Social identity and peer group ‘nudges’ should be at the heart of water conservation

Targeted behavioural ‘nudges’ from peers can encourage people to save water, research from the University of East Anglia has claimed.

Last week, Sir James Bevan, head of the Environment Agency, warned that England could run out of water within 25 years, and said water wastage needs to be as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby or throwing your plastic bags into the sea.

He also believes people in the UK could be saving 40 litres a day of water through lifestyle changes.

However, researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) found that rather than giving people general information about the importance of saving water, campaigns should emphasise the water conserving actions of others in the same social group, for example, university students or neighbours.

Previous research has found that these behavioural-based approaches, or ‘nudges’, can impact on other pro-environmental behaviours, for example around saving energy and encouraging recycling.

The research involved four case studies carried out in Norfolk, a region prone to water shortages.

The first two, involving UEA students and Norwich residents, provided initial evidence that using an ‘ingroup norms’ appeal message can increase people’s efforts to save water as they increase our sense of social identity.

Study three was conducted in a UEA halls of residence where stickers with water conservation messages were placed in shower rooms, in an attempt to get students to reduce their shower time by one or two minutes to save seven to 14 litres of water per shower and show that saving water is something that was normal among other students at the university.

Lead researcher Ellin Lede carried out the work as part of her PhD with the School of Environmental Sciences. She said: ‘Ensuring a sustainable water supply requires a multifaceted approach, and this will become increasingly important as demand for water continues to rise and climate change alters water availability,

‘Our findings have implications for the design of environmental campaigns. Traditionally, water conservation communication campaigns deliver general water saving information. However, campaigns informed by behavioural science can increase their effectiveness and should form an integral part of demand reduction strategies.’


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