Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) found that rather than giving people general information about the importance of saving water, emphasising the water conserving actions of others in the same social group – for example university students or local residents – encourages similar behaviour changes and reduces water demand.

The new study explored the use of social norms in campaigns to motivate people to save water. Previous research has found that these behavioural-based approaches, or ‘nudges,’ can impact other pro-environmental behaviours, for example around saving energy and encouraging recycling.

Lead researcher Ellin Lede carried out the work as part of her PhD with the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA. “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,” said Lede.

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“Our findings have implications for the design of environmental campaigns,” Lede added. “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.”

“Activating a sense of regional identity, such as a local city, neighbourhood, or community, and communicating credible information about the behaviour and practices of other group members should strengthen perceived norms regarding water conservation, resulting in increased water-savings efforts among community members,” Lede said.

The findings, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, demonstrate that existing interventions can be enhanced by focusing on a specific, psychologically meaningful social identity – a technique known as an ‘ingroup norms appeal’.

“Across four studies conducted in a water scarce region in England, we demonstrated the ways in which the social identity approach can maximize the power of behaviour-based interventions and encourage a shift in intentions and behaviour to promote household water conservation,” said Dr. Rose Meleady, lecturer in psychology at UEA and co-author of the report.

“As shown in the study with Anglian Water, just integrating the ingroup norms appeal text in the letter increased the rate of sign-up to a water conserving initiative,” added Meleady. “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.”

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