce the fact you are not together for no reason. Is another nice aspect of that We post on the catchphrases, San Diego's logo is waste no water. Another turn it off. What do you think about that for muscle like -- for a psychological Avenue . Epic waste no water is a good thing to say. Turn it off hills not particularly compelling. Just because it's vague and unclear. It seems unlikely to transfer to behavior change. Waste no water is a different kind of Norm. We talk about descriptive norms is what you believe everyone else is doing. There's another kind of Norm called and injunctive Norm which is what you believe everyone else approves of things you should do. Sometimes those norms are well aligned. Most people don't commit murder and most commit it's a bad idea to commit murder. There a lot of important cases that are policy relevant were injected norms -- injected norms run counter. Examples are energy conservation for healthy eating. In cases where injunctive norms, is not well aligned with what most people are doing, the rights approach based on important past research is to ignore the descriptive norm, downplay and just focus on the injunctive Norm. The right approach is to say please conserve water, it's important. Let's not focus on the fact that most people are . Talk about how problematic behavior is common although it talks about how it's regrettable it talks about how it's common. Knowing something is common is a reinforcer. Waste no water is not bad? Right. It's only a starting point because is not specific enough. It begins -- if the goal is to achieve a major change in behavior, two phases are needed. One is a change in the culture around water use. Right now, I don't that has sold the general population on the need to conserve water being important . That's my final question to you, Stanley. As much as we talk about water conservation, the faucet turns on and the water still comes out. Where is that ethical urgency in this situation? Where's that second message talking about? If you take a look at one place that's different but similar in some ways, that's our fisheries. In that case, to get people to comply, initially took enforcement and regulation. Once it had been ingrained in the behavior of people for a period of time, the people felt a culture around us. I think it's the culture that is the long-term change that Chris was mentioning. That takes a while. It takes people adapting and being associated with it for a long time. It's that norm of behavior that becomes defined in people's minds as the ethical thing to do. It's just a matter of time then? Not only a matter of time. We have to build the right kinds of regulations and enforcement. The right kind of behavioral changes in the early stages to allow us to do the long-term cultural change that really is critical for this. I want to thank you both. Christopher Byron and Stanley Malloy. Thank you for the I want to let our listeners know this episode of Sci-Q is the first aim of a serious we are inviting you to join the fun. If you have a scientific topic you would like us to explore a question you want answered, contact us on twitter using the #tran1. Be sure to watch KPBS edition tonight at 630 on KPBS television. I am Maureen Cavanaugh and thank you for listening.

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.